yesSitting on a mattress in an art gallery-turned-bunker in Kharkiv, with Russian munitions “howling and banging” overhead, Dariia Selishcheva began creating a video game. With the cheerful title of What’s Up in a Kharkiv Bomb Shelter, it was an attempt at self-distraction that evolved into a work of journalistic “self-fiction”. It offers a brief and vivid portrait of life under bombing in the first months of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, based on conversations with Selishcheva’s neighbors in the shelter and correspondence with friends in hiding elsewhere.
“My goal was to provide an opportunity for the voices of ordinary people to be heard, to capture a piece of life in a shelter,” says Selishcheva. “I wanted everyone to know about their lives and thoughts.” Created using lo-fi Bitsy Color software, the game is simply about walking around talking to other survivors, against a soundtrack of explosions, listless guitar, and whispering voices.
Someone is worried about their missing grandson. Another praises his dog, which ran to the shelter as soon as the bombs began to fall (Selishcheva points out that the evacuated Ukrainian cities are full of abandoned animals, many trapped inside apartments). There are grim jokes and tentative efforts to make sense of the chaos. “When war is so close, it’s hard to believe,” one person tells you, adding that “your brain sees and analyzes everything that happens, but it shuts down the reaction.”
Some characters flicker different colors, “like light bulbs about to go out,” as Selishcheva describes them: a depiction of trauma inspired not just by war, but by another woman’s account of being harassed. “I put myself in her shoes,” says Selishcheva. “There, inside him, I felt that I was at the same time, there and not there. I asked her later if he was going through something similar and she agreed. I spoke with a psychologist who helps people with PTSD and she confirmed that victims of violence, until they heal from the trauma, are in a quantum state, between existence and non-existence. They have been treated like objects, so they lose their image of themselves, they lose faith that they are free.”
Selishcheva is far from the only Ukrainian developer making a game in response to Russia’s attack, which is creeping into its eighth month. Other projects include Zero Losses, from horror game studio Marevo Collective, in which you play a Russian soldier who destroys the bodies of comrades to shore up official Kremlin casualty figures.
Some of these games are more “cheerful”, as Stepan Prokhorenko, one of the organizers of this year’s Ukrainian games festival on Steam, explains. Ukraine Farmy casts you as a tractor driver stealing tanks, while Slaputin is all about hitting Putin with a sunflower. But even these “therapeutic” works are “armed” works of art, he says, devised by people who now divide their days between their vocations and volunteering or active military service. “I think games tell stories, and storytelling is how you make ideas survive,” says Prokhorenko. “The idea of a free and independent Ukraine is something that Russia [sic] despises and wants to erase. So games become another battlefield, in a way.”
This battlefield extends to language. Prokhorenko always writes “russia” in lowercase (and requested that The Guardian do so when quoting him), and many Ukrainian developers are in the process of changing Russian words in their games to Ukrainian equivalents: Chernobyl has become Chernobyl, for example, at GSC. Game World’s Stalker 2. “You have to remember that the Russian invasion of Ukraine started in 2014 [with the attack on Crimea], days after the Revolution of Dignity”, continues Prokhorenko. “In the eight years since then, that dignity is what we in Ukraine have been fighting as hard as we can to preserve. This is why I think it is crucial that Ukrainian artists, including game developers, continue to do what they do best and create art. Even in times of war, in the midst of all the bloodshed and tragedy, we choose not to lose our humanity.”
Among the wackier Ukrainian games about the Russian war is Putinist Slayer, a side-scrolling shooter featuring the grotesquely floating heads of Russian state figures and celebrities, with supernatural cameos from Elon Musk and Boris Johnson. Created by Bunker 22, a nationwide “avant-garde” collective, it is a brutally comic counter-propaganda piece, expressing the idea that “ordinary humor has become inaccessible” to Ukrainians, in the words of the anonymous lead developer of the cluster.
“It’s like closing your eyes and thinking of something good when you have a maniac with a knife behind your back,” continues the developer. “But the mind needs relaxation, it needs positive impulses. In the current situation, the only thing we can laugh at is our enemy, his absurdities and failures. This laugh affirms life and goes hand in hand with our belief in victory; it is part of the core that allows us to resist the terror of Russia and strengthens the power of our spirit.”
Putinist Slayer begins with a rolling Star Wars-style preamble in which a drug-addicted Putin has forged an alliance with evil aliens, forcing the player to travel into astral space to destroy their minions, some of which appear like flying orcs in reference to Ukraine. wartime jargon. It’s an absolutely bloody farce: an in-game notification asks you to hunt down Putin’s teddy bear.
It’s not just about Twitter-style dunks, or gleefully dehumanizing an assailant who has branded his victims “Nazis.” The game’s backstory writing blends science fiction with historical information. It aims to challenge the Russian state’s self-serving “editing” of Ukraine’s past and the “invisible poison of Russian media manipulation” elsewhere. It’s both “a parallel fictional world that’s more connected to the present day and the present than any other game,” and a hard-hitting arcade shooter aimed at those who may be put off by overtly political art. “The truth is a natural disinfectant for propaganda,” observes Bunker 22’s lead developer. “But the problem is how to get people interested in that truth and how to get it across.”
While some Ukrainian developers see their games as an extension of the war effort, others like Selishcheva only seek to bear witness. She is influenced by Anna Anthropy’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, from which she has taken the principle of “democratizing video games” through accessible development tools like Bitsy. “The witness position is democratic and simple: You can’t draw conclusions when it’s too hard to generalize,” she says. Unlike Bunker 22, Selishcheva feels the truth needs no elaboration, though there is “creativity” in “choosing which side of the world to highlight,” she says. “Just capture this fragment and leave it to others. And don’t try to influence people’s minds; instead, just give them your experience.”
Selishcheva finished her game after evacuating to Lviv, where she now rents a small house with four other people. Initially, life in Lviv felt like “a continuation of the situation in the shelter”, where “we were constantly arguing about politics, playing board games and trying to support each other”. But this “cohesion began to fade” as the group adjusted to life in a relatively peaceful city. “Going for bread no longer required moral and physical preparation to quickly run to the nearest cellar; being together was no longer a feat.”
At the same time, Selishcheva has encountered “misunderstanding, aggression and blame” from Western Ukrainians who have not gone through the same difficulties. She sees her project now as “a game mainly for us migrants: so that we don’t forget what we learned”.
Once again, language is an important consideration. Selishcheva’s game can be played in Russian, as this is her first language: avoiding the occupier’s mother tongue, as many Eastern Ukrainians are now pressured, has caused her a lot of stress. But the inclusion of the Russian is also an attempt to involve Russian players who are themselves targets of Putin’s tyranny. The game includes a phone conversation with an unidentified Russian person, who insists that the description of the shelter is just Ukrainian propaganda.
“I sent a message to several of my friends in Russia, asking them the same question: ‘There is a war, I am in a shelter, what do you think of this?'” Three respondents were horrified by Selishcheva’s account and offered money to help her. move. “The fourth was my great-aunt, [and] it turned out that she was firmly on Putin’s side. The words that are in the game belong to her.”
Selishcheva’s family no longer speaks to her great-aunt, but her game has struck a chord, at least, among Putin’s internal opponents: it has been reposted on Russian anti-war blogs. She argues that it is vital that any political artwork reaches the unsaved. “A person is not the same as her beliefs. Political opinions are not eternal. And before breaking any ties with the Russians, it is necessary to remember that these are people living in a poor country that has become one of the quintessential examples of totalitarianism in the 21st century. You shouldn’t ask too much of them, but like anyone else, they have a responsibility. You can and should talk to them.”