By Ruben Osterling
Trigger warning: The soundtracks contain the sounds of explosions and sirens. If you have recently been in Ukrainian cities under shelling, please, turn off the sound.
The first sentences for a game’s website. Around the synopsis, pictures of a demolished street, uplifting comments in Ukrainian, and a link to related games.
What’s Up in a Kharkiv Bomb Shelter is a interactive fiction developed by Ukrainian gamer, Dariia Selishcheva. As Russia invaded her home, she fled to a bomb shelter in Kharkiv and programmed the 2-D top-down game. It explored the rough life her people had to go through. Based on actual conversations and circumstances, it helped her cope with trauma and gave people a glimpse into the war.
“Something was howling and thumping overhead all the time, and I did not want to work on it, but I needed to distract myself somehow, so I did it,” Selishcheva said.
You upload the game and your pixelated world is on fire. The only signs of life left are a few trees by a nearby bomb shelter. You rush into it, escaping a wave of bombs. Now, you start the ordinary day for a Ukrainian in Kharkiv.
You roam around the premises, bumping into distraught people and hearing their story. A stranger, smoking a cigarette, confesses that he doesn’t want to leave here alone. Someone else, with flashing purple skin, explains that their ‘head is boiling’. They read the news 24/7, so they can’t relax. A person with their dog cracks a dark joke. As they found reasonable-priced gas, their dog heard the bombs before them and rushed them down here. The punchline: Bomb Runner Day! A poet, now cooking over a fire pit, sees their people as “eternal refugees from reality.”
You also make a phone call to your friend in Russia. Apparently, they don’t believe you. Literally. They claim everything covered about the war is ‘propaganda’. Your friend claims that once Russia demilitarizes your country, you will ‘be friends again.’ You can watch someone strum their guitar through the flames, explosions, and voices (the soundtrack of the game). And that’s just one room.
A Story Told Through Pixels
“It was a fixation of the reality, when authors can’t control it with their works, so they can just be a witness. I was just an eyewitness, spectator of things that happen, and I was too ruined too, to create something new,” she said.
You can go deeper in the bomb shelter, meeting more traumatized folks such as yourself. Someone forgets which day it is or worries about the dwindling supplies. An older lady asks you how to use a phone. They can’t find their grandson and don’t know how to text. In the corner, someone tells you, “Now everything is different.”
If you take the wrong door, you’re pushed back outside. And it’s locked. No matter what direction you go, the game will take you into a gray void. With nowhere else to go, you touch a flickering red globe. The landscape darkens and you’re surrounded by more of these globes. Within seconds, the screen blanks out and a message, in a colorful font, appears. It says: You left too early and that’s why you died. Game over.
But hope still flickers from these pixels as she continues to recover from the Russian invasion. Many who’ve played her game are left inspired by her bravery and her message spreads across the internet. That it’s not ‘game over’ for her people as they continue to take back their country from evil. You can play the game at dahuanna.itch.io/whats-up-in-a-kharkiv-bomb-shelter.