War & Realism: An Interview with the Creators of Syrian Warfare

By Sean Couture 28 Feb 2017 3

One of the more potentially controversial elements of our recent Wargamer’s Guide to 2017, we sent intrepid reporter Sean to have a nice chat with the guys behind the recently released Strategy/Wargame Syrian Warfare. Project Leader Dmitry Babkin, from Cats Who Play, was kind enough to spare some time to answer our questions.

Wargamer: So to start with the major question on a lot of people’s minds. Why did you choose the current Syrian conflict as the setting for your game? Are you afraid some people might label it as exploitative or inappropriate?

Dmitry Bakin: Russia directly participates in this war. Many Russian soldiers show heroism and valor while fighting the modern Evil: terrorism and its various manifestations, such as ISIS and Al-Nusra Front (the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda). That’s why this war is psychologically close to us. Some film coverage, some make video clips and documentaries, some compose music. We decided to show the war through the lens of what we do best - videogames. When you watch coverage you feel the distance between you and what’s happening on the screen. In games the immersion is deeper, the level of involvement higher. To reinforce that effect, the game’s story is told not through a general or ruler, but through an ordinary man, a former Syrian policeman, who ended up in the thick of historic action.

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Wargamer: Could you tell us a bit about your studio and your prior work?

Dmitry Babkin: The studio was founded back in 2006, and initially worked on games for children: Three Heroes, The Cat!, Porfirio’s Adventure, etc. The studio’s core was formed of people who hailed from another Russian gamedev studio, MiST Land, well-known in Russia for its hardcore tactical games: Alfa: Antiterror and Warfare. In fact, the latter was used as a basis for the current project.

Wargamer: In the description for Syrian Warfare you mention how it’ll be the story of “one man” caught up in the war. Could you elaborate on that? For instance is it hand crafted or more like an RPG where players shape the story as they play?

Dmitry Babkin: It was always important for us to tell a story. In the original Warfare we tried to spice up the gameplay with personal war diaries, soldier letters, secondary story threads during missions, and it worked great. This engaged a lot of people, helping them feel involved in what’s happening on the screen. Now we intend to focus on the fate and experiences of an ordinary man. This is real war. It’s not just “serious” - it’s an all-encompassing situation in life. The last thing we want is for the player to just select his soldiers and send them to their deaths. It was once thought that FPS games are mindless “run-and-gun” games, but with the release of Half-Life that view was turned upside down - it demonstrated that a videogame can have a good, interesting plot that immerses the player. We’re trying to make the plot of our game the cornerstone of gameplay instead of just some text to fill the blanks between missions. We’re trying to make the characters feel humane, not just because of their unique abilities, but because a significant period in their life passes in front of our eyes, and we take part in it. This makes you play differently. You’re not being careful with your tank because you’re afraid to use a powerful unit - it’s because “Uncle Mansur, a simple good person” is part of its crew. The last time, as we think, we’ve found the perfect middle ground between hardcore wargame realism and the conventions of RTSes oriented at the masses. Now we want to improve the “psychological realism”, and that directly affects how the player behaves on the battlefield. That’s why it’s a story, that’s why it’s an ordinary person’s view on war.

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Wargamer: The Syrian Civil War is a conflict renown for the thousands of civilians who have been caught in the crossfire. Do you plan on representing these civilians in-game? And why did you come to this decision?

Dmitry Babkin: We have a mission in the Damascus suburbs, where stuck in the ruins of a years-long war there are still civilians remaining, and the player can rescue them by evacuating them from the warzone. It’s not as easy as it sounds, though, sometimes instead of civilians you’ll find disguised suicide bombers, and some civilians the enemy might use for frame ups. Why did we include civilians in the game? We’re trying to represent aspects of modern warfare - including, as we mentioned, the psychological aspect. If instead of sterile city ruins you have former resident buildings, some of which are still inhabited, you’re limited in the use of heavy weaponry, air support, you have to think before using them. It’s a moral dilemma for the player. We’re not trying to make the player’s life easier in that regard. Yes, many games intentionally avoid this side of the matter, and as a result we play in empty, spotless cities. That creates the false impression that war is something easy and triumphant. We’ve decided to paint war in a different light.

Wargamer: Your steam page mentions realistic armour models and destruction physics. In your opinion how will this affect players’ strategies and how they play the game?

Dmitry Babkin: Each tank (and all other vehicles) is broken up into a few different modules. The turret, the crew compartment, the engine, etc. Modules are protected by armor, which varies by vehicle side and type of damage it takes. Each piece of armour has three main thresholds which determine what caliber and kind of damage (HEAT, HE, frag, etc) can’t affect it at all, what makes the armor deteriorate and what just pierces it outright. It’s all displayed in the vehicle’s info panel. I will not write down the actual characteristics here, you’ll figure it out when you play - everything will be explained when you hover your cursor over the vehicle.

There are many different scenarios possible when a vehicle is damaged. In the worst case, the vehicle is destroyed outright. It happens, albeit rarely. Other times, the damage might kill a crew member or damage a module instead of making the tank go out of order. Damaged modules perform worse or not at all. You can’t drive around with a damaged engine or without a driver; a damaged gun will be less accurate.

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A hit might not penetrate armour and instead just damage it. Often a vehicle with armour destroyed on one of its sides will still perform well; the player just has to keep in mind that the next RPG hit from that direction might be fatal. A vehicle might catch on fire when hit, forcing the crew to exit it. After the fire dies down, the crew can reenter the vehicle and after a quick field repair it’ll be back in order. Repairing requires spare parts, which is one of the three main vehicle resources - along with fuel and ammo storage.

There are three types of buildings, differing by their resistance to damage and bonuses to offense and defense for the infantry inside. While a HE shell striking a strong building will at worst make a hole and destroy one of its firing points, the same projectile hitting a weak building might bury the squad inside in debris. The destructibility of other objects affects tactics to a lesser degree. For example, a fence destroyed by a vehicle or an explosion will let infantry run straight through the gap instead of going around or climbing over.

Wargamer: Will there be multiple sides/factions to play in Syrian Warfare?

Dmitry Babkin: You can only play against terrorists. The game starts in 2012, when the main hero isn’t a fighter, just a simple policeman in one of Aleppo province’s villages. The plot is his life’s journey.

Wargamer: Did you take inspiration from any other existing strategy titles whilst working on Syrian Warfare?

Dmitry Babkin: The main inspirations for us were documentary films from the places where the events took place. In regards to strategy titles that affected the game’s mechanics in some way, there are several: however strange that sounds, primarily the old fantasy game Warhammer: Dark Omen, as well as Close Combat, Combat Mission, Sudden Strike and a bit of Company of Heroes.

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Wargamer: Regarding missions and their structure. Will the campaign be linear or a branching path and what varieties can players expect?

Dmitry Babkin: The campaign is short in terms of mission quantity, but each mission is rather extensive. We briefly display the beginning of the war in 2012, and then move on to the summer of 2015, when it seemed that Damascus will fall within mere days. The game ends with the first assault on Palmyra (the Caliphate has temporarily captured the ancient city again). The campaign is currently linear. We understand that the theme of the game is controversial, so we’ll gauge the players’ reactions carefully. If they’re positive, we’ll continue developing the game, adding more missions, allowing the creation of your own missions, we’ll add multiplayer.

Wargamer: With there being no base building to speak of describe how do players choose their forces either in or before missions and how do things like captured affect this?

Dmitry Babkin: Except for the beginning of the game, at the beginning of some missions the player will be allowed to assemble his own battle team, using his accumulated Command Points. Command Points are awarded for completing main and secondary objectives during the missions. At key points during the missions, you’ll be able to summon reinforcements, also using CPs. Squads carry over from mission to mission, accumulating experience, improving their abilities. As such, evacuating the crews of damaged vehicles from the battlefield is important, at the very least because an experienced crew in an old tank is much better than a newbie crew in a modern one. The type of quantity of reinforcements being summoned is pre-set, but the actual composition depends on the player. For example, the player can summon 1 tank, 8 infantry squads and 2 light vehicles. The player selects which tanks and squads he takes. You can pick assault squads or opt for snipers and mortar squads instead. You can take a bunch of gun trucks or supply vehicles instead. The game lets you experiment with different tactics. There’s no universal way to win. Based on how well the project does, we plan to add new game modes (skirmish, multiplayer), the ability to create user modifications etc.

Thanks to Dmitry for taking the time to talk to us. Syrian Warfare is out now on Steam and is normally available for £14.99/$19.99. We'll bring you our review of the game as soon as we can.

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