packed-up-and-ready-to-go-but-not-going-anywhere
Screenshot via Freedom Games

Packed up and ready to leave, but not going anywhere – An insight into the war in Ukraine from an indie game studio

An account of how the war is affecting those living in Ukraine.

It’s hard to believe that as the global pandemic quiets, another crisis, the first major armed conflict in Europe in years, rears its head. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has dominated news outlets for the last few weeks, even before any fighting broke out. We were given the opportunity to speak to someone living in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv at the end of the first supposed ceasefire in the region. The day played out very differently than it should have, with the civilian evacuation corridor closing quickly due to aggressive advancements and gunfire from Russian forces.

When we spoke to Alex, who runs video game studio Weasel Token with his partner Tay, it was impossible to avoid discussing the day’s events. While Russia’s actions may have come as a surprise to most of the world, they didn’t to Ukrainians. Alex had an air of exhaustion at the fact that Russian forces used this as an opportunity to gain new ground and advance on Ukrainian territory, bringing the ceasefire to an abrupt end and costing many innocent lives.

alex-and-tay-weasel-token
Image via Weasel Token

Back when day-to-day life was normal, Alex and Tay were working on their game, Puzzles for Clef. They’ve been making games together since 2016, primarily for smartphones. To escape being forced into making a toxic pay-to-win title, they set their sights on a PC release. After working on the upcoming title, Puzzles for Clef, in their spare time, publisher Freedom Games offered them a deal. Now, they can work on this passion project as their day job.

Puzzles for Clef is a puzzle game with no combat, based purely on the exploration of a single world. Players must explore floating islands and solve puzzles to ring bells. Some bells are easy to find, you’ve just got to work your way through the island’s challenging terrain to reach them. Others have been locked by runes and other forms of magic that make them tricker to ring. A core part of the game is exploring each island for secret areas, where new paths, tools, and treasures can be found to help players on their journey.

Once all these bells have been rung, Clef can finally claim her birthday surprise, but Alex didn’t reveal what that is. The game was built with the intent to provide a calming experience, very much inspired by the pandemic and the idea of people going stir crazy during lockdown.

puzzles-for-clef-screenshot-1
Screenshot via Freedom Games

Nothing changed much when rumblings of Russia’s intent began to emerge in January. “I usually try to avoid the news, but this made me take notice,” said Alex. “Pretty much everyone thought it was overblown, but here we are. I thought it was a bit much for show.”Alex remembers a point from a recent Vladimir Putin speech, in which he said Russia would show Ukraine the true meaning of dehumanization. We’ve not been able to verify this detail, though it’s possible that it hasn’t been translated or broadcast for us to find. When the invasion began, Alex and many others hoped it would be a quick, local conflict restricted to Donbas. Now it’s spread much further.

Alex, his partner, and two relatives now live in the hallway of their apartment. There, it’s safer from flying shattering glass, and the overall integrity of the apartment’s structure is better supported. The move came shortly after the invasion began. When the bombs fell, it was 4 AM and the explosions sounded like thunder. The way the windows shook and the reverberation of the impact through Alex’s body made it clear that this was something much more terrifying. They could have moved to a shelter instead of the hallway, but his elderly relative would find life quite difficult without the amenities the apartment provides.

This is where Alex is now. He sits in the apartment, takes turns sleeping with everyone in his apartment, so that there’s always someone awake to hear an evacuation alarm or check on the news. That way, Alex said, you see or hear about things much faster, and can check in with friends you have in the affected areas. It’s better to know if they’re alive or not as soon as possible rather than living with more unknowns.

puzzles-for-clef-screenshot-2
Screenshot via Freedom Games

With each new day, the one emotion Alex said had become overwhelming was apathy. There’s so much going on that it’s hard to feel it all, so it’s better to block it out. Alex said he usually isn’t much of an emotional person, but this war has made him double down and feel pretty much nothing.

As dire as that sounds though, the people around Alex and Tay haven’t given up hope, and neither have they. He told us how, when Russia takes a city, Ukrainian forces usually take it back within a day or so. It seems as though Russia doesn’t have the holding power it needs to get a foothold. Alex added that in one city, following its capture by Russian forces, Russian actors were paid to stand in the streets and put on a show of welcoming the troops into the city, as if Ukrainian people were thankful. However, Ukrainians took to the street with their flags and overran the welcome committee. After that, he said, Russian forces simply had to leave.

It became clear the more we spoke to Alex that this is the real undertone of the war. There’s a depression over the country being invaded, but Ukrainians are rallying behind their soldiers. Alex called them, “warriors.” This attitude is further spurred on by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Alex gave high praise for Zelenskyy, citing how the President would post one or two videos every day to show that he’s still in the city and won’t be leaving unless forced to by Russian troops. Alex echoed the sentiment, saying that even if there are Russian tanks in the streets of their home in Kyiv, they probably won’t leave.

puzzles-for-clef-screenshot-3
Screenshot via Freedom Games

Alex now takes each day as it comes. He’s still a night owl and does what he can in the late hours, but game development has taken a back seat. While you’d think that this is because of the stress of the situation, it’s more because his laptop is usually always packed up and ready to go in his evacuation bags. When the alert comes through, you need to be able to pick that bag up and go, so the laptop only comes out for interviews and a little community management thanks to the success of Puzzles for Clef’s Steam demo. We’ve checked that community out ourselves and it seems like a lovely little space on Discord where people chat about how pleasant the game is. Of course, everyone checks in to make sure that Alex and Tay are doing well too.

The only thing that will get Alex, and many others, to leave Ukraine is if it becomes part of Russia. He said that many Russian policies on the LGBT+ community, internet censorship, and many other aspects of life are downright medieval. Unfortunately, this isn’t how Russians see it. Alex and Tay have worked with Russian companies and people from Russia all their lives. With companies around the globe cutting ties with the country, Russian businesses are now asking Ukrainians to pay their invoices — “business as usual.” Alex said this is a little strange but understands why it’s happening. He added that many chatrooms will quickly shut down any talk of the war in Ukraine, though at least one he knows of welcomes discussions on the topic and still manages to be a place where many can organize work.

What strikes us most is that Alex’s primary motivation through all of this has been to speak to people outside of Ukraine and spread the word on what’s happening. Like almost all Ukrainian developers, his primary focus is his and his family’s survival.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

When asked about the best way to help, Alex directed us to Save a Life in Ukraine and a fund that has been set up by the National Bank of Ukraine to aid those in need. While there are a lot of charities sending aid, these are the best to get support sent directly to those that need it. We hear of water and electricity being shut off in various locations, but the truth is that some areas have no medicine or food to stock shop shelves. Alex said that a good day is one when you can get out to the shop and return with some supplies.

To keep a level head during this unimaginable conflict Alex hasn’t been able to play games, but he has started reading 20th Century Boys when he feels like he can. Tay, on the other hand, has managed to unlock every achievement in Hades, an incredible feat in the best of times.

Outside of donations, the best way to support Ukrainians is to spread the word and get more people talking about it. From the U.S. or U.K., it’s easy for the war to feel like it’s happening on a distant planet. But it’s not. Just like the pandemic, this is an unprecedented event and time to live through, but now more than ever we all need to play our part in a global community, working towards the greater good instead of a selfish and dangerous expansion of territory.


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Author
Jamie Moorcroft-Sharp
Jamie Moorcroft-Sharp is a Staff Writer at Gamepur. He's been writing about games for ten years and has been featured in Switch Player Magazine, Lock-On, and For Gamers Magazine. He's particularly keen on working out when he isn't playing games or writing or trying to be the best dad in the world.