War is hell, although you wouldn’t know it from playing most videogames. Ever since designers figured out how to let gamers point and shoot a firearm, it’s been seemingly “okay” to relish in the destruction of our fellow man, without ever really thinking about the context of the killing taking place on screen. Now I like Modern Warfare and Bulletstorm as much as the next guy, but it takes a very different shade of game to really tap into the reality of war. Sometimes it takes a simple shift in perspective to make a tired setting feel completely new.
Enter This War of Mine, a strategic sim from Poland based 11 Bit Studios, the creators of the Anomaly series. As its title suggests, TWoM is all about the civilians affected by war, rather than the soldiers on the front line. In my case, I was put in charge of Pavle, a successful football player before the war, Bruno, a TV chef, and Marko, the group’s scavenger. The three men each possessed a vital skill that could be applied in their dismal situation: fast running, efficient cooking, and the ability to carry more weight respectively. I began by clearing out the house in search of vital supplies, and found enough food to last a day, as well as some medicine to cure Bruno’s sickness, and some parts for building items on the house’s workbench. Essential items like beds and heaters stave off fatigue and illness in the same way they would in The Sims, and seemingly less essential leisure items provide the refugees with entertainment; something to take their minds off the ever growing temptation to commit suicide.
After some successful scavenging missions in abandoned shacks and other ruins, I was beginning to think that surviving wouldn’t be so difficult after all. Everyone was healthy, I had a decent surplus of food and medicine, and I was starting to make great progress on the house; I had multiple beds, an upgraded workbench, and plans to start growing my own herbs. On his next scavenging mission, Marko encountered an all female group of survivors in a semi-detached house, all of whom were unsurprisingly skittish as they heard Marko’s footsteps echo throughout their home. I was informed that the woman positioned on a ledge above a valuable ammo crate would “shoot me on sight” if I showed myself. I really wanted that ammo. Marko jumped up onto the ledge and blindsided the woman with his fists, knocking her unconscious. He stole her shotgun, and used that as leverage against the other unarmed women in the house. At first I was satisfied with my work; the woman would recover and Marko could escape with precious food and materials. While I was looting said materials, though, I heard the screams of one of the other women as she held her friend: “Don’t leave us! Just keep breathing!” He had escaped, but Marko could not forgive himself.
On his next scavenging trip, he encountered a soldier who was attempting to solicit sexual favours from a women in a disused supermarket in exchange for food. When Marko opened the door to the supermarket, she ran away screaming, and in a blind fit of rage the soldier turned his gun on Marko. Marko was dead, and the group was without a designated scavenger. Pavle was the next best choice, since he could run fast and carry a reasonable amount of loot. His first mission was to revisit the place of Marko’s death and pick up any remaining supplies. A woman approached him in the supermarket, thanking him for Marko’s kind, if inadvertent, rescuing of the girl two nights previous. On Pavle’s next mission he was shot to pieces by rebel guards, but managed to limp home with severe wounds. He died two nights later when raiders attacked the house and beat him to death. Bruno returned home that night from a scavenge, and found his only friend in the world had been murdered for some shotgun shells. Starving and depressed, Bruno spent his last moments strumming mournfully on his newly built acoustic guitar. Then the demo ended.
This War of Mine is one of those special games that makes you feel unreasonable emotions towards completely minor players. Rather like in State of Decay, the simple act of surviving is so difficult and stressful, that things become a twisted battle of morality vs. necessity. One fine example of this was one of Marko’s raids on a nearby “Quiet House”, which was so-called because it was home to an elderly couple. I took almost all of their worldly possessions, despite the old man’s pleas for me to stop. I only left the medicine because he informed me that his wife was ill, something I could also tell from the strange things she was murmuring as I looted their house. I could have taken everything, but I chose to leave enough for them to at least treat whatever ailed her, despite the fact that they never posed any physical threat to me.
Moments like these make This War of Mine, harrowing and surprising in a way that’s reminiscent of random encounters in a Fallout game. Some moments display the absolute worst humanity has to offer – be it on the part of the NPCs or the player – and yet other moments offer up meagre glimpses of hope in an otherwise hopeless world. There’s really little else to say about This War of Mine, other than that it manages to craft deeply personal and saddening war stories, and it does so almost entirely through gameplay. Day time segments are all about careful planning, (real) moral choices, and resource management, while night time sections are all about approaching environments stealthily, predicting enemy paths, and choosing your loot wisely.
The game’s dark, grimy aesthetic is about subtle as a frying pan to the face, but it’s at least befitting of the game’s tone, as are the sombre piano tones that accompany every scene of sadness and desperation. This War of Mine offers up a simple, mechanical experience, but one that pays off emotionally in a big way. The UI and interactive icons are clear and easy to understand, and there’s never any need for tutorials, because there is only one goal: survival. This War of Mine might not be fun per se, but it’s a very well crafted, brutal game about the real consequences of war, and one that’ll stay with you long after you’ve thrown your mouse and keyboard into a furnace, necked a bottle of Jack Daniels and swallowed ten sleeping pills.
This War of Mine is about as brutal as games get, like if Cart Life and Spec Ops: The Line had a baby, and that baby spat on your neck.