Weasel Token Founder Talks Being a Game Developer in Besieged Kyiv
In our previous interview with Ukrainian developer Frogwares, we interviewed the CEO of a large and renowned game studio as he discussed the implications of the ongoing conflict for the team.
Today, we're telling the story of Weasel Token, a small two-person team formed by partners Alexander Molodkin and Tay Kuznetsova. Their next game, called Puzzles for Clef, is a 2D puzzle/platform adventure title due to be published by Freedom Games for PC via Steam.
Of course, all development on Puzzles for Clef has stopped for now as the duo lives in Kyiv and cannot relocate for the time being. We had the opportunity to talk with Alexander Molodkin, who helped us understand what it truly means to live in a besieged city such as the Ukrainian capital.
First things first: how are you doing right now? Is it relatively safe where you are?
We are under siege, and it's not that good, but everyone here is very optimistic because our forces are putting up one hell of a fight, and honestly, some cities have it much worse than Kyiv. So we're holding up. I guess it makes sense, given that Kyiv is the main target of Russian forces. But yeah, so far, good. Every day we have some grim predictions regarding what will come soon, but every day we're still holding up. So hopefully, we will just win eventually. We believe that we can.
Is your area of residence often targeted by strikes? Do you live in the center of Kyiv?
We are in the outer circle of the city, so we aren't targeted as much as we would be if we lived in the center of Kyiv. We do get regular air danger alarms, and that's why we have been living in our hallway for the last week, but it's relatively safe here and I hope it remains that way. Obviously, some areas have it much tougher, especially the city's northern part. Still, they are also doing a great job at holding up and disposing of any small groups of Russian forces that manage to come through.
We've heard reports that it's hard to move around Kyiv due to the many military checkpoints that have been set up in preparation for the siege. Can you confirm that?
It is totally that way. We have a lot of people volunteering for the territorial defense forces. So even if there weren't enough official military to cover every possible entrance to the city, there would still be enough volunteers to do it.
Okay. Do you have enough food, enough water, and basic supplies?
For now, the stocks are holding up. Hopefully, they will for another week or two; it's hard to predict entirely, but we ventured out three times by now. We did manage to get some additional food and water.
Do you have any friends or relatives who have been injured or were otherwise directly hit by this conflict?
Many people just relocated to other places in the country. For example, Tay's mother is stuck in a city north of Kyiv, which is under heavy attack day by day. But no, thankfully no injured at all for now, at least, and we hope it'll remain that way. Many people just relocated to the Western part of the country. The company I've done game design consulting previously just moved all of their workers to the Carpathians, the mountain range in Western Ukraine. And yeah, they were doing great. There are still some dangers over there and air danger alarms hitting regularly, but they are not happening as often as they do here. So hopefully, it is safer there than here.
Did you consider moving from Kyiv to Lviv, or is it just a situation where you can't relocate because of your family?
Yeah, it would be very difficult. I can't say it's impossible, but since we don't have our own car, it would be difficult to find a way to transport four people at once. And nobody here will want to leave someone behind. So it's either all of us at once or no one. Additionally, honestly, we don't really want to leave either. For as long as we can stay here, we will just, you know, out of principle because this is our home. This is our land. We don't want to escape and become refugees just because some Russians come for us.
In terms of Internet connection, do you use your regular ISP or are you using something else to connect to the Internet? We know that Starlink put up some additional internet coverage to help with downtime in Ukraine datacenters.
Starlink is mostly used for official military purposes right now because obviously, they need it
more than us commoners. We are just using our usual ISP so far. It does lock from time to time, so it's clear that the connection is not perfect or at least not as good as it was before. But it's still going strong, at least in Kyiv. We have a friend who relocated a bit Western of Kyiv and they had the Internet cable hit. They were sitting without connection for two days, I think. But even then, our connection is up by now. So we talked to him today and it was restored. So we are doing really great in terms of saving our infrastructure as well. Well, everywhere, except for, you know, Kharkiv and the Eastern part of Ukraine, where the attacks are much more brutal.
Before late February, did you ever think that it could be this bad for the whole of Ukraine, that Russia could really invade the entire country?
After Crimea happened and after the whole Eastern conflict occurred eight years ago, after that, it was obvious that anything could happen because when you have such a crazy neighbor, it's hard to exclude any possible consequences. But I would say most people here didn't really believe in any all-out invasion as it happened in reality because it's obviously just hard to pull off in the modern world, but apparently not for Putin. Up until the last few days before the war started, no one believed this would happen. Some people like me did think that he wouldn't just gather all his military around our border for show, and we did expect some local conflict to occur, especially in the East, to just take Donbas for himself.
But the hope was that he would stop at that point. However, around the 21st of February, back when he gave a speech where he basically threatened us, at that point, lots more people started believing that something bigger was coming, me included. Sadly, as you know, I couldn't really organize some sort of relocation for our family because of our number and we just had to deal with it. Then when everything started, we at least immediately realized what was happening. I was just working on our game at night. It was 4:00 AM when the first distant explosions happened in Kyiv. I heard those and had to wake everyone up.
The first day was tough because even if you expect something bad to happen, it's still hard to accept when it's like a nightmare come real. Then we had to just get practical about it and move to our hallway and deal with it as much as possible. Everyone is trying to be optimistic like I've mentioned, so it's not too depressing here, but being in a state of war is still hard, of course.
I know that many Ukrainian game developers have close relations with Russian and Belarusian developers. Did you have the chance to talk to some of the people you usually talk to within the game development community after the beginning of the invasion?
Definitely, we have indeed really close relationships between Ukrainian, Russian, and Belarusian industries. It was basically one whole industry instead of separate friendly ones. Even our composer that works on Puzzles for Clef is a Russian girl. It was never a problem for her or for us. It just never mattered. Some people contacted us themselves like said girl composer. Another guy that we've talked a lot to before signing with Freedom Games, he was a member of a different publishing house that was looking for potential projects. Also, some people who we just know from various game dev conferences even contacted us to say they're sorry that they didn't stop Putin in time. Everyone is aware that ordinary people are not at fault, but some still feel some sort of guilt for this whole thing happening. Those people are amazing and very supportive; we appreciate it.
As for the other parts of the community, I would say that the Russian game development community is a lot more segregated from the Ukrainian at the moment because they have totally different problems to solve. They're worried about how they will keep their business running at the moment, how they will receive money from Steam or foreign publishers, and how they will basically sell their games. They are very preoccupied with it to the point where they don't even want to talk about the whole war going on, right near them in the professional chat rooms. It's honestly a bit disheartening and disappointing, but I guess it is what it is. Ukrainian developers just don't have those issues at the moment because we are preoccupied with just surviving rather than making money.
I believe, and many people here think that even after the war ends, the game dev communities in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine will become a lot less connected. It's not that people will become enemies or something, but obviously, it'll leave a mark on our whole global relationships. For example, game developer conferences that were held in all three countries regularly will probably be a lot more country-based rather than international and well, even just interpersonal relationships will take a hit.
The whole of Eastern Ukraine and most of central Ukraine speak Russian more than Ukrainian even. I myself speak Russian more often than Ukrainian. My whole family does, all my friends do. It's mostly just the Western part of the Ukraine that speaks Ukrainian most of the time. So it's very ironic when Russia is trying to portray us as some kind of Nazis that just hate the Russian language and culture. It's very weird and bizarre to hear.
The war will leave a mark in the previously interconnected game dev communities of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine.
Talking about the games industry reactions, many publishers and developers have decided to stop selling their games to Russia. That even goes beyond gaming, as most of the biggest Western companies have abandoned the Russian market for now. Do you think this will actually make an impact, or is it just mostly a symbolic form of solidarity?
It's hard to say. I've been keeping track of it on the Russian side of the media as well because those are also interconnected with our country. Many people here read a website called DTF.ru. Many people there are very angry at Western companies doing these things. They just think, 'we are average people, these sanctions removing games and stuff won't help you stop the war. Why are you doing it?' Many people there behave in a way that, instead of getting angry at their government, they are just going to get angry at the West. It's sad to see, but that's how they take it. It comes down to the point where some people are starting to joke about having a new motto, like black lives matter, just replacing black with Russian and going with Russian lives matter. As if them getting isolated from some games is worse than being in the war that we are facing. But yes, at least that's what I'm seeing.
That's the work of Russian propaganda.
It's very strong. I've also taken a look at some of their news websites and it's a whole another world, like it's a parallel reality where whenever something bad happens and it's clear to the whole world that it was the work of the Russian side, their news just report the same news piece, but replacing Russians with Ukrainians. For example, there was an event when Russian forces were shooting at an ambulance. Well, Russians reported that it was us shooting at the ambulance as we are barbarians shooting at our own vehicle.
It's hard to take in, but that's just what they're doing all the time. All day, every night, they report that we are at fault for everything. They've recently reported that they found some underground laboratory with some kind of combat drugs that help our nation fight fiercely. It's like they're taking some comic books and just taking the stories out of those and reporting those as news.
They're calling it a special operation to save Donbas. That includes getting rid of Nazis across
the country and killing everyone who disagrees with joining Russia. There is an ongoing joke that started today or yesterday. When someone from Russia gets angry at not getting something like a new movie or a new game, we should tell them that it's a special financial operation, that we're just saving them from Western content.
I guess there is humor to be found even in these dark times.
It's what helps us survive.
Thank you so much for sharing your story as a game developer living in besieged Kyiv. Please stay safe until this ends, hopefully very soon.
We at Wccftech strongly support the calls for an immediate ceasefire and subsequent peace talks. Join us in the global cry to stop this senseless loss of life and consider donating to the UN Crisis Relief fund for Ukraine.