William Cleary reviews a game depicting war from the point of view of civilians caught in the crossfire. Some parts of this review could be considered spoilers. There are events and periods of time that happen in every playthrough, but since so much is determined by your choices, it is not especially narrative driven. As such none of these ‘spoilers’ are likely to impede your enjoyment of the game.
In existing strategy and first-person shooter games you can battle on the side of just about any empire or freedom fighter imaginable, whether historical, recent, or fictional. There is no such glory for those with no stake in the fight. In This War of Mine, by the Poland-based game developers 11 Bit Studios, you are in control of a small group of civilians with nothing in common who have sheltered together with just one ultimate objective: survival.
Your bare shelter is located in the devastated fictional city of Pogoren, caught up in a conflict between a rebel group and the military. Everyone in your small group, which starts out as three of twelve playable characters, has a backstory that explains their unique talent. Zlata is a musician who was accepted to study at a music academy shortly before war broke out, and is able to cheer up the other housemates. Bruno was a celebrity chef, making him best placed to do the cooking around the house. These and the ten other characters, with their unique abilities, have varying degrees of usefulness in a survival situation. Daytime is to be spent improving the shelter, cooking, and making other resources; at night, one out of your party can scavenge and steal from another location, such as a hospital, church, or military outpost. The others stay behind and sleep or stay on guard. (At this stage, the game is being, and will be, frequently updated. Initially the character selection was random. Now, after completing it once, you have the option to choose your favourite characters, or the worst three to give yourself a challenge. In the same update a new shelter was added, which I look forward to playing around with.)
The main innovation of this game has already been pointed out by every critic and probably every player: that it is a war game that does not glorify war; the aim is simply to see the other side of it. This is quite a statement, and very refreshing. It is even more of a statement when considering the social realist style and lack of mythical or sci-fi threats. In other words, zombies or sentient machines do not stand in the place of a real threat: a very believable civil war. When playing you can make educated guesses about the location and conflict, based on the characters’ names as much as anything. The senior writer Pawel Miechowski cites an anonymous account of the Bosnian war as an inspiration in an interview for Rock, Paper, Shotgun. In the same interview he says, “The reason the game is not taking place in any particular siege is that we want to be totally away from any political meaning and also deliver the message that it can happen anywhere and at any time. When it happens it doesn’t matter if you’re English, Polish, Jewish, Arabic – you’re a human and you need to survive.”
An attempt to depoliticise civil war is about as hopeful as trying to depoliticise an election. By its nature, the game makes a political statement. Nevertheless the history and politics of the war is not a feature of the game in the slightest: the human element completely dominates. There is no suggestion of who the good guys are. They often ask themselves, “When will this war end?” Another line your characters can say is, “I wonder who is worse… rebels or the military?” There are some tiny clues to the ideologies underlying the conflict, but not much worth reading into. One of the loading screens has a wall with the words ‘Welcome to hell!’ in graffiti, with the Hungarian word for nationalism written underneath as a separate piece of graffiti.
Though your party are not militants on either side of the war, you are not absolved from violence. It’s very hard to complete the game without murdering, and impossible without stealing. But even this has to be calculated for your own survival. In my first attempt I made the mistake of playing This War of Mine like a war game, by thieving and killing indiscriminately, even when the victim was not an obvious threat. This led to my characters becoming depressed early on. This slows them down and, if their situation doesn’t improve, they can become “broken”, un able to eat or perform any useful task. Upon learning that my characters could become sad and depressed (they can also be ‘content’ if you play exceptionally well), I felt that this made the game more honest and realistic, making it impossible to complete the game solely through calculations based on the relative values in the game.
There are countless examples of this in ‘resource management’ type games, but Sid Meier’s Civilization V works well as an example. To win on the higher difficulty levels in Civ V, you need to know and be able to work out how the different elements in the game (culture, food, production, etc.) intersect, and exactly what you can get out of trades. Happiness and unhappiness exist in Civ V, but they are calculated by the amount of luxury goods you have and how many people/cities are in your empire. You are told exactly what the level of happiness will do to your empire on what turns. This War of Mine can compel you to make genuinely ethical choices since others are struggling to survive as well. As Miechowski puts it, “If you do worse things you can feel the consequences of what you’re doing.” Since each character’s happiness is explained only in one word, not by percentages, it is harder to treat it simply as just another variable by which you can plan your next move. That doesn’t mean to say that the emotional states make for a completely unpredictable, truly human experience. You can still reason that, for example, because of what you stole from the sick elderly couple, you can make a guitar or radio to stop your party from becoming depressed.
One trend I usually find disappointing is for a game to so nearly imitate real life that the goal is something so ordinary and possible that you might want to achieve it in your own life. Mainly I’m thinking of the games in The Sims series, with the exception of the SimCity games. If you can’t get a full-time job, meet new people, or feed yourself, perhaps you’ll have better luck with your Sims character. (A parallel criticism could be made of children’s toys.) Isn’t it much more fun to have some abstract objective as in a sport, or something normally impossible to do like conquering the world or robbing a bank? This War of Mine is much more uncomfortably close to real life than The Sims, which includes fantasy and sci-fi devices such as the grim reaper or alien abduction. Yet, against the odds, I wasn’t bored by it at any point. Maybe it was the knowledge of what’s at stake, or genuinely wanting my characters to keep going that maintained my interest.
This War of Mine is a platform game in which you are nearly always against the clock and nothing is turn-based, but the pace and nature of the tasks make it seem counterintuitive to call it an action game. ‘Real-time strategy’ is the best descriptor. There are no jump-scares or horrific graphic images, but there is still an element of fear and urgency, especially when you are close to being caught stealing, or make a loud noise by mistake, or need to quickly leave a location. I would describe This War of Mine as gripping, intense, and innovative, but never fun. There is very little pay-off if you do complete it, i.e. if you survive, and there is no guarantee that your characters will ever return to their normal life, so the game serves as a tribute to all those who suffer through times of war and receive no medal of honour.
This review was originally published on Das Krapital.