This War of Mine is a great game about survival, hope, loss, despair, companionship... but oddly enough not about war.
This War of MinePublisher: 11 Bit Studios
Developer: 11 Bit Studios
Platforms: PC (reviewed)
Release Date: 2014-11-14
This War of Mine is a great game, but not in the way it wants to be. It's an excellent emergent game about survival, hope, loss, despair, companionship... but oddly enough, not about war. It wants to be an alternative to Call of Duty and Battlefield, games that glorify conflict and combat, by showcasing a war from the point of view of the civilians caught in its path. It wants to portray the devastation and cost of war instead of its glory, but the war in This War of Mine is ironically absent from the game.
You never have to worry about soldiers forcing their way into your home. You never have to worry about a forced curfew. You never have to wait in line for rations. You never have to hide rebels or hide from rebels or hide from anything. You never have to watch friends or neighbors executed for committing a mundane crime. You never have to worry about getting caught in a crossfire. You never have to worry about being shelled at random. You never have to worry about the war. It’s just literal background noise, gunfire and explosions that will never hurt you.
Separatists have taken over the capitol and the national army has surrounded the city, cutting off all supplies for a year. This is when the player enters the story, taking control of a group of survivors. That time jump is frustrating as it allows This War of Mine to be weirdly apolitical towards its own conflict. People don’t talk about the separatists and the nationalists. They only ever talk about “The War” as its own proper noun, as if it was a living, thinking thing of its own. Even the graffiti just says, “Fuck the War.”
Is this a city under enemy occupation, or is it a city under siege by the enemy? This context is important because each scenario encourages different survival tactics. If we’re under enemy occupation, I’d be less willing to steal from civilians and more willing to steal from the separatists. If we’re under siege, then survival is more of a free-for-all because there’s no common enemy within reach.
For example, when I raid an errant supply drop for food, who am I stealing from? Was this drop meant for the separatist military, or was it meant for other civilians? In one case, I’m stealing. In another, I’m not. When the military then comes by to question me about the raid, are they hunting down the robbers because we stole their supplies or because the supplies were meant to be rationed out equally? Do I hate the separatists, or are they trying to maintain order in a city that’s eating itself alive?
Even when you do interact with soldiers, they feel like less of a military force and more like an organized group of survivors. They’re the Brotherhood of Steel from Fallout 3. They have weaponry and supplies and talk about the greater good, but they’re just as likely to shoot you as they are to save you. In fact, Fallout 3 is a good reference point for This War of Mine. The games feel too similar. In This War of Mine, you live in the bombed out shell of a house, you scavenge for food and basic supplies, and you barricade yourself against raiders. Society has broken down, there is no more community, and I have no more neighbors. This is a not a war. It's just another post-apocalyptic wasteland.
However, while This War of Mine is a poor exploration of how war affects a civilian population, it’s an excellent exploration of the limits of human desperation.
This War of Mine is like a combination of The Walking Dead and The Sims. It’s an interpersonal “god game” (like The Sims) that’s interested in the lengths we’re willing to go to survive and how the constant threat of death affects morality with a slow drip-feed of hope to prevent us from just giving up (like The Walking Dead).
The game works best when it lets its mechanics speak for themselves, like when I sent my survivor Pavel to rob an elderly couple and he fell into a suicidal depression upon returning. After days of reassurance and recovery, I sent him back to the home, but the couple had disappeared. While Pavel lamented their fate, he wasn’t saddened by it. He had become hardened. Granted, that's a pretty basic character arc for anyone in a survival story, but what's impressive is that the game sent him on that arc using only its emergent character states.
My own emotional arc through that experience is just as important. I had equipped Pavel with a knife beforehand. A brand new knife, our only knife. I entered that home ready to kill, wanting to kill even, only to have all that preparation undercut by the fleeing seniors. I was still looking for an excuse to fight even as Pavel freely raided the house: When the woman ran upstairs, I was convinced she was getting a gun, and I considered killing her husband in protest, just to ensure I couldn’t be flanked. Nothing happened. As Pavel walked to the exit, I considered my paranoia.
This is a world that encourages violent paranoia. My other survivor, Katia, was beaten within an inch of her life after being caught robbing a previous house. That’s why I gave Pavel the knife. Was I being excessive, or was I just lucky that the seniors didn’t have a gun? Should I use even more force next time, or would that finally drive Pavel to suicide? Maybe I should make Bruno my killer to spare Pavel the bloody hands.
This War of Mine wants us to consider our own moral limits, but also those of the characters we control. What are they willing to do, and how far can we push them before they break?
When Pavel returned home, I immediately cooked the dying Katia some food, then used the supplies to build her a radio. I encouraged her not to give up hope even as Pavel was losing his. This is This War of Mine at its finest. When its mechanical systems of injury, emotional states, hunger, and supply scarcity are allowed to speak for themselves, they speak of the frailty of civilization, the survivalism of fear, the impracticality of hate, the practicality of paranoia, but also the caring bonds borne of mutual desperation.
Later in the game, I decided to let Bruno die when he became too wounded to be of use. I stopped feeding him, then forced him to stay awake and guard at night in order to make him exhausted. Yet Bruno wouldn’t die. He starved for days, longer than I thought possible, and then those soldiers that I mentioned previously came by asking about the supply crate that was raided. They didn’t suspect me, so I gladly ratted out my co-conspirator for food and coffee beans. Suddenly I had extra food, so I cooked Bruno a meal and bandaged his wounds.
Emergent storytelling works best when the systems at play subvert our expectations and plans. Bruno lived despite my every effort, and his tenacity is inspiring: A story of survival in spite of a death sentence handed down by a mad god, a character rebelling against his author, but most importantly, it's a story to encourage hope in this depressing world.
Emergent games like this usually struggle with theme, with making your actions seem meaningful within a larger context. They’re usually content to be experiences of pure plot, but This War of Mine savors its moments of complex drama. It doesn’t just want us to survive. It wants us to consider what that means and what that’s worth. It never forces us to be cruel, but it never holds us back from cruelty either. It allows us to experience the entire gamut of desperation. From the moment that you flee a fight with just half a backpack of supplies because you want to play it safe, to the moment when you push forward with a suicidal tenacity because one housemate just died of a cold and the other hung himself and you're so hungry, weak, and exhausted that you'll just die on the floor if you go back now, so fight on and fuck the world because if you don’t become Death, you’ll succumb to it.
It’s powerful stuff, just maybe not quite in the way the developer intended.