“Open up! Quick, or we’re breaking the door!”
Oleksiy didn’t want to let the Russians in, but nor did he want to antagonise them.
Having cowered in a basement, desperate not to alert the invading soldiers to his presence, the silence had been broken by the heavy sound of a rifle bashing against the door.
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The armed troops descended the stairs, appearing ready to use their weapons.
“We’re searching the houses, looking for Nazis and saboteurs,” one says. “Do you know any Nazis in this city?”
Oleksiy contemplated how to respond – does he play dumb? Offer a false lead? Could he dare tell the corporal he’s being lied to under the auspices of Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation”?
Such life and death decisions have become a feature of life in Ukraine – and a team in Kyiv is aiming to bring them home for people around the world.
It is ostensibly a video game – but Call Of Duty, this is not.
Offering three narratives based on first-person experiences and eyewitness accounts, Ukraine War Stories is a collection of interactive visual novels focusing on the survival of the country’s civilians.
Oleksiy’s confrontation with the Russian troops is just one of the weighty decisions you might face, which the developers hope will humanise the kinds of headlines distant observers have read on their phones since February.
“Many war games turned a blind eye to what the civilians suffer,” says Oleksandr Sienin of Starni Games, an independent studio based in Ukraine’s capital.
“In this project, what the civilians go through became the key focus. Our goal is to inform people around the world about what is going on here.”
‘A suicide mission’
Ukraine War Stories brings players into the towns of Bucha and Hostomel, suburbs of Kyiv, where the discovery of mass graves was among evidence of suspected war crimes by Russian soldiers.
Among those who lived through the occupation was Starni’s Oleksandr Androshchuk and his family, who hid in his garage basement from Russians for a week and whose experience has been incorporated into the story.
“They got out during an evacuation, but there were already dead people on the streets,” his colleague says.
Such real-life experiences are the basis of each of the game’s scenarios.
“In one of the stories, you are playing as a young guy, 16, and your elder sister has been captured,” says Mr Sienin.
“Do you leave her behind and escape with your life, or try to save her, and it could end badly?”
Another of the stories takes you to Mariupol, the port city devastated by weeks of relentless shelling.
There, you take on the role of a medic forced to choose who they save – there are too many casualties filling up hospitals to possibly help them all.
“Medics must play God,” as studio founder Ihor Tymoshenko puts it.
‘Nobody knew how powerful their missiles would be’
Making a game is difficult enough in normal circumstances, but in the middle of a war?
“Our company worked very well before the war started, and I think we work very well now,” says Mr Tymoshenko, with most of the 25-strong team returning to the office since June.
Much of the fighting has been focused in the east of Ukraine since then, although deadly drone strikes on the city earlier this month were a reminder of how fragile any sense of normalcy is.
“I got up after Ihor called me and said the war had started,” Mr Sienin recalls of 24 February.
“We had a colleague who always got to the office really early, like 6am, so he was there when the war started.
“After that everyone remained home, nobody worked during the first few weeks, we just transferred salaries to people and everyone had to do what they thought was right.
“Some left Kyiv, some stayed. I remained, and the first weeks were hectic, there were sirens, missile strikes, nobody knew how powerful they could be.
“Everyone hid in their basements or underground. We spent half our time there, running back and forth.
“Many people had to leave, but we pulled through.”
‘We must fight however we can’
For some members of the Starni team, a return home has not been possible.
Having been working remotely from Mariupol, one was prevented from reaching other parts of Ukraine when the city was taken and instead saw themselves forced through a filtration camp and into Russia.
They managed to unite with people they knew, and subsequently fled into Poland.
For Mr Tymoshenko, who as a volunteer brought medical supplies to the front line of the initial invasion of eastern Ukraine eight years ago, he feels a sense of duty to bring such stories home to people.
“I thought, what should we do? Sit at home and do nothing?” he says.
“No – we are free people, and we must fight however we can.”
‘I’d rather people wage war in games than real life’
There is something of an irony in the circumstances of Ukraine War Stories’ release.
It arrived in the same week that the latest Call Of Duty debuted – a huge franchise that has become an industry juggernaut by making thrilling entertainment out of modern warfare.
Starni Games also has history in war games – its Strategic Mind series puts players in control of battles from WWII.
“I don’t see a problem with people liking something like Call Of Duty,” says Mr Sienin.
“But people have to understand that war is not Call Of Duty.
“This mentality of not covering any problematic issues in gaming is changing, but slowly. I hope it might move into something more thought-provoking, than purely entertainment purposes.
“But look, I’d rather people wage war in games, than in real life.
“When Russians were threatening our country, I told my colleagues… maybe we should have sent Putin a copy of Strategic Mind, so he could play it out on the computer and doesn’t have to invade us!”
So far, Ukraine War Stories has an 88% rating on Steam from almost 200 user reviews.
The critical write-ups have dismissed it as “anti-Russian propaganda”. Others describe it as “boring”.
“Games are firstly entertainment, and entertainment gives some happiness to people,” says Mr Tymoshenko.
“But war is scary and dirty, and media must tell people about this.”
Ukraine War Stories is available now for free on Steam.