INTERVIEW: Weasel Token’s Alex Molodkin Highlights Game Development in Ukraine

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Ukrainian Game Developers
Ukrainian Game Developers Tay Kuznetsova and Alex Molodkin of Weasel Token

Alex Molodkin and his partner Tay Kuznetsova are the duo behind Weasel Token, an indie game developer in Kyiv, Ukraine. They are currently making a game, Puzzles for Clef, a peaceful 2D puzzle adventure with a treasure hunt at its core. But while working on the game with his family asleep, the war started. “Nobody believed here that this full-out invasion would start. Some people like me thought that it would just be a localized conflict, like Putin taking Donbas and that’s it,” Alex explained, “However, around 21st of February, when Putin gave his speech and threatened us with this whole ‘I’ll show you the meaning of true dehumanization, well, at that point, I realized that something bigger would happen…sadly we didn’t have much of a chance to evacuate and escape.”

Molodkin explained that without a car, a family of four, and a mother with a disability, there wasn’t a choice or an avenue to flee the conflict, “Despite realizing that the shit would hit the fan, we just had to stay here.” Now, Alex and his family live in a hallway, with everything packed to relocate if needed. The apartment building’s outer walls are too dangerous to be near with the indiscriminate bombardment from Russian troops on civilian residences. “It’s uncomfortable but still better than a shelter. We had to avoid that option as well because my grandmother and mother too, it would be difficult to stay there for a prolonged period of time.”

Molodkin added more context to the optimism that Ukrainians feel, “The situation is pretty dire, but honestly, everyone here —and by here I mean the whole Ukraine— is pretty optimistic. Everyone thought we wouldn’t stand a chance against the ‘oh so great’ Russian military, but it turns out we can still put up quite a fight. As the days go on without any major cities being taken, and even if they are, they are usually taken back rather soon —with each day passing, everyone believes in our military more and more…It’s not going to be an easy war for Putin, and we are very proud of it.”

But even with optimism comes a realistic outlook on what the future holds, particularly for game developers in the reason. Molodkin explained that usually, the networks for game devs in his region are comprised of Russian-speaking countries. And while they didn’t differentiate based on different nationalities, there is a clear division between developers in those network chats which include Ukrainian game developers and those from surrounding countries. “While Ukrainians obviously want to keep people aware of the situation and want to talk about war —I mean, what else could we talk about right now— Russians just try to stay away from it. For the most part, in the professional chats, [Russian game devs] try to stay out of politics and shut down conversations regarding the topic because ‘there are many chats where you can discuss war,’ they say. And obviously, yeah there are, but that doesn’t mean you have to shut us down because we are trying to reach those people who are still uncertain of what’s happening here because there are many of those.”

Molodkin continues, “We want to talk to them, and we want to show them what’s exactly happening. And oftentimes, we can’t just get this opportunity [in the professional chats]. Often times they are just talking about the sanctions, about how to survive the whole SWIFT band, or how do they get their money from Steam or foreign publishers. Obviously, this is a problem for them and we totally understand, losing your business is a harsh affair, but hey, [Ukrainians] are losing more than just business here.”

But beyond the chats, Molodkin offered his thoughts on how this will impact game development coming out of the region, “First and foremost, there will be a split in the community, and it won’t be like it was before. Because some people just won’t forgive Russians, that’s unavoidable. Most people understand that Russians aren’t to blame as a whole and that it’s not just a simple citizen deciding things like this. However, when they are shutting us down and not even letting us talk about [the war], obviously, it leaves a bit of a scar. I believe the Ukrainian community of game developers will become a bit more independent, isolated, whatever you want to name it.”

He continued, “Obviously, it will affect the games’ topics that will be springing out in the future because you can’t just survive a war and not call it a vital experience of your life. It influences everything and how you think about it…Our current project was developed to counter the pandemic and isolation. We wanted to give people a meaningful experience in a peaceful and cozy manner. I’m sure many games like this will be coming out from Ukrainian developers because that’s just what people need after coming out of war. Something to heal your mind and wounds, something where you don’t just constantly fight some enemies because it’s not what you want to hear or see.” Molodkin also added how games about war will change. “Obviously, there will be some games talking about how terrible war is, it’s not a new concept, but it’s still a core concept to show because some people are still insensitive about it.”

When it comes to how people can help Ukrainian game developers now, Molodkin recommended donating to charity funds and the Ukrainian armed forces to helo with defense. Outside of direct links, though, Molodkin pointed out that if you’re “just a gamer who wants to keep playing games,” you can choose to buy games that are using their profits to support Ukraine. This includes games like This War of Mine, which is currently donating all of their profits to benefit the Ukrainian cause. Additionally, he suggested game bundles on itch.io, pointing out that you can still “just buy games” but do so with intention.

Ukrainian Game Puzzles for Clef
Still from Weasel Token’s Puzzles for Clef

Finally, Molodkin explained why he wants to see more companies taking a stand against the Russian invasion by withholding products and services. “It makes clear and influences common people.” Molodkin started, “Usually they just stay out of it. For example, there are people who think ‘Oh hey, we still have our games. We don’t need to get into politics because it doesn’t matter to us.’ Well, it started mattering to them when Steam blocked payments in Russian rubbles. And I hear today that CDPR and Bloober Team took all of their games off sale in Russia.

“So once [Russian people] get more isolated in such normal ways, like not getting some movies like the new Batman or getting some games, they may realize that it’s such a massive problem…They should be aware that while they obviously are not the ones giving the orders to attack, they are still people of the government. They should be the ones dictating what their government is doing, not the other way around.”

To close out the interview, Molodkin put out a call for gamers to help Ukraine however they can. “Game developers usually try to enrich gamers’ lives, help them through harsh experiences. And developers over here are having those harsh experiences right now so we would really appreciate any support or kindness that gamers could give us. Just you know, paying attention to who is making your game, donating to charity, or even just buying games of local [Ukrainain] developers, every little bit helps.

If you would like to support Ukraine, please head to the links provided by Alex Modokin here to support the Ukrainian armed forces here and here. And for more charities and funds, please take a look at this carrd created to support Ukrainians during this war that includes funds to help with medical supplies, defense, volunteers, children, and other vulnerable groups.

To hear our full interview with Alex Molodkin, hit play on the audio player below.