From short film to scandalous game about Holodomor Famine Way: why STELLARIUM changed its path and moved into the games industry

The Famine Way game has no text and no words - just the urge to survive because it's about the Holodomor

By: Vladyslav Nuzhnov | 12.12.2023, 12:00

In 2021 STELLARIUM was formed as a team to make films. However, Russia's full-scale war in Ukraine changed the plans, and the team had to forget about the film industry. However, the desire to move on did not disappear. And already in the spring of 2022 STELLARIUM turned into a game studio, which began to translate the script of one of its series into a game about Ukraine in the 90s. Although now the studio attracts most attention with its game Famine Way, which will tell about one of the most terrible pages of Ukraine of the 20th century - the Holodomor of 1932-1933. The gg editorial team talked to Matvey, the founder of STELLARIUM, about the history of the studio, conflicts within the team, ambitions, the desire to bring important messages to the world community, and the future project, which is already under development.

Matvey, founder of STELLARIUM

gg: How did STELLARIUM studio come into being in the first place?

Matvei: The game studio STELLARIUM appeared relatively recently, but as a team it has been functioning for almost two years. It all started with the idea of creating short films, which we wanted to release first on YouTube, then show at festivals, and then reach streaming platforms where we would release full-length films and mini-series.

In 2021, we started putting together a team of like-minded people who wanted to develop in the film industry. We started working on our first short film, which was called Big Buy Little Man. It was supposed to be a noir film under 10 minutes that explored the question of a person's moral choices. In the film, the main character comes home with one coin in his pocket. He had a choice: he either wanted to spend that coin on flowers for his wife or buy bread for his hungry children. At the end of the film, we were brought back to the moment of choice, and each person had to make a decision.

We only had time to shoot the trailer, and then the full-scale invasion began. We realised we couldn't keep filming any further, but we wanted to keep the team together and move on.

Big Buy Little Man trailer

Then we had the idea to adapt one of our mini-series County of Great Hopes into a game project, which is now the game Great Hopes City about Ukraine in the 90s. We started working on the game in March 2022 - this can be considered the game's STELLARIUM beginning.

In general, Great Hopes City has been through a lot. The game has changed its concept and positioning, but still we love this project with all our heart, because this is where STELLARIUM started.

gg: Why did you decide to switch from cinema to games instead of another art form?

Matvey: Because games are the kind of media that the founders and the team liked, they often played games in their free time. And also thanks to games you can communicate with a mass audience through a solid gaming experience and quality interactive content.

gg: What exactly did Great Hopes City have to endure?

Matvey: The most global thing is the change of 80% of the team that worked on the game. It happened after the release of the demo version because of a certain conflict between the team members. We didn't agree on the vision of the project's strategy.

We also changed the game engine. Initially we created the game on GameMaker Studio 2, but now we have switched to Unity, and now our future games will be on this engine.

And as I mentioned, the concept has changed. We had very big ambitions. We wanted to make Great Hopes City a trilogy and release one part a year. Then we decided that three parts at once wasn't really strategic. It's better to do the first part and then see how it goes.

Also, some ideas had to be abandoned. We had a 400-page script and that's only part of what was going to be realised in the game. It turned out to be an RPG with a lot of characters, mechanics, a city with 12 districts and more than a hundred locations.

And that's what happens when developers have big ambitions and become disconnected from reality. You have to learn to say "no" to part of the ideas. Still, the first project should be more modest. I don't want to go and tell you that I spent 10 years on my dream game, but during this period I realised three times that it's nowhere near my dream game. So there was a certain amount of reformatting that happened.

gg: What exactly caused the conflict in the studio?

Matvey: The conflict arose because of the further vision of the project's development. We had several ways after the demo: move towards Kickstarter, move towards a publisher, move towards grant funding or move towards early access.

And the participants had divergent opinions. When one person really wants and believes in Kickstarter and the other person believes that early access is the only right option, at some point the participants had a falling out. And I was no longer in control of the situation. It got to the point where it was better to restart everything, to start from scratch, than to try to reconcile participants who said a lot of unpleasant things to each other. It happens, it's a shame, but we decided that it was better to move on with another team.

gg: How many people are in STELLARIUM now?

Matvey: Now we have three game projects and about 30 members.

gg: Were there other factors that influenced the rethinking of the game?

Matvey: For us, the demo, which was still released with the old concept, played an important role. But it gave us a lot of feedback, a lot of insight into where we should go. So we decided that the project will focus on what the players were most interested in in the demo. And the game will first be released in early access, and then there will be a full release.

gg: What is the story in Great Hopes City about in general?

Matvey: The final version will boil down to a simple but understandable formula for everyone: we have two friends who return to the city after one has served time in prison and the other has done his conscription in the army. They left the city back during the Soviet Union, and they are returning already in independent Ukraine. They have 30 days of game time (one day lasts 20 real minutes). And during these 30 days the heroes have to fulfil their dreams. For this they need money and status. The player has different ways to get that money and status to fulfil their dreams. Or it is possible not to fulfil it. Here the decision is solely up to the player. The ending and certain plot points will also depend on it.

So the story is simple in terms of the concept itself - an attempt to realise a dream. But that doesn't mean that the story is flat and primitive.

The depth of the story is that you choose your own path and experience certain events that happened because of your choice

There's Lord of the Rings. We all know, even without having seen the films, that there is a ring, it has to be destroyed. And we don't watch it because we want to see if the ring is destroyed. We want to watch to see what path the characters will take to that destruction.

gg: Why did you come up with the idea to make a project specifically about Ukraine in the 90s?

Matvey: We don't have nostalgia for the criminal Ukraine of the 90s, because we didn't live there, but it was quite an interesting period. A lot of interesting situations happened in those times. For example, the White Brotherhood (a religious sect that originated in Ukraine in the 90s and predicted the end of the world - editor's note) or communists who believed in the revival of the Soviet Union. And all this was happening in young Ukraine, which was just strengthening its independence. And you can build an interesting background around that.

Because if Famine Way is the background of Holodomor, it is historically important, it is a tragedy, it is a genocide of Ukrainians. Here we have a more sarcastic background. This game evokes a completely different palette of emotions in the player than Famine Way.

gg: How long have you wanted to make a game about the Holodomor Famine Way?

Matvey: Actually not so long ago. The idea came up in early August, when the Great Hopes City demo came out and there was a conflict in the team. We were a bit emotionally depressed, but we decided that we would recruit a new team anyway. Accordingly, we needed a fresh breath of air so that we wouldn't be 100% fixated on Great Hopes City.

We were thinking about what important theme to tell through the game and we came up with Holodomor. We also decided right away that it would be a project without text, but with an emphasis on the audio-visual component.

gg: Why was it important for you to create a game without text?

Matvey: The Holodomor is not a background that encourages people to communicate. A person doesn't want to talk to anyone. He has only one desire - to survive. Alyonka's communication comes from playing the whistle that her brother gave her.

This is also how the game can be understood by anyone. Let's imagine that Famine Way is played by a person from Norway who knows neither English nor Ukrainian. We can't translate it into all languages, but the lack of text gives the whole world a chance to get to know the story.

gg: What games were you inspired by when creating it?

Matvey: The first one is Gris. It's a story about a girl who loses her mother, and with that she loses her voice. The second game is Journey, because it also tells a story well without words. The third is Webbed, where players play as a spider. We generally wanted to show the Holodomor as Stork sees it, but then our co-founder Solomy joined us as a game designer. She finalised the script, and we decided that it would be much easier for the player to empathise with a human character. This character should be a child. That's how the girl Lenochka appeared, and the stork becomes her companion and assistant.

gg: Were there any other games you looked at? Because Famine Way is remotely similar to Valiant Hearts

Matvey: Yes, we looked at Valiant Hearts and This War of Mine, though it's more survival. But it was important for us to see how these games tackle serious topics.

Although Famine Way was still often compared to Fran Bow - it's a game about a girl with mental illness. Lenochka also has psychological disorders. She doesn't speak because of her injury, she has panic attacks, and she also has hunger dreams. The latter is characteristic of people who have experienced starvation.

But we weren't trying to copy the aforementioned games. We wanted to understand how these games communicated with the player through emotionality and narrative.

gg: Where did you get information about the Holodomor?

Matvey: It was a complex. The first was the books Yellow Prince and Klimko. We also watched and read the memoirs of eyewitnesses, but the film Famine 33 has the greatest influence on the project.

Although I can't say that our game is a direct reflection 100% of the historical event of any particular village or person.

Famine Way is a complex image of many stories that happened during the Holodomor period

gg: What exactly do you want to convey to the world with this game?

Matvey: We have several goals. To inform the English-speaking audience about the Holodomor, to reveal the dark sides of the Soviet Union, and in general to make people aware that genocides happened and happen all the time. Take the Great Famine of China or what Russia is doing right now in Ukraine.

We want to convey that these tragedies cannot be forgotten, because we see them happening again

We aim to appeal to humanity. After the game, a person should reflect on what makes him human? Are there moments where he ceases to be human?

Of course the game will affect everyone differently. It depends on life experience, cultural code, upbringing, age, religion and so on. However, there are common strings that we want to hook in most people.

gg: How do Alenka and the stork relate to each other?

Matvey: These characters are intertwined from the very beginning of the story. There is an injured stork that has a wing that is shot and cannot fly out of the village. This stork reaches Lenochka's house, who is left all alone. And here we want to show a moment of childlike kindness and humanity, which even can be in such a terrible time. Alyonka herself is hungry, what thoughts could she have? To eat the bird. But she can't do that. We show Lenochka as a pure, kind soul who has not fallen under the influence of viciousness and hatred. She remains a kind girl who cannot transcend herself and takes the stork with her.

And now they travel together to escape and find food. And later, when the stork gets better, it is no longer a burden for the girl, but an amulet and a saviour who can get food wherever a human can't reach.

We realise that in real life the girl and the stork would hardly be friends - it would be some kind of fairy tale, but in the circumstances of the famine - why not?

gg: How long will it take you to play the game?

Matvey: We're targeting somewhere around three hours. We want the player to get through Famine Way in an evening. We made the decision to make the story not too big, so that a person can go through it in one playthrough, get completely emotionally deep and experience the experience we offer.

We also plan to release a 30-40 minute demo in the winter/spring of 2024 so that players can already get to know the game.

gg: When is the full release planned?

Matvey: We want to release the game on the 24th of August 2024 on the Independence Day of Ukraine. However, if something goes wrong, we will release it as early as November on the 91st anniversary of the Holodomor.

gg: On which platforms will the game be available?

Matvey: On PC (Steam) and Android, iOS. But on mobile devices we want our game to be in subscriptions such as Apple Arcade and Play Pass. We will put the price at $3 for Ukrainians and $5 for others. We understand that on mobile devices games are not so actively bought, and it is unacceptable to add advertising or lootboxes for this game. That's why we are considering a subscription option.

On PC the game for Ukrainians will cost $5-6, and for others - $10-15, but we need to analyse this point.

gg: How did the studio react to the criticism from some Ukrainians, who were surprised by the decision to make a game about Holodomor?

Matvey: It didn't affect us negatively, because there will always be haters. We were also criticised that how can we make a game about the 90s, if we didn't live there. Well then games about the Middle Ages should not be made either.

If a person writes inadequate things, we just block him and that's it. Although we've done that maybe 10 times during the whole time.

We also understand that when our project evokes emotions in people, even if it is ambiguous emotions, it means that we have raised an important topic.

@stellarium.gaming Reply to user @distrorium Gaming is not just about entertainment. Expand your horizons???? #igriyukrainskoi #ukrainskii tiktok #holodomor #gamedev #indiegames #rozrobnik #vishlist ♬ Secret Place - Deeper Soaking Worship

gg: You've already been spoken about by Kremlin officials. Do you have a plan of action if the Russians launch a massive information attack on the game?

Matvey: There are different plans and strategies, but I think that we in the studio don't fully understand the scale that could await us, because for Russians the topic of Holodomor is a taboo.

Although we didn't think that we would be noticed so quickly in Russia, we knew that it would happen at some point. In general, we will prepare ourselves for various scenarios.

gg: What other project is the studio working on right now?

Matvey: Our third game is called Raven Soul. Although the name will probably change because there is a similar online MMO game that we don't want to be associated with. Right now we are in the concept and team building phase. It will be an isometric roguelike game inspired by Hades. The project will be based on Ukrainian mythology. The plot will be about a hero caught between the living and dead worlds. He gave his soul to protect his Cossack brothers, but they still died. And now he wants his soul back. And such a concept perfectly suits exactly for a roguelike.

Raven Soul artwork

gg: Where did the studio get the funding to make three games at once?

Matvey: It's more of a gathering of like-minded people. Most people in the studio have a day job or are students who are gaining experience. We don't have a full-time job yet. There is a list of tasks to be done by a certain time. However, the authors will get money from the percentage of the sold game they worked on. We are also thinking about publishers or additional funding, but right now we like complete freedom. In the future, though, we aim to get to the point where STELLARIUM is a full-time job for everyone.

gg: How do you get into your team now?

Matvey: It's simple. You can email us at and tell us exactly who you want to work for and what you are good at, and then we will communicate individually.

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