Gulag Diaries: Meet the Creators

MEMENTOES is built on collaborations between vastly different industries: museums and game developers. So, how does it work?

We sat down with the team behind Gulag Diaries to discuss their experiences, progress, and goals for the project. Read on to hear their thoughts and see images from their game development (note that these are works-in-progress which are likely to change).

Kostas Apostolakis, ICS-FORTH

As the technical managers and designers of the project, what inspired you to pursue this work?

Video games have become a staple in our everyday lives. The medium has matured very fast, thanks to new technologies and the democratisation of tools for achieving high-quality production, which have allowed a new generation of developers to tell interactive and immersive stories. You can find games today that thoughtfully explore very serious issues, resonate with their audiences, and make you learn without noticing that you are learning. Some of these games achieve similar impacts to museums, effectively telling the stories of marginalised people, highlighting similarities to today’s societal issues, and achieving educational outcomes. Through the medium of video games, we can help the museums involved in MEMENTOES achieve their goals while getting their message across to more people, including audiences who cannot visit the museum in person.

How do you approach making a game from such sensitive material?

First and foremost, you have to consult experts, who can put everything in perspective and who know exactly what educational outcomes the game should achieve. It is also important to focus on the human aspect, especially in games that rely on decision-making—as a storyteller your task isn’t to judge or take sides, but to put together a story that simulates the characters’ predicaments, relationships, and emotions, and give agency to players to grasp what it must have felt like to live these specific experiences.

What can the MEMENTOES project contribute to the game development industry?

Story-driven museums have an atmosphere and authenticity that cannot be replicated. The stories feel embedded into the physical space, and the arrangement of the exhibits is carefully planned so the visitor is left with a lasting impression. These curators and museum designers excel at their craft—and research is showing that the same experiential modules from the museum-going experience are activated when playing video games. It is only natural that the two disciplines collaborate with one another, especially in Europe, where there is rich cultural heritage across the continent, filled with important lessons for future generations.

However, examples of successful collaborations between game developers and museums are few and far between, and lack any formal guidelines or standardised tools to reach educational outcomes. MEMENTOES strives to fill in this gap, and, hopefully, inspire game developers, museum professionals, and memory studies scholars to seek out one another and collaborate on similar projects.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced developing this game so far?

The subject matter is quite difficult to work with, in the sense of what some people have had to deal with in the past. Some of it is unfathomable. It is not easy to put yourself, or anyone else for that matter, in their shoes—and make an ‘enjoyable’ experience out of it to boot. Treating people and their stories with the respect that they deserve is our principal concern—and one that, if executed properly, will also be the most rewarding.

What’s your favourite part of game development so far?

Probably being able to explain it to our partners who are for the first time engaging in such an endeavour. Being able to prove how concepts can work as a collection of game mechanics and art and getting the approval of the people who know this material better than anyone else is always a happy moment for the development team.

What games are inspiring your work?

There are many great games out there. I would say that ours is a mixture of different games and genres, one that combines so-called “past play” with the deeply personal journey that exploration games (also known as “walking sims”) can provide. We are taking a lot of inspiration from games like Gone Home, What Remains of Edith Finch, and of course, the highly successful games by our partners at Charles Games and Causa Creations (including Attentat 1942, Svoboda 1945: Liberation, and Path Out), who already have a proven track record in dealing with contested histories and difficult subject matter. Our goal is to meet similar high standards with our game.

Petra Burová, Gulag.cz

You have a long track record of using digital media to spread your message. Why is that important to your work?

This topic has two levels for us. Firstly, today it is the only way to allow people to see the Soviet camps—through the virtual Gulag museum, you can enter a 3D model of the labour camp, which we created using computer modelling based on the extensive documentation from our expeditions to the remains of the gulags. The second level represents a broader view of the issue of education and enlightenment. From our own experience, we strongly believe in the benefits of using modern technologies in teaching and education, especially for young people. Even difficult topics, such as the issue of Soviet repression, are more easily accessible when modern digital technologies are used. In one of our latest projects, we’re creating teaching materials for secondary schools which approach the topic of the Gulag using augmented and virtual reality. The feedback has been very positive, and this is boosting our confidence in the potential of the Gulag Diaries game.

How do you navigate providing such sensitive material to a game developer to be used in a medium traditionally associated with entertainment?

It’s definitely a big challenge. In Gulag Diaries, we work with sensitive topics such as the loss of personal freedom, humiliation, rape, or facing a child’s death. We have to be cautious. We are working with computer games, which are expected by their nature to be entertaining and attractive—not terms that one would associate with the topics listed above. At this stage in the game’s development, we have agreed with our partners that such sensitive material should not be depicted explicitly in the game. So we are going down the route of storytelling and depicting difficult topics in fragments of memories, in hints.

What impact will this game have for your organisation?

Our mission is to spread the theme of Soviet repression, to do our utmost to ensure that this dark part of our common history does not fall into oblivion. Our activities as an organisation, including participation in the MEMENTOES project, prove that we are open to modern ways of bringing knowledge about our past to the general public. In this particular case, we foresee the expansion of our target group to a completely new gaming community. As the game will not only be intended for schools and other educational institutions but will also be available on gaming platforms, it will reach many users who otherwise would not find their way to the topic of the Gulag.

What can these types of partnerships do for people working in museums and memorialisation?

The answer here is partly similar to the previous question. It extends your target audience to people who wouldn’t normally interact with your work. It can also be inspiring for museum professionals to see how serious topics can be handled within the framework of digital technologies. At the same time, the way in which people working in the field of game development, which is a completely different part of the professional spectrum, view this issue can be similarly inspiring and lead to the co-production of new approaches to memorialisation and storytelling.

These interviews are the first in a series of articles and newsletters that will give readers behind-the-scenes insights in the game development process. Sign up for our newsletter and follow our social media pages to stay in the loop.

 

Written by Amelia Williams, Trilateral Research

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the Research Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.