It is dawn on February 24, 2022 when Russia invades Ukraine in what, according to Russian propaganda, will later be called "Special Military Operation". We're talking about over 270 days ago, depending on when this interview will finally be published on the pages of Tom's and Game Division, after a long and, I won't deny it, a little painful gestation.
In this context, one of the most striking news at the time, obviously if we strictly take into account the video game sector, was the incredible support that many software houses and publishers showed towards the issue and, in particular, towards the Ukrainian population, rea of wanting to establish itself as free and independent, in what is a geopolitical context which, evidently, is still the victim of the remnants of the Cold War. A stuff that we would like, perhaps, only to hear mentioned in titles such as Watchmen or, to stay at home, in Metal Gear, but which in reality carries a considerable aftermath, as indeed befits most of the events of the story .
And by the way, we say it right away, in order to avoid that some enlightened mind on the web comes to point us out as active members of who knows what ideological faction: this is not a political piece. It is not to the extent that we are not here to give anyone right or wrong. We are on the side of those who suffer, crying out loud that war disgusts us, it makes us sick to the stomach and makes us horrified at the thought that innocent people, of whatever flag they may be, suffer and die in their own homes, on the street, and in any country in the world.
You'll forgive us, it's not doing good, it's just common sense. That here we are talking about videogames and that's it, or that which, in the great design of things, is little more than a joke. Something horrific in the face of a theme like war, and even if this humble editor feels he can express his opinion, frankly, I decide not to do it, that here the theme is another and the place, above all, is not that suitable for politics, of whatever fringe it is.
There was talk of videogames, therefore, and it was said that one thing that had struck was the level of support that the whole community had shown towards the Ukrainian people, financially supporting, and not only, what already from the first hours was envisaged as one of the darkest and most tragic moments in contemporary history. In this context, in which many spent on humanitarian aid, there was an actor in the sector, which many would consider "minor", who caught our attention, both for his stoicism and for his courage to face the situation , not without obvious patriotism.
We are talking about Frogwares, development team active since the early 2000s based in Kiev, and made famous, over the years, for being one of the few teams to carry on the glorious, and often mistreated, legacy of graphic adventures, in particular with what is their main series, dedicated to the character of Sherlock Holmes.
The first game, released in 2002, was Sherlock Holmes: The Mystery of the Mummy which, personally, I recovered only much later, that is, after discovering the team thanks to Dracula:Origin, a 2008 graphic adventure which, undoubtedly, had quite a few flaws, but which also had a great atmosphere.
At the time, in the height of my ignorance as a PC gamer, I arrived at the game convinced that it was a sort of sequel, or even just a legacy, of the much better known Dracula: The Resurrection of Microids, a title that was ported to a bunch of platforms and that, as you recall, had garnered quite a bit of acclaim. Consents that, to be honest, Frogwares has not always collected, as demonstrated by many of its titles starring Sherlock Holmes, even net of sales that have often been surprising.
Because there is an attitude in the work of Frogwares, which seems more of the atmosphere, and often of the writing, than of the game mechanics itself. Something that, in part, I told you myself some time ago, grappling with what was a real sequel/reboot for the video game franchise of Mr. Holmes and which, as you know, will soon be followed by a new chapter, which is a remake, that is Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened.
To Frogwares, to put it bluntly, over time I have loved him very much. Both because I'm fascinated by investigative literature (if you're looking for the idiot who even bought the game The ABC Murders dedicated to Poirot, here he is!), and because I love that this team wants to carry on the story of graphic and investigative adventures which, at least for me, and I think for most of the over 30s who play video games, it means drawing on the memory of what were the first "narrative" video games that they got their hands on in their youth, without necessarily bothering His Majesty Monkey Island.
And so, at the news of the outbreak of war in Ukraine, my thoughts immediately flew to Frogwares. Both because I was still relatively "fresh" from the last outing with Sherlock in that strange, but still appreciable Chapter One (the aforementioned sequel/reboot. Ed), and because of the response that the software house had towards the war, choosing to stay in place and indeed, taking advantage of the announcement of a kickstarer for his Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, through whose communication it has been reiterated several times that the team is in Kiev, and wants to stay there.
Therefore, driven by affection for this team of real outsiders, but above all intrigued by understanding the reasons for certain choices, one above all, that of not abandoning a city which, over the last few weeks, has also been the victim of terrible bombings, I tried to contact Frogwares directly, so that the team could tell me their point of view, offering me what, in some ways, was a direct window into the conflict in Ukraine. A conflict whose end is not in sight and in which, I later discovered, some team members directly entered through the resistance.
To my request he answered, not without obvious difficulty, Sergiy Oganesyan, Team Communication Manager who, like many others, obviously remained in Kiev, in the developer's offices, and to whom I was able to ask a few questions about the war, about what is happening in the country, but also about how all this has impacted, and is impacting, the development team. A development team that has decided to resist and that, in the midst of a war, is completing the work of its next work.
I will say right away that, as a rule, I like to intersperse my interviews with a few notes, some notes, something that gives a little more depth to the dialogue, to transform what could be a "reported" chat into something more pleasant and engaging for the reader. Here, however, I will not do it, leaving it to my interviewee to speak, and leaving to each of you the perhaps thankless task of imagining the monster of war.
Frogwares, Sergiy Oganesyan's interview
RG: Sergiy first of all thank you for your availability. We know the situation is not simple, and we imagine it must be difficult to find the time for an interview, so we want to start by showing you our appreciation and support, thanking you for this fantastic digital meeting. I would start, trivially, from the beginning: how are you and how are the team members? Are you ok?
SW: Thanks for asking. Everyone in the team is safe and sound. Despite this, each case is different; we know people in the team who have lost friends and family, while some have family members in difficult situations or areas. But we are doing our best to meet the challenges as they arise.
RG: Do you remember the day the war started? What were you doing and how did you react to the first news?
SW: I think everyone in the team remembers that day. The general feeling was simply shock and anger. It all started at 5:00 in the morning on a Tuesday, so probably everyone was woken up by the sound of bombs and missiles exploding in or around the cities we live in.
Importantly, our country has, in a sense, been at war with Russia since 2014, when they annexed Crimea and plunged Donbass into war because they decided it was theirs. I myself had to leave my home in Donetsk in 2014 and have not been back since. After that, in March 2022 the same happened with Kiev, but I managed to return there.
So, for the past 8 years, there has been a constant threat from Russia that has gotten worse with time. And so, for the last 8 years we have gotten used to the situation. We have even become immune to threats. In January 2022, however, the amount of soldiers on the border began to signal something more drastic, even if Putin kept saying it was "military exercises". By February most people had evacuation plans and bags ready in case something happened. Despite this, there was still a feeling of shock that a full-scale nationwide war was actually happening. We were woken up at 5:00 in the morning by the sound of sirens, explosions and non-stop ringing phones. A state of emergency was declared shortly thereafter and martial laws went into effect shortly thereafter.
Frogwares did what it could to keep its team members safe in the best possible way. Discord channels were created to collect information about where people were and their situation. If someone needed help to escape from the place where they were, everything was organized there. It also proved to be a convenient conduit for sharing vital information about what was going on, where it was safe or not to escape, etc. Others have used it to help themselves cross borders and camp in nearby towns.
Work obviously stopped completely for us, and was in the doldrums until the beginning of April. I also recall a collective outpouring of frustration and anger during that early period. Our country had been invaded for reasons beyond comprehension and under ridiculous pretexts.
RG: In the last few days Kiev has been bombed again, causing many casualties and a lot of damage. Are you and your loved ones okay? How has the situation been in the city in recent weeks?
SW: Yes. From what I've seen and heard, we're all safe. The general feeling in the city is one of resistance, with an even stronger desire to fight. When the war broke out there was a lot of uncertainty about how our city, our army and our nation would hold up. So there was a lot of panic, a lot of people running away and a lot of chaos. This time however there was almost none of that. People now know they can stay where they are because they've seen how effective our military is, how capable our city is of dealing with emergencies, and how well everyone has adjusted to the flow of things.
The day after the first attacks, the city had already started repairing the damage; major roads that had been affected were repaired within 24 hours, power and internet were restored as soon as possible, there is even a picture online of people queuing at McDonald's the next day. However, the attacks continued here and in other major cities, proving that the Russians are a bunch of incompetent cowards who cannot win in the field, targeting civilian targets.
They are trying to break down our infrastructure so that the coming winter will be harder for us to go through. Much of the country, including Kiev, now has to shut down its electricity on a regular basis to make sure the infrastructure that is still operational holds up; internet connections have also been affected and there is a risk that even water and heating will be rationed across the country. But that's okay.
We will ration heat, electricity, water and internet as much as necessary because we will not leave and we will not give up. Those cowardly cowards who are ordering and carrying out these attacks can fuck off as far as I'm concerned because they know exactly what they are doing and who they are targeting.
RG: Have you stayed in contact with the other development teams in the country? How is the situation?
SW: Yes. We all have friends in other teams, so any kind of contact is between friends, and we are sure that what we say to each other will stay between us. Every situation is different, and it depends a lot on the structure of the studio, the finances available and whether the team is tied to a publisher or is independent. That's all I can say.
RG: Ukraine and Russia are secular neighbors, beyond politics and war: has your perception of Russian citizens changed?
SW: Of course! I don't think anyone could go through something like this without coming away with a different view of the people who are basically trying to kill him. Sure, it's Russian politicians and generals who give the orders, but it's ordinary people in the military who commit the atrocities we've witnessed in places like Mariupol, Bucha, Irpin, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Kramators'k and Izium.
In general, our relationship with Russia as a country has always been difficult. They have interfered with our history and our people for so long, all while letting through the idea that Ukraine is an inferior state and that the population needs to mature. But we grew up thinking that Russia was a force not to be antagonized; we saw how they completely destroyed Chechnya, how they destabilized Georgia. Just look at their own development, where political opposition and important members of the press are arrested, exiled or killed.
So, we were afraid of them and what they could do, which is why the majority of the country wanted to get closer to the US; but for a long time, many of us boiled it all down to politics, assuming that the average Russian citizen didn't believe or support it. Sadly, now we really see how many Russians believe in what their country is doing. We know that many disagree, but there are so many who do and they are the ones we see. The actions of the Russian government have instilled in our hearts a lot of hatred and mistrust towards Russians in general, and it will take a long time to undo it.
RG: Have you received any support messages from Russian gamers or development teams?
SW: No. Or at least we didn't notice anything, but we're not surprised at all. All Russian developers who are against the war probably feel they have to remain silent. Should any sign of support for Ukraine become public, there's a strong possibility that their government, or even fans, could revolt.
RG: We're aware that some of your development team have joined the fight. How are they? And how did the others in the team react to this decision by colleagues and friends?
SW: Are all well. Many of us are in regular contact with them. I think everyone in the team understood why they took part in the fight. I think I can speak for the entire Frogwares team when I say that we are extremely proud to have them as friends and colleagues. They are sacrificing a lot for us, and we will be forever grateful to them. We do what we can to help them, by sending them parcels with what they need; if they ask us, we organize everything possible to help their families. We will meet when they return. Of course, the company still pays them their salaries, with the clear promise that once the war is won, their places on the team will be waiting for them. We have no intention of hiring anyone else to fill their roles while they are away defending us.
RG: Why did you decide to continue working despite everything?
SW: I would say that we did it for many reasons. First of all we are an independent studio, ergo we do not have external supporters or publishers who keep us afloat, nor who beat a retreat, leaving us. What keeps the studio going are the sales of our games. Company paid salaries are needed by our families now more than ever. If we had sat on our hands and waited for the war to end, the company would have closed and we would all have lost our sources of income.
The other motivation is work, right now, it's a very welcome distraction, because it allows you to focus on something other than war. Making games is tough, but it's also an activity we enjoy, so being able to continue doing our work gives us time to unplug from war, at least for a while.
Finally, we do it because we know this is the best way many of us have to fight back. The hypothesis of another Ukrainian company forced to close leaving over 90 families without a livelihood would be a victory for Russia. Continuing to contribute to the nation's economy is an act of rebellion in a way. And when it's all over, a good part of Ukraine will have to be rebuilt and we should be able to contribute to that too. Also the reason we accepted this interview, honestly, is to demonstrate to everyone around the world who follows us that we, just like many others in Ukraine, refuse to give up and let our fate be decided by some crazy Russian.
RG: Have you ever thought about closing the office and escaping to another country, continuing your life and work elsewhere?
SW: Many people have asked us if we ever planned to move to another country, but that's easier said than done. Putting aside all the bureaucracy needed to make something like this happen, not being part of the European Union, one has to understand that Ukraine is still the place where many of us have lived all our lives. Here are our homes, families and memories of a lifetime. During the first months of the war some of our team fled to other countries, and now many of them have returned. They decided to stay in a war zone because this is where they felt they wanted to be. So packing your bags and going to another country would leave a lot of people behind, as we would never be able to convince over 90 people to leave Ukraine for what is, in the end, just a job.
RG: At the beginning of the war many development teams showed their support to Ukraine through donations and shipments of food and so on. What kind of support have you, as Frogwares, received from the international developer community? Were there any teams or publishers who offered you direct or indirect help in any way?
SW: So much has happened in the last few months that it's hard to remember it all, let alone summarize it. A lot of public support has come and continues to come, especially during the Kickstarter we launched in August (the one related to Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened ed). We received some extra funding from Epic through a small Epic Mega Grant, and there were even teams in the EU who offered to help people who fled to other countries find housing, but eventually our colleagues found other alternatives. But the fact that they were so willing to help us is remarkable, and we will never forget it!
RG: Speaking of your games: Has the war affected post-launch support for Sherlock Holmes: Chapter One in any way?
SW: Undoubtedly! Our last major story related DLC was delayed due to the war, but development was pretty much finished. We still had to run the tests, fix some bugs and follow the last steps before publishing it. We also had to make the painful decision to indefinitely postpone the Xbox One version of the game. The old-gen version was delayed by us in September 2021, but the chaos of having to work remotely and under war conditions didn't give us a chance to finish them both, ergo we had to focus on the PS4 version which was way ahead in terms of optimization when the invasion started.
RG: We talked about Kickstarter, and while we're at it, I'd like to talk about the protagonist of the campaign, which is a bit of a classic: Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened. You started the Kickstarter campaign asking only €70.000 to complete the job, but you have reached over €250.000! Now that the campaign is closed, what are you going to do with all the money raised?
SW: The money will go exactly where we said it would go: bonus features to expand the game, but also stabilize the situation of the team and keep the sum as a sort of life preserver, in case the war gets us into even more complicated situations. Running a team of more than 90 people is very expensive even under normal circumstances.
Having to deal also with the war we found ourselves grappling with extra obstacles and many doubts about our future, and the worst thing is that we cannot even predict what will happen tomorrow. For example, a bomb could have fallen on the building where our servers are located and wiped out a lot of our work. Or we could have lost key members of our team for weeks or, worst case scenario, forever, and then been forced to figure out how to go on without them.
All of these issues, along with many others, take time and money to fix, so we didn't know if we'd have enough funding to overcome a next, possibly, major hurdle. The budgets for our games come from the sales of those that already exist. That's all.
So, we used the Kickstarter as a way to reach our most loyal fans, who we knew would like a new game, and now we're reaching out to them, because a part of them will then be included in the work to thank them. This essentially allowed us to allow our biggest fans to be able to support us while waiting for the game to be finished.
I'd say it's a sort of pre-order for a group of fans, with all the money going back into the company to make the game. It's like they bought the game after it was released, so the money will go towards making the next one. Being able to get a good chunk of the budget for the game now rather than after a year also means that our team can be confident of finishing what they started, even if the war presents us with other unpredictable problems.
RG: Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is a title that invokes darkness, monsters and fear. Is there any connection between your situation and the choice to propose this remake, or is it a coincidence?
SW: The story of the game is not directly related to the war, but it was undoubtedly a source of inspiration. Right now, our minds travel to very dark corners, but rather than letting our heads rot in that thought, hurting ourselves, we can channel a great deal of that pain into what we create. As much as we may have felt that way since 2014, when Russia made the first move against our nation by stealing Crimea, all we could do was sit still and watch what was happening. We felt helpless, alone, and unable to face a force that goes beyond all logic, just like the gods and blind cults of Eldritch that will come to terms with throughout the storyline of The Awakened.
RG: Returning to the campaign itself: some time ago you opened an initiative to allow your fans to write messages on some 152 mm bullets, and this caused quite a stir. There was a lot of criticism online, and a lot of people were outraged. In this sense, have you ever thought about that tweet? Did you somehow regret it?
SW: Honestly, the full answer to this question would require a separate interview. We understand what we have done, and we understand the reaction. I think the criticisms have come from people who aren't living here at the moment, so it's hard for them to understand what we're facing, and how it's affecting us. But it's part of the past now, so let's not go further.
RG: Living in a nation at war, how do you manage your schedule? How do you react to the unexpected?
SW: We have learned that the best way is to be flexible and ready to adapt. What works today may not work tomorrow. For example, suddenly something unexpected could happen such as a hard-to-reach team member, and for this we must have a lot of trust in the individual teams, letting them work independently, and giving them the opportunity to do what they can when problems arise.
RG: Returning to The Awakened which, moreover, I say this as a fan, is a title that I look forward to and wish well for, I would like to ask you what it means for you to publish a new game while your nation is at war. What do you feel about this?
SW: It arouses pride in us, mixed in equal parts with pain. Noticing how we are able to move forward, dealing with the situation makes us immensely proud and generally gives us something positive to focus on. Despite this, we also feel pain just to be in this situation. War is such a constant in our lives that we can never isolate it. We talk about it, we think about it, or we have to deal with it every day.
No matter what happens, in the years following our country's victory and the liberation of Ukraine, our game will forever be associated with memories of the war.
RG: Do you have anything planned once Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened is completed? Will you expand the original game with DLC, or will you start with another project right away? Maybe Chapter Two?
SW: We're already planning our next project, but we can't share much, despite everything that's happening. We will not let this war interrupt our lives and our plans. The Awakened is still a full title, however, so no post-launch DLC has been officially planned yet. If the situation doesn't change, we might as well consider it.
I think it's also useful to point out that The Awakened is, technically, a "Chapter Two", which is a sequel to the previous game. That's because we've taken our young Sherlock, setting this game 3 years after the events of Chapter One, and given him another elaborate and creative case, explaining how he became the tormented genius we all know from the books, movies and series. TV.
Furthermore, this story also focuses a lot on the relationship between him and Watson, on how they can have matured in such a similar way, and on why the duo are so inseparable. What comes next, we'll see.
We were already in pre-production with another open-world horror game before the war, but we had to shut everything down. It proved difficult to work on something so complex in such a chaotic and unstable environment. We need the war to end before we go back to doing something like this.
RG: Sergiy, what is the message you would like to send to gamers all over the world but, above all, to the developer community?
SW: I would like to comment on a thought that we read more and more often online, and that is expressed by people far from this war is: "Why doesn't Ukraine just negotiate?".
I think that, in general, this idea is well-intentioned, but it is naive considering the real situation. Yes, everyone wants the destruction and bloodshed to stop but, understand me, we have been negotiating with Russia for the last 8 years, if not more, and we still have nothing to offer but other parts of our country to be annexed and peace treaties broken. It's always the same story.
They cease fire, regroup, start all over again. They continue to take and take, they continue to say that we are equal, that we are brothers, but despite this, most of our people do not see it that way, and for this they require an alliance with Europe.
Apparently, however, this choice does not depend on us. It is "they" who decide for us, as they have always done throughout history, and now that they have definitively invaded us, turning against a large part of the country, try asking yourself: "would you ever be able to trust or negotiate with someone in the type?".
If we back down or surrender, the country will be in turmoil. Everyone who gets the chance would leave the country, democratic elections would probably become a thing of the past, any kind of resistance would be suppressed by brute force, as is happening now in Russia. All the progress achieved since the end of the former Soviet hegemony would have been in vain.
RG: At this point tell us: how could people from our country support you, or even other teams in Ukraine? In summary: what do you think is the best way to help you?
OS: as for help, it can come in many ways. The most helpful is for people to keep talking about what's going on, to keep sharing the stories they see, so that we keep this battle on the front page, alive in people's minds. The economic pressure that has been put on Russia is working somehow, but more needs to be done! It has to become an insurmountable avalanche, and you have to be able to counter the various strategies that Russia will use to try to hide the impact the pressures are having on them.
If you want to support us or any other Ukrainian developer, the best way is of course to buy our games. We understand, however, that this is not an option available to everyone, so you can do something that helps us on the same level, by sharing or liking our trailers, tweets etc.
Finally, if you are one of those who can, and will, donate to our country, please do! The country needs it now, and it will need it when we have to rebuild everything. One way to do this is through uacrisis.org, where there are a number of verified and genuine organizations, plus some basic steps on how to help in other ways!
RG: Sergiy we thank you for your time, and we really hope you can go back to your lives freely and peacefully.
SW: Thank you so much for your kind words and support.
Before closing a small note: this interview took place at the end of October, when Ukraine had not yet dealt the Russian offensive the hard blow of the liberation of Khersov, considered a strategic point for the war table and whose consequences have led, precisely in these last days of November, to new offensives and bombings in the country. In this sense, we have not had the opportunity to verify that the people mentioned in the interview, that Sergiy Oganesyan himself, the other team members, their families, or even just the general situation (we are talking about the state of health of the people involved , the integrity of the buildings, or factors relating to the work of the team itself), is the same as at the time of the interview. We can only hope for the best and this, if you think about it, is quite scary.
Hoping without knowing.