As sensitive as it is brutal, a truly effective dissection of what war really means to the people caught in its clutches.
Developer: 11 Bit Studios
Publisher: 11 Bit Studios
Released: November 14, 2014
When one mentions war and videogames in the same breath, a distinct common image is brought to mind. That image is shaped like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Medal of Honor, a shape that brings with it intense feelings of empowerment, of taking down “insurgents” with a flick of the wrist, knifing friends in the back with wanton glee, and summoning helicopters to cut fools in twain. Most videogames are about the acquisition of strength, of feeling like a mighty hero, and military shooters have come out on top as the most popular power fantasy of them all. This is by no means a bad thing, of course, but the market is undeniably stuffed with the same old guts n’ glory experiences. This War of Mine takes a wildly different approach, presenting a war game with the gravity it’s deserved for a long time, and giving us something distinctly human in the process. Depressing, paranoid, and thoroughly morbid… but all too human.
The principal characters of This War are not soldiers. They’re not champions. They don’t even possess basic survival skills. They’re people caught under the shadow of an armed conflict, the innocent bystanders in a war that was not of their making. Unfortunate enough to miss the evacuation run, the player’s stable of individually controlled characters are left to fend for themselves in the shelled ruin of a city. It’s impossible to leave shelter during the day thanks to snipers, and supply runs during the night are fraught with potential peril. As overseer of these survivors, randomly selected from a stable of pre-set individuals, the player’s job is to set tasks, have the survivors scavenge for items, craft things such as utilities and furniture, and secure the home base from an increasing threat of raiders. Using a simple point-and-click interface, characters are selected and guided to interactive objects, where they will hunt for material, cook food, build weapons, or perform other sundry jobs.
During the day, all the characters can be commanded piecemeal to maintain the base shelter, as well as eat, take medication, and sleep whenever necessary. At night, party members can choose to rest, guard the headquarters, or go out to forage for crucial supplies. Scavenging is a potentially risky venture, but it’s required to keep a stock of food, meds, and crafting materials. Choosing safer locations is a good way to grab stuff without getting into trouble, but when things get too desperate, and one needs a jar of pills in a hurry, the player may have to prepare to steal, fight, or even commit murder for it. Playing it safe, attempting a stealthy robbery, or going for a brutal smash-and-grab are all possible paths, and they all have consequences.
This War of Mine is mired in hopelessness from the very start. Trying to balance out the need for materials, food, and medication is difficult, and as characters get sick or depressed, it becomes harder to maintain morale and stave off the threat of death. Characters may have to face dark choices, and one’s decisions can come with grave mental costs. One may rationalize that their party needs the supplies more than the old couple in their fragile homestead, but it won’t stop the survivors succumbing to guilt over their murky theft. Getting into altercations and taking another’s life may have even worse effects, leading to depression or the full-out spiritual breakdown of a character.
Status effects are a major part of the game, and dealing with them all efficiently is as crucial as it is near-impossible. Building beds is a good way to fight tiredness, but anybody sleeping (Anton) is somebody who could be working. Cooking food is the best way to stop hunger, but the fuel used could be utilized elsewhere. Characters will get sick and incur wounds, but finding the medicine and bandages can be particularly difficult. Building furniture and finding relaxing items such as cigarettes and books will improve morale, but man, those items could make great currency if a trader knocks at the door with more practical goods on offer. Surviving more than a few days in the city is a balancing act, one that requires failure to truly understand. Failure in any single direction can prove fatal in the long-term, however, because this is a game all about crushing one’s hope and kicking the dog when it’s down – in a surprisingly tasteful way.
In my first campaign attempt, which lasted fifteen in-game days, things started off fine but quickly spiraled out of control. I was slowly building up a nice little nest for Katia, Doug, and Pavle, but I had learned all too late that barricades for the shelter were crucial, and by the time a crime wave hit the city, I was unable to stop bandits stealing supplies while I was out scavenging. Katia had robbed the aforementioned old couple to keep our heads above water, and was overcome with sadness as a result. Pavle was constantly sick, the illness had spread to Doug, and any medication procured proved ineffective. Things got worse when I attempted to have Katia stop a soldier from assaulting another woman, brandishing her hatchet and hoping to take him down before he hurt his victim. I soon learned that a hatchet was no substitute for an assault rifle, as the soldier effortlessly knocked her back and gunned her down. Doug and Pavle were broken by the death, while newcomer Anton struggled to keep them together despite arriving with severe wounds that we couldn’t bandage. Doug eventually abandoned the group. Anton died of his injuries. Pavle committed suicide shortly after.
This is not a game you “win” in the traditional sense. While there is an end, with a long and arduous number of days that must be survived, the sacrifices and losses along the way will be too great to ever allow for such crude concepts as victory. This War of Mine is not about glamorizing conflict, nor is it about succeeding. Unlike the comparable (and damn good) State of Decay, where the hoarding of goods and crafting of comforts feel rewarding, everything in This War comes at a cost, and no matter how much one may try to squirrel away resources, the survivors can never escape the feeling of just barely holding it together, of living hand to mouth, with one false move threatening to destroy everything. This consistent sense of hopelessness is something that could easily turn off an audience – after all, very few people play games in order to be confronted by futility – but the tone is consistent and upfront enough that it works absolutely perfectly. One immediately understands how this game is going to go as soon as it begins, and that honesty keeps one thoroughly intrigued, desperate to keep hanging on, rather than discouraged from continuing. You know this is going to go badly… how badly is just too morbidly curious a case not to explore. Besides which, if rogelikes can kick us in the teeth and keep us returning for more, this has definitely earned the right.
This War of Mine has been described as a post-apocalyptic game by some, and it’s hard not to compare it to more sci-fi laden premises. It’s telling that we fortunate folk are only able to relate to the events of This War in terms of science fiction, but the truly chilling thing about it is how grounded in reality it is. This is not a game about zombies or nuclear fallout – it’s set in a city that has been shelled by humans using conventional weaponry, now populated by desperate civilians, some of whom will kill to survive or otherwise use the situation to commit their own brand of atrocity. In fact, the game draws inspiration from real-life accounts, a fact that further hammers home just how disturbing it all is. This is a game about what it means to survive in this world, not some far-off fantasy realm. It’s something the privileged among us will never be able to really understand, but this game’s come closer to confronting it than any other piece of entertainment software.
Where other videogames beat you across the head with their so-called “moral choices” and “emotional” scenes, This War of Mine carries itself with a subtle and quiet reserve. You don’t choose between pressing X to kill the baby and Y to donate $100,000 to charity. You simply find yourself in situations and you deal, finding out through your natural, unprompted decisions just how low you’re willing to sink in order to survive. Should you allow yourself to buy into its world, This War will chew you up and spit you out in a humbling, sobering fashion. While big-budget games are still struggling to hide the obvious “Moral Choice Flowchart Fun Ride” that poorly masquerades as adult narrative, the people at 11 Bit Studios have produced a modest little sidescroller that drips with genuinely evocative atmosphere, tugs mercilessly at the soul, and does so with a fine distinction that more expensive titles could only wish to achieve.
A somber, but smartly understated, soundtrack is married to a muted color scheme of predominant greys and browns, with graphics that evoke pencil sketches. It’s a bleak visual style, to be sure, but it’s perfect for a game steeped in stark tragedy. It elevates the game’s sad tone, rather than simply looking murky. It’s not flashy, it’s not overbearing in its graphical misery. It’s simple, clean, and effectively tells exactly the story it needs to, just like the game overall. The dialog text is sometimes undone by some glaring typos, and controlling each character can get a little tedious, especially as you have to scroll all over the screen to issue commands, but there’s nothing too aggravating in the mechanics department. Animations are minimalist but smooth, and the game overall runs beautifully well.
I can’t fairly say I enjoyed playing This War of Mine, because that’s not exactly the point. This game makes you miserable, and rightly so. However, I want to emphasize that this is not just one big overwrought tearjerker, manipulating its audience with high-handed anguish. What truly sets This War of Mine apart is its dignity. It doesn’t trade in its message for cheap cry-bait, and it doesn’t batter you senseless with its despondency. Don’t expect to be presented two dramatically contrasting, woefully transparent choices and then watch the game preen itself over how clever it’s been. You’ll be dropped into a blighted world and be left to figure out your own path, making fatal mistakes and incurring tragic losses before coming to the conclusion that precious few videogames have ever had the nerve to draw…
… War is hell.