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What It Takes to Build a Game in a War Zone

What It Takes to Build a Game in a War Zone

The offices of GSC Game World smelled like a gas station. The Kyiv-based studio, responsible for the cult-classic immersive sim S.T.A.L.K.E.R. Shadow of Chernobyl and its hotly anticipated direct sequel S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2, had stockpiled thousands of liters of fuel—alongside first aid kits and other survival supplies—in its corridors during the nervy winter of 2022. Who could blame them? Everyone in Ukraine was preparing for the worst. 

International headlines in January and February of 2022 warned that a massive Russian invasion of the country was imminent. The conflict, if it came to pass, would represent the most destabilizing military engagement on the European continent since the end of the Cold War. GSC Game World has furnished a legacy of taut gunplay, eerie atmospheres, and perfectly twisted side quests, but now the studio was forced to contend with a much more pressing reality—one that transcended the rigors of game development.

“Emergency buses were ready at the GSC office throughout the winter, with drivers ready for action,” says Maria Grygorovych, lead producer on S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2. (Grygorovych agreed to answer my questions over email, due to the language barrier.) “The evacuation plan with all the timings and meeting points was ready as well: The employees were aware of their organizing responsibilities if the action would be needed.”

Ukraine is home to over 200,000 coders and computer engineers. In recent years, the country has established itself as something of a regional haven for the tech sector—generating billions of dollars in revenue despite a supply chain that’s being strangled by Russian military operations. (After all, most of those workers require little more than a laptop and an internet connection to log their hours.) In that sense, GSC Game World is one of the many Ukrainian companies attempting to stay afloat despite the mass displacement, comprehensive shortages, and frequent trips to public shelters that define an active war zone. GSC has a game to ship, yes, but the company also needs to ensure its employees are safe whenever the bombs start falling.

 As reports from the Russian border grew more dire and foreign countries started recalling their embassy staff from Kyiv, GSC offered to move some of its employees to Uzhhorod—a midsize town close to potential refugee rallying points in Slovakia and Hungary. Two hundred workers and their families agreed to participate, while others spilled over into nearby Budapest. Those who made the trip to Uzhhorod packed one suitcase each and hauled whatever tech they could harvest from the office. 

The mood, said Grygorovych, was both anxious and strangely hopeful. Yes, GSC Game World was relocating from Kyiv, but the team had not yet left the embrace of Ukraine itself. Many still believed that cooler heads would prevail and all of Russia’s invective would mercifully be revealed as counterfeit saber-rattling. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of this invasion talk dissipated into thin air? 

“It seemed like anyone could return back to Kyiv if there would be no escalation,” explains Grygorovych. “This scenario wasn’t destined to come true. Soon, a full-fledged war began.”

Today, GSC Game World is a two-pronged company. While 130 employees are still in Ukraine—some of them on the front lines, defending their country—200 have relocated to Prague, which now serves as GSC’s primary headquarters, after an elliptical refugee trek through Eastern Europe. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest challenges a video game studio has ever faced. Russia launched its Ukrainian offensive on February 24, 2022 at approximately 4 am local time. Kyiv was immediately under heavy bombardment, and any hope that the Putin regime sought limited territorial gain—confined to the country’s eastern flank—was immediately dashed. Uzhhorod was relatively safe from the line of fire, but the studio still had plenty of its team in Ukraine’s capital. “Some people living in the Kyiv region were confident Bucha or Irpin would be relatively safe in any scenario,” explains Grygorovych, naming two of the city’s outlying suburbs. “It’s a miracle we convinced them to leave in the end, considering all the terror that happened after.”

Toxicity in Gaming Is Rampant. This Nonprofit Is Fighting Back

Toxicity in Gaming Is Rampant. This Nonprofit Is Fighting Back

“It’s dangerous to go alone! Take this,” says the famous quote from the iconic game The Legend of Zelda. In life, it is dangerous to go it alone—and having a supportive community is critical, particularly for people experiencing mental health challenges.

This memorable line of dialog inspired the name of the nonprofit Take This, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in November. The organization has been promoting mental health by combating toxicity in the gaming space for the past decade, and its reach and impact continue to grow and create positive change. Take This was founded upon three key needs and goals: support, community, and mental wellness. 

The organization’s reach is far and wide. Among its projects, Take This is working with the US Department of Homeland Security to investigate racism and sexism in the gaming community. 

Building Stronger Communities

Take This is committed to building better gaming communities and working alongside game developers to ensure anti-toxicity measures are built into games. The nonprofit’s vision is a welcoming gaming community that supports gamers who are experiencing mental health challenges. 

The work of Take This trickles into many corners of the gaming industry. Executive director Eve Crevoshay tells WIRED that the organization’s mission “is about reducing the stigma and increasing the support for mental health and mental well-being in games in the gaming community.” This means Take This is looking at what factors are unique to video games that either support or challenge people’s mental wellness, Crevoshay says: “How do we create the conditions to increase well-being?”

She adds that a lot of what Take This does is about looking at how people experience making games, playing games, and “being in online game spaces and in game-adjacent spaces like Twitch or Discord.” Making those spaces the “best experience possible,” says Crevoshay, fuels the mission of Take This. 

Combating Crunch

Another part of the nonprofit’s mission is engaging in conversations around mental health. “What we did at the beginning,” says Crevoshay, “was say, ‘Hey, mental health is an open conversation. We’re going to bring this to the table.’”

Mental health awareness—and coping strategies and resources for mental health challenges like depression and anxiety—is shifting dramatically as more people speak openly about mental health. Take This created rooms at PAX, a series of gaming conventions, where people could go to “escape the intensity of the gaming floor,” says Crevoshay. “Because game conventions are really loud, stimulating, and intense.” The intention of these rooms was not only to provide an escape but also to start a conversation about mental health in the gaming community. 

Mental health issues don’t affect just gamers, of course. There are also game creators and developers who need these resources too. “Crunch,” or working overtime when developing a video game, is common in the gaming industry, and Take This is committed to reducing its negative impacts. Creator burnout is also a focus of the organization. 

“Crunch is when a team is working an extreme number of extra hours, and it has been a prevalent problem in our industry,” says Chelsea Blasko, co-CEO of Iron Galaxy Studios, an independent video game studio that has partnered with Take This. Blasko says it’s something that Iron Galaxy Studios works really hard to avoid. The studio prioritizes employees’ access to mental health resources, flexibility during working hours, and more. If someone needs to take their dog to the vet, for example, they can do so and “not feel guilted or harassed by their team or like you’re letting them down,” Blasko says, adding how crunch creates “really negative pressure to overwork yourself.” Iron Galaxy and Take This partnered and hosted panels about avoiding crunch, and Take This has hosted workshops for the studio’s employees. 

With ‘Ragnarök,’ ‘God of War’ Keeps Growing Up

With ‘Ragnarök,’ ‘God of War’ Keeps Growing Up

Before the long-running God of War series was reestablished with a 2018 entry that moved the story from a mythological ancient Greece to a mythological ancient Scandinavia, its protagonist, Kratos, was an unparalleled jerk. Mouth fixed in a permanent sneer, hell-bent on revenge against the pantheon of gods who tricked him into murdering his family, the earlier Kratos roared, growled, and ripped apart every deity in his way until he’d toppled an entire civilization’s metaphysical framework.

With God of War’s Norse reimagining, though, Kratos started to grow up. In Santa Monica Studio’s new vision, he was depicted as a sullen widower now left to forge a relationship with his son, Atreus, after heading north to escape his past. Its being an action game starring a living god means it isn’t long, of course, before that past catches up to him and he’s forced to reckon with his child, learning the family history and protecting him from the unwanted attention of the Norse gods. Over the course of the story—which tones down much of the previously over-the-top gore and does away with the goofy, rhythm game sex scenes of the Greek series—Kratos eventually learned how to talk to his son in more than monosyllables and grunts, becoming something like a functional parent over the course of their journey to scatter his late wife’s ashes.

The recently released Ragnarök is a direct sequel to that game, picking up after its predecessor revealed that Kratos’ son, Atreus, is actually the Norse god Loki, and that the mythological end times— Ragnarök—are upon them. With Odin hunting for Atreus/Loki, and Kratos now desperate to find a way to keep his son safe while allowing him to embrace his divine identity without helping bring the world to an end (typical parent stuff, really), the stakes are much higher for the protagonist on both a personal and existential level. Naturally, then, Kratos’ role as a father and a character in general continues to change too. Though the 2018 God of War had established him as a kinder, gentler sort of bloodthirsty musclebound warrior—one capable of forming a proper relationship with his son—the sequel poses a follow-up question: How does Kratos behave once that relationship is put to the test by his child growing into an adult and being brought into confrontation with the Norse gods?

Santa Monica Studio, Ragnarök’s creators, knew that their latest game would continue to show Kratos move further away from his original character. In an email interview with WIRED, narrative director Matt Sophos writes that his team “definitely knew we wanted Kratos to continue to evolve” in both big and small ways. He cites a line from the end of the previous game in which Kratos tells Atreus that the pair “must be better” as something that the character truly meant—a central philosophy guiding his further development.

Ragnarök tests this sentiment by intensifying the interference of Odin and the Norse gods in their lives, and also by showing the strains in the father-son relationship when the adolescent Atreus goes against his father’s will in pursuit of his own identity.

Sunny Suljic, the 17-year-old voice and motion-capture actor who portrayed Atreus in both God of War (2018) and Ragnarök, explained over email that this aspect of the character was relatable for him, especially since he and Atreus are “about the same age.”

Activision Blizzard Has Another Union on Its Hands. Now What?

Activision Blizzard Has Another Union on Its Hands. Now What?

On October 18, after the NLRB ruled that Blizzard Albany QA workers would be able to vote in a union election, newly instated chief communications officer Lulu Cheng Meservey posted a lengthy message on Slack in response to the news. Meservey maintained that a handful of employees should not be able to “decide for everyone else on the future of the entire Albany-based Diablo team,” and that a “direct dialogue” between management and employees is “the most productive route.”

“We feel collective bargaining is comparatively slow … during the long contract negotiations, labor law forbids companies from giving any pay/bonus/benefit increases without a special arrangement with the union,” Meservey said. She referenced a small Bloomberg Law chart from July with data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, adding that it “has reported that non-union employees generally get larger pay raises than union-represented groups.”

(Previous BLS studies claim unionized workers tend to make more money overall. A 2020 report found that non-union workers made only 81 percent of what union workers pulled in. In 2021, the Bureau reported that non-union worker earnings were 83 percent of what unionized workers made.)

In response to Meservey’s comments, the Communications Workers of America, of which GWA Albany is a part, filed a new unfair labor practice charge in October against Activision Blizzard, this time alleging disparagement against the union through company-wide Slack messages, including “communicating to employees that the onus was on the union for the employer’s failure to enact wage increases, its failure to provide professional advancement opportunities, and its failure to implement other improvements to terms and conditions of employment.”

Pay discrepancies aren’t the only reason employees unionize, Bronfenbrenner says. “If that were the case, the employers could keep unions out of it by giving a little bit more money,” she adds. “Workers organize around a say in their working conditions. They want to be treated better. They want a voice, they want respect, they want control.” 

Control can be anything from maintaining reasonable schedules to sick leave and a system for promotions. Regardless of a company’s current culture, all it takes is new management to tip healthy workplaces on their head. Just look at Twitter, where Elon Musk’s takeover has been a rapid-fire, real-time lesson full of mass layoffs, firings, resignations, brutal overtime, and naked concern about the company’s future. In just a few weeks, Musk has threatened employees with firings over remote work, removed employees who voiced dissenting opinions, and is now demanding employees work “long hours at high intensity” or leave.

“The employer can’t change things in a union workplace without speaking to the union first,” Bronfenbrenner says. “And that may be the biggest thing the union offers: that the workers get a voice.”

Activision Blizzard employees are showing no signs of going quiet. “It has become tradition for employees to respond to the management announcements in Slack with an emote that says ‘fucking unionize’ in the Activision Blizzard font,” QA worker Fabby Garza says. And, Bronfenbrenner adds, organizing is contagious. Walkouts lead to strikes, strikes lead to unions. “They show workers what unions can do,” she says.

At Activision Blizzard, that’s proving to be the case. In the past six months, the game industry’s efforts to unionize a major studio have come to fruition twice—a stunning turn for an industry where workers have tried and failed to do so for decades.

Super Mario Sounds Exactly Like Chris Pratt—and That’s Fine

Super Mario Sounds Exactly Like Chris Pratt—and That’s Fine

When Chris Pratt teased his upcoming role as gaming’s most iconic character, Mario, he called it “unlike anything you’ve heard in the Mario world before.” Charles Martinet, who has voiced both Mario and Luigi since 1992, would evidently not be a source of inspiration.

Fans have puzzled for months over how Pratt—elevated from goofy Parks and Rec roles into superhero status with movies like Guardians of the Galaxy—would tackle the Italian-accented plumber. After Nintendo dropped the first trailer for the movie today, the answer is … as Chris Pratt.

“What is this place?” Pratt Mario—who could be referring to anything from a dinosaur park to the most godforsaken bathroom at a concert with his tone—wonders aloud as he examines a mushroom-filled field. Shortly after, we hear him declare “Mushroom Kingdom, here we come!” in what may be his actual Mario accent—kind of a parody of your local Brooklyninte yelling he’s walking he’e.

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Mario’s voice reveal was inarguably the raison d’être to tune into today’s trailer. Nintendo has hyped fans up since news that Pratt, alongside Jack Black as Boswer, Seth Rogen as Donkey Kong, and Anya Taylor-Joy as Princess Peach, would voice a character many people have known since childhood. “I worked really closely with the directors and trying out a few things and landed on something that I’m really proud of and can’t wait for people to see and hear,” Pratt told Variety. Again … it’s just Chris Pratt, regular guy, in a film where everyone else has at least a little bit of whimsy to their voices.

This week fans have already mourned the loss of Mario’s ass, but hear me out: The sheer absurdity, the absolute troll of this reveal, is the funniest best outcome. Pratt’s Mario yelling “Mamma Mia” in an Italian accent cribbed from the early ’90s may not be as charming after an hour and a half in surround sound.

Good and bad news here: Black’s first lines as Bowser sound appropriately graveled and menacing for the Koopa king. But if Pratt’s any indication of how the Mario Bros. might sound, prepare yourself for the Charlie Day–voiced screamer of Luigi that’s still to come, as we saw at the trailer’s end.