With the 1992–96 Siege of Sarajevo of the Bosnian War serving as its inspiration, This War of Mine does a lot of things with the notion of war that many videogames simply don’t.
Take for example the interface; rather than staring down the painstakingly-rendered barrel of gun and engaging in a gritty game of 3D Whack-A-Mole, 11 Bit Studios effort instead takes on a 2D, side-on perspective in which the environment can only be navigated with point and click controls that work perfectly. Elsewhere, rather than cast the player as a highly trained, health-regenerating killing machine with a raging hard-on for mass destruction and QTE events, This War of Mine instead sticks players in the shoes of civilians who, in the midst of a raging war, must survive with whatever they can get their hands on.
It certainly evokes a much more low key affair than the Hollywood aping set-pieces that so often permeate games about war these days, yet, it proves to be never less than utterly engaging and the game’s novel take on war and conflict is easily most refreshing thing to come along in a long time.
Upon starting a new game, players are thrust into a crumbling urban domicile with three randomly chosen survivors and a procedurally generated neighborhood. Each of the survivors has a biography and certain aspects that they excel at such as cooking, negotiating and so forth. Once into the game proper though, the game pretty much refuses to hold your hand in the obvious sense that games have conditioned us to expect as the complete lack of any sort of explicit tutorial means that players have to work out what needs to be done on their own. Luckily, occasional monologues from each of the survivors provides a handy notion of where to go next, but regardless, some sort of tutorial or reference would have been nice to have all the same.
In short, hunger, happiness, sleep and health are the four things that need to be kept perpetually in check, lest the numbers of your group start to dwindle. Knowing exactly how to do this in the early going however, proves a little difficult and random acts of discover soon prove to be common occurrences.
Indeed, the absence of a tutorial proves to be a tad irritating at first, since you just end up stomping about your ruined abode digging through piles of dirt and collecting materials that you have no clue what to do with. Soon enough though, you begin to realise that certain materials can be combined with one another to create furniture, workbenches, stoves and more to aid in the effort of your group remaining attached to their mortal coils. So, it becomes that the act of rummaging through every crevice of your crumbling house becomes less an aimless act and instead a much more focused and directed one, as you strive to milk your starting area of every last resource it has secreted away in its myriad of splintered desks and rusty cabinets.
When night rolls around, the dynamic of the game changes dramatically. Here, players are confronted with a choice to make. One member of the group is required to embark on a scavenging run for supplies while others must remain at home and assume other roles such as sleeping to eradicate tiredness or standing guard in order to combat a potential raid on your own supplies by other bands of like-minded scavengers. Choosing which area to scavenge also introduces a number of important variables to consider, such as the type of resources you might find (food, weapons, materials etc.) and more importantly, the level of risk that each area encompasses.
Bringing a weapon is seldom a bad idea on these runs.
When scavenging, you have only a very finite amount of backpack space with which to ferry objects back to your house, so taking care of priorities, such as food shortages, a need for medicine, books to lighten the mood or materials with which to fashion basic defenses should always take precedence. Additionally, collecting other useful items such as crowbars to wrench open doors, or shovels to make the act of digging much easier also become important considerations that must be weighed against other resources that can be collected.
Where This War of Mine really sticks the knife in between your ribs however, is when you meet other survivors for the very first time and in particular those who are weaker and less capable than you are. In one example, I embarked on a scavenger hunt for some coffee and books (our morale had been plummeting for the last six days prior and we needed something to improve the mood).
In this instance, I stumbled upon a son trying to look after his father who appeared to be afflicted with some sort of painful condition. After rummaging about in their apartment, the son took offence and after numerous verbal warnings opened fire. In a fit of desperation I killed him with a kitchen knife and then meted out the same fate to his father out of pure panic as he reached for his gun. The thing is though, the choices on offer here were anything but binary; this wasn’t the game acting out some script on a 1/0 value that I chose, I was in control the whole time. Certainly, I could have traded with them (the son was willing to offer me a premium for medicine to aid his ailing dad) or I could have merely scavenged around the outside of the building and left it at that, but instead I essentially ended their lives so my group could cling onto life for a little longer.
In a way, it actually felt like this experience actually imprinted on me as a person to some degree. Never has a video game made me feel so absolutely awful and disgusted with myself to the point where I had to physically stop playing for a little while.
The act of killing takes such a terrible toll on your group survivors, too. These aren’t conditioned soldiers who have been taught to expect that taking another life is an act that comes as naturally as breathing, these are everyday people thrown into dire, unpredictable circumstances where their need to survive violently manifests itself and causes tremendous mental and emotional trauma as a result, causing them to become lethargic and uncaring in their attitudes.
Katia, the perpetrator of the raid then proceeded to spend the next seven days suffering from severe depression, which, in her mostly bed-ridden state due to extreme exhaustion, could only be partially alleviated by rolled up cigarettes, warm meals (which aren’t easy to come by) and kind words from the other two survivors. Refreshingly, This War of Mine is a game that brilliantly quantifies the emotional impact of war with real gameplay ramifications and as such, there is nothing quite like it on the market.
The thrill of creating some new equipment for your group or nursing a sick, wounded or depressed survivor back to life is a palpable one that replicates itself many times and so, while This War of Mine is capable of self-loathing, it deftly balances it out with moments of true satisfaction and hope. Indeed, in terms of its title, This War of Mine isn’t merely a reference to the external, physical war that it’s inspired by but instead one to the inner conflict and turmoil of morals versus pragmatism.
Simply put, you either die an innocent or you survive long enough to become what you despise.
Games like Battlefield and Call of Duty depict war in situations that we are comfortable with because the vast majority of us will never experience such flights of fancy. This War of Mine however, asks in no uncertain terms if war was to break out in your town or city, would you be prepared to rob and steal from your neighbour to keep your family and friends alive? If push came to shove, would you kill that person who you saw at the supermarket the other day if they threatened your family to save their own?
These aren’t faceless, humanity-bereft clone-a-goons in which machismo oozes from every pour, these are people with families and friends who want to survive as badly as you do but who, for the most part, haven’t twigged onto the fact that to do so they need to proffer fragments of their soul to make it happen.
Really then, This War of Mine feels like a dark engineer of broken beings both inside the game and outside of it; an affair that can twist even the most affable person into a vile paragon of base nihilism and grim intention all in the name of survival. It’s perhaps fitting then, that with the contemporary depiction of war in videogames being one which is so stiflingly glamorized as some sort of twisted Hollywood power trip, that This War of Mine is the perfect antithesis to that mentality and one that brilliantly and also disturbingly, showcases war in the sort of light that most of us will hopefully never know.
This War of Mine was developed and published by 11-Bit Studios. This title is currently available for PC, Mac and Linux and can be bought here.
PC review code was kindly supplied by the developer for the purposes of this review.