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Playing the Ukraine-made video game impacted by war

Kristina Reymann-Schneider
April 11, 2023

Kyiv studio Frogwares is releasing a video game created entirely during the war in Ukraine. How did the conflict influence the development of "Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened?"

Cover of video game 'Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened.'
'Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened' was developed in Kyiv during the warImage: Frogwares

"We can't just stand by," tweeted the Ukrainian video game studio Frogware, a few hours after Russia invaded Ukraine on the morning of February 24, 2022. Since then, the Kyiv-based studio has used its social media platforms for more than the usual video game trailers and announcements — it also shares information about what it's like living and working during a war.

Among the images shared on their account are family photos and shots of destroyed buildings, men in camouflage clothing and civilians holed up in bomb shelters and subway shafts. There are also images of women and children on the run and people working with their laptops in the bathtub or sitting on the floor.

Personal stories, like that of artist Svitlana Gunchenko, who has been working as a 2D artist at Frogwares for 20 years, show the everyday chaos of life in Ukraine since the invasion. She shows overcrowded shelters, the missile that came hurtling right toward her house and swerved off course shortly before it hit, of escape and eventually the return home.

"We kind of wanted to use our platform and our position to shed some light on what's going on," Sergey Oganesyan tells DW over Zoom. 

"And because we're a gaming company, we would like to reach gamers specifically and tell them about the horrors that happen in Ukraine on a daily basis," he continues. The 33-year-old lives and works in Kyiv as head of publishing for the independent development studio Frogwares, which will release the bone-chilling detective adventure "Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened" on April 11.

Screenshot from video game 'Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened' featuring a boat on a dark river.
The video game is a dark fantasyImage: Frogwares

Horror game from Ukraine

Kyiv is not only the capital of Ukraine, but also the center of the Ukrainian tech industry. More than 250,000 people worked in IT and tech before the Russian invasion in February 2022, including tens of thousands in gaming and e-sports. In fact, the tech industry is booming despite the war. According to the Ukrainian Digital Ministry, nowhere in Europe are there more university graduates in tech-related courses than in Ukraine. Next year, the number of tech specialists is expected to increase to 450,000, according to a forecast. 

The new "Sherlock Holmes" game by adventure game specialists from Kyiv was created in just one year and was developed entirely during the war. Originally, a new open-world game was planned, but the studio decided instead to remake their 2007 title, which had received good reviews back then. 

After the war started, the studio needed a project that would be viable and likely to succeed in difficult conditions. The fact that the story was already predetermined by the original made it easier to implement. The developers raised an additional €250,000 ($274,000) via crowdfunding and began work at the end of March 2022.

Improvization needed after Russian invasion

But the path to the next project was not always clear. Right after the invasion, the studio closed temporarily.

"When the invasion started, we decided to give people the time and all of the support that we can provide to help them either relocate or leave the country or find shelter somewhere in the west of Ukraine," Ognasyen explains.

Ognasyen is friendly, but rarely smiles during the conversation. After all, the situation he is living through is far too serious. Some of his colleagues have joined aid organizations; others are members of the Ukrainian volunteer army, fighting for their country on the front lines.

But after a few weeks, the studio opened again and the remaining employees in Ukraine and abroad resumed work. A hybrid model was developed, with some programming and designing entirely from home and others coming into the office, depending on where they lived, how safe it was to get to work and whether they had enough electricity to turn on the computers and charge their laptops. 

The job helps distract them from the war, Oganesyan says. And, of course, it brings in money, which is desperately needed. Donation rates among staff are very high; according to his information, each Frogwares team member has donated an average of around €2,800 ($3,055) since the war began, primarily to support the Ukrainian army and provide humanitarian aid.

Sergey Oganesyan sits behind his desk at Frogwares.
Sergey Oganesyan works for FrogwaresImage: Frogwares

How the extraordinary became ordinary

In the meantime, people in Kyiv have become accustomed to the state of emergency, says Oganesyan. There are no longer power cuts, but sirens still sound several times a day to warn the population of airstrikes. But many people in the capital no longer react to them. 

Instead of running to the shelter every time the alarm sounds, they hope that nothing bad will happen. In cities in eastern Ukraine and in embattled places such as Kharkiv, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which are under daily fire from Russian forces, the situation is of course very different.

Dark adventure: 'Sherlock Holmes' remake

The war has had an enormous influence on the developers and also on their horror adventure "Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened."

"I don't think it's possible to separate that," says Sergey Oganesyan. "I don't think the game would have been as dark as it is right now."

Game players take on the role of master detective Sherlock Holmes. Their task is to solve criminal cases through clever deduction. With the help of their own observations, documents and objects, as well as the statements of witnesses and suspects, crime scenes are reconstructed and perpetrators are tracked down. 

Screenshot from the video game 'Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened' features a man holding a lamp.
'Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened' was partly inspired by HP Lovecraft's universe Image: Frogwares

The story begins in 1882 in Sherlock Holmes' neighborhood. Holmes, who always has his friend Dr. Watson by his side, is a young detective and excellent observer who exudes intellectual superiority through his clever questions and logical conclusions. He is hired by a wealthy Londoner to find his missing domestic servant.

Sherlock Holmes in the Lovecraft universe 

Although the narrative begins in a straightforward way, it gradually veers into the fantastic. Inspired by the Cthulhu myth created by the US horror author H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), the world around Sherlock Holmes becomes increasingly bizarre and terrifying. Cthulhu is described in Lovecraft as an extraterrestrial deity with a face full of tentacles who is capable of plunging all of humanity into ruin. 

More and more mystical symbols and references to the Cthulhu diety appear as the game moves forward. Sherlock Holmes suddenly finds himself in supernatural places and has difficulty understanding the mysterious twists, causing him to begin to doubt his sanity. 

Screenshot from the video game 'Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened' with two men in a room with a table and many shelves.
Players must solve a mysterious crimeImage: Frogwares

Players must keep a cool head and draw logical conclusions, which is not always as easy as it sounds. There are many red herrings and dead ends, making it easy for players to fall into traps. The game deliberately leaves players largely alone ro solve the mystery, which can sometimes be frustrating. On the other hand, a detective game that doesn't sufficiently challenge players would probably be rather boring.

"Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened" is released on April 11, 2023 on all platforms.

Ukraine’s tech sector is booming