This War of Mine – What We Think:
Two years in the making, This War of Mine from 11 bit studios aims to impart the senseless and unforgiving effects of the victims of war – on the general populace who must find a way through in spite of the odds. You begin in a blown-out building in the middle of a city locked down in the midst of a war. The city center has been cordoned off and the enemy will kill on sight.
You are cold, hungry and miserable and must immediately set to the task of aggregating essentials. This is done by clicking on symbols that represent various actions – from eating, sleeping, sitting in a chair, clearing debris, building something at a workshop station and so on.
End of Days Pass-times
That’s pretty much how you spend the day, and in fact I ended most days before noon, in other words, they are rather lean on variety of things to do. At night, you can delegate who rests, who stands guards and who scavenges from other properties. Scavenging is the only way (after you have cleared out your own building) to acquire resources other than barter with strangers who walk up to your property from time to time. Your various playable characters have different strengths and weaknesses (so be sure to use the one that has bartering prowess to do these negotiations).
You can decide which new property you want to explore any given night. New options open up all the time and you may survey anything from a burnt out cathedral to a department store, a car garage, construction yard, or a house. The set pieces are wonderfully designed and use a nice subtle parallax for the added perception of depth.
It is interesting how the game is built – you can zoom in and out of a building with the center wheel on a mouse, and also click and drag the whole window around. It feels like the whole level was built inside of a dynamic, giant object within which all the AI elements are handling things (as opposed to a fixed, static background that is little more than wallpaper).
You can build a radio which will give you sporadic reports on what is happening politically and tactically around the city and the war in general. Owning books alleviates boredom. Owning coffee and cigarettes alleviates bad moods. There are no stats on these, per se, or rather, there are but not visible to you in any way besides a small text description of the current state of being for each of your characters.
Clicking on a characters bio, however, will reveal a running journal for that character’s responses to various events. Getting a character out of a state of depression is no small task. You can also mouse over other characters to discover various symbols that initiate simple “discussions” about necessities or concerns.
There is a fairly healthy stealth component to the game – double clicking to move to a spot will make your character run which increases their detectability as demonstrated by a ripple-like area of effect. Enemies or living things moving about outside of your field of view will show small red circles plodding along. Sometimes you will find a little space you can hide in, accessed by clicking on a symbol for hiding in such nooks.
Black Monday Meets Bloody Sunday
Encounters with NPCs while scavenging will often prove fatal, but not every time. You can also equip weapons and return the favor. Sometimes encounters lead to some spoken exchanges via pop up text. If a character dies, other characters become very sad. For a few days. Over time, new characters may show up and take their place.
Besides being able to upgrade your various workshop stations (woodworking, electronics, metals, herbal and more), you can also eventually do some gardening so as to create your own self-renewing consumable resource. You can also upgrade from eating cold food to cooked. You can patch up your domicile and add a space heater.
Yes, You Saved My Life. No, I Will Not Help You Move
All of these options are nice, but nothing not found in most bleak, resource-management mechanics-based titles. One annoyance here is that once items are placed in a location, they can’t be moved. If I wanted to put my makeshift Coleman stove in the kitchen but already have chairs set up there, tough luck. I found this unnecessarily limited.
In other words, though on paper This War of Mine is presented as a platform for understanding the harrowing emotional journey of the victims of war, in practice I found it to be more like a standard non-zombie driven survival game. You can raid other people’s properties, cognizant that they aren’t so different than you. You can be raided and lose some much that you have worked for. You get injured, you get tired you get hungry but ultimately, that emotional link really didn’t manifest in my experience.
Technically, the game has randomized start location and characters upon launch of a new campaign, and the avatars feature wonderful charcoal-colored, film-like animation. The somber score by Piotr Musiał is…somber and dreamlike – a blend of trip hop, twangy guitar and MIDI orchestration – but repetitive after a while. This may be because there are only 7 tracks and none more than 3 minutes in length and I can’t fault the composer for that.
A Decent Apocalypse
All told, This War of Mine isn’t a bad game, but there are many survival games out right now that had me far more sweaty-palmed, heartbroken, contemplative and engaged. Here you are dealing with boredom, fatigue and depression. Personal stories painstakingly cataloged and imparted through short text snippets.
I get it. Social-awareness building games are an important part of the ecosystem – and games offer a unique platform for exploring challenging themes, but – like in acting or screenwriting – boredom and depression are not strong or necessarily compelling dramatic choices; they’re fine if the boredom leads to inventing Tyler Durton, but not as a standalone long-term effect.
There are moments that gave me pause – in an emotional way – for example, when a pair of riflemen are wantonly shooting civilians from the top of a construction building “That boy in the window” they say, before gleefully picking him off (offscreen). But these things are happening in an imposed way, rather than as a matter of choice on the part of the gamer.
Zombies Cure Depression?
As the game progresses, the degree of change diminishes. Sure, it gets colder outside, more people join your small commune and you must fend for them, but the game plateaus and then it just becomes a grind. This would be made worse if the game wasn’t so short. See also: Valiant Hearts, The Walking Dead: The Game, and Survivalist for excellent examples of how to manage this sort of scenario effectively from an emotional standpoint. Unfortunately, the two latter titles had zombies, but they ultimately resonated more powerfully for me, via legitimately difficult moral quandaries, on matters of personal human struggle, most likely because there is a far greater sense of agency in terms of the outcome.
All that in consideration, I would recommend you give the game a try, maybe at a friend’s house, or after a sale. I find the $20 price tag too high for the offering, but 11 bit studios has made a bold and thought-provoking effort nonetheless.
Watch the powerful trailer for This War of Mine.