This War of Mine - game title

Games have an awkward relationship with war. Most games embrace violence and conflict because they are very easily simulated by computers and mapped to a set of easy-to-understand mechanics. Computers aren't as good at understanding or reacting to speech or emotion as they are at allowing a character to move around in a space and at tracing the path of a bullet or artillery shell. So when a game is about war, it's almost always told from the perspective of a soldier, someone actively participating in the war. And that character's participation is usually presented as noble and honorable, with the people that you are shooting being given little - if any - humanization at all. In many cases, the games will go out of their way to de-humanize the player's opponents by presenting them as literal demons, aliens, or the so-easy-to-hate Nazis.

While there are plenty of examples of games that deal with the behind-the-scenes causes and effects of a war, or the politics of conflict, these elements very rarely appear as central gameplay elements (outside of grand strategy games like Civilization, Total War, or Europa Universalis). Usually, the player plays on the battlefield, and any politics or effects beyond the battlefield are just material for non-playable cutscenes. At best, you might end up with a game that puts the player in the middle of the battle, but which has civilian characters that play a large role in the story.

One of my favorite games of the PS2-era is Ace Combat 4, which is a jet fighter combat game that found a comfortable middle-ground between flight sim and arcade shooter. Its narrative revolved around a child living in an occupied city, who befriends the ace fighter pilot of the occupying nation's air force. The player, however, takes on the role of a nameless, faceless ace fighter pilot belonging to the opposing liberation force. This created a fascinating dichotomy in which your success in missions resulted in defeats for the enemy ace who was the focus of the narrative. He falls into depression and alcoholism as the player systematically shoots down his wingmen and friends, and it served to humanize both sides of the conflict and exposed the human cost of war. One man's victory is the other's defeat. Your own victories became increasingly bittersweet as the game neared its final mission. It was a beautifully constructed scenario that has stuck with me to this day. I suspect that This War of Mine will leave a similar impact on me.

This War of Mine - stockpile
The logistics of keeping your shelves stocked with food and medicine is the primary challenge.

This War of Mine also reminds me of my visit to the Imperial War Museum in Manchester, U.K. this past January. I was really surprised by the difference in presentation that museum had as opposed to most museums that I visit in the United States. Whereas a museum in the U.S. will focus on exhibits of weapons, uniforms, vehicles, battle tactics, and politics behind wars, the IWM was focused primarily around the civilian costs of the two World Wars. It featured exhibits about food and material shortages, how women had to work as battlefield nurses and in factories, and how supplies were moved between cities under siege. It presented the wars as much more personal and ignoble and focused on how it affected people's day-to-day lives, and how the majority of people simply had to live through it. That's the same approach that the Polish studio behind This War of Mine took for their survival game.

Behind the lines

This War of Mine doesn't take place on the front lines or the battlefields. Instead of controlling a soldier, you play as a group of survivors in a rebellious city under siege. You have found a shelled building that you have claimed as a shelter, and every night, you must send one of your group out to scavenge one of various sites around the city for food, medicines, and other supplies to enable your group to [hopefully] survive till the end of the war. In the meantime, those who stay in the shelter must contend with the risk of being raided by other survivors during the night and having your hard-earned supplies stolen from under your own nose - or worse: somebody being hurt or killed.

This War of Mine - shelter
Your close-knit group of survivors must build and defend a shelter and scavenge for supplies.

The result is a game loaded to the brim with choices and consequences. How do your survivors spend their daytime hours? What items do you attempt to craft from your middling inventory of supplies? How do you defend yourself from raids? Do you send your one gun out with your scavenger in case he runs into hostile bandits, or keep it at home to defend your shelter from raids? Who do you send out each night to scavenge? Where do they go? And what do they bring back with them? The "rogue-like" fashion of the gameplay means that there's no undoing and no retries. This, combined with the scarcity of resources, makes every choice, every action, and every death is permanent. This gives a great deal of weight to all those choices that the game gives you.

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Lifeless Planet

Being someone who appreciates good science fiction and has an interest in real-life space exploration, it's easy for me to become intrigued with any game that promises to let me explore an alien world. Lifeless Planet promised to let me do just that, so it was a no-brainer Steam Summer Sale purchase for me last year, despite the mediocre critical reviews.

The basic premise of the game is that you play as a colonist sent to alien planet thought to be rich in life and habitable for humans. You wake up from cryo-sleep to find your ship has crash landed and your two crewmates are missing. Worse yet, the planet you crashed on seems to be a desolate wasteland devoid of life.

Are you even on the right planet? If so, where's all the life?

Lifeless Planet - badlands
And we're off to find our missing crew-mates and figure out why the planet is lifeless.

From here, you set off to follow the tracks of your fellow crew mates in an attempt to find them and figure out where you are. Things get complicated very early on when you find a long-abandoned Soviet village. Wherever you happen to be, the Ruskies beat you to it!

But this just opens up even more questions: how did the Russians get here? And where did they all go? The mysteries behind these questions are supposed to be the driving force behind the game.

The bulk of the game, thus consists of wandering around the various alien landscapes in search of answers. This exploration requires a moderate amount of fairly trivial platforming, and you stop occasionally solve an elementary puzzle.

Platforming is mostly comfortable and works adequately. You have a malfunctioning jet pack that allows you a small boost to elevate you to higher platforms, jump longer gaps, or soften your fall. I had some occasional problems with the character sliding off of the geometry, and there were a couple areas late in the game that required multiple jumps without stopping that were difficult to control accurately. But other than that, the challenge of the platforming was minimal. The intended route is always obvious, so there was never any question about where I was supposed to go.

Lifeless Planet - jet pack
Your jet pack allows you to clear pitfalls and jump over large obstacles.

Puzzles aren't much more of a challenge. They are almost all environmental or physics puzzles that vary from "find the key" to "put the rock in the hole" to "push the boulders". There's nothing here that a grade-schooler couldn't figure out.

The rest of the game is just a steady walk along the linear paths ...

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Gone Home

I'm very late to the Gone Home bandwagon. It's a game that has been available for well over a year and a half. I've had it sitting in my Steam library for quite some time, but only just now got around to playing it, since I've been busy with other games and projects.

The game has already received piles and piles of critical acclaim, awards, and accolades, and I can't imagine that I have anything new to add to this conversation. It was very hard to go into this game without a bias considering that I already knew a bit about how it would play out, and that it's received overwhelmingly positive praise. But now that I've played it, I can say that Gone Home deserves every bit of praise that it receives!

Gone Home - family photo
The inclusion of real family photos
adds to the sense of realism.

The premise of Gone Home is that the player assumes the role of Kaitlin Greenbriar, a young woman arriving at her family's new house for the first time after a year of university abroad. She finds the house empty. Her younger sister apparently got into a fight with her parents and has run away. The player must explore the house to discover clues as to what happened in the family, why Sam ran away, and where she is now.

To discover the details of the situation, the player must explore the house, reading hand-written notes, looking at journals, looking at photographs, and picking up cues from the environment in order to piece together the story. Each note has distinct hand-writing, and by the end of the game, you'll even start to recognize the handwritings and know who wrote a particular note before you even pick it up.

By observing the house, reading notes, and hearing journal voice-overs, the player begins to piece together the family's story. The primary narrative revolves around a budding romance between Kate's younger sister, Sam, and a friend at school, and the conflict that comes from her parents' disapproval of the relationship.

Anyone who has ever had a crush or been in love (which is almost all of us) should be able to recognize and relate to elements of Sam's story, even if your situation doesn't mirror hers. The early notes depicting the excitement of getting to know someone new and falling in love were particularly powerful. Reading about Sam being shy in approaching her crush, and then finally having the feeling reciprocated is heartwarming. And the eventual roadblocks in the relationship are then equally heartbreaking.

Gone Home - Sam's room
The game is loaded with personality that makes the characters more substantial and real.

This story is made even more powerful by the absolutely perfect voice-over narration ...

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Miasmata

Although not a terrific game, the indie survival adventure game Miasmata (developed by Bob and Joe Johnson of IonFX) is an interesting title that does deserve to be played by its target audience. It's not a particularly challenging game, but players can back themselves up into seemingly insurmountable holes. Knowing the game's mechanics and rules - and knowing them early - is important to ensuring that you aren't forced to restart from the beginning or give up entirely.

Like with my previous strategy post for Alien Isolation, I am not going to provide specific walkthroughs for the game or any of its specific set piece challenges. In fact, doing so would be even harder than in Alien because Miasmata is a completely open-ended sandbox game. Instead, I will be offering some general-purpose tips that should be relevant for the entire game. This will include some techniques for working around the game's bugs and odd design flaws.

Miasmata - holding objective plant Miasmata - storage bin
Owl statues point towards a cache of medicinal plants, but they do not count as landmarks or show up on the map.

This should be a pretty obvious tip. If you find the plants that are used for the 3 parts of the cure, or the three emphasis drugs, you should immediately pick them and ...

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Miasmata

While looking for new survival horror games on Steam, I stumbled onto a very intriguing title: Miasmata. During my holiday break from work, I decided to boot up the game and see if it scratched my survival horror itch.

It didn't, on account of not actually being a survival horror game. But what I found instead was an equally interesting premise that immediately caught my attention and piqued my curiosity.

The Johnson brothers kept this game about as simple as it could possibly be (perhaps to its detriment). They had a core concept, and they stuck to it. As such, Miasmata is a very novel game. It is probably the only game that I've ever played that is solely about scientific research.

The end goal is to cure a disease that the character has contracted and then escape the island. This disease acts as the central challenge to the game: you have to periodically medicate yourself in order to control the symptoms, but all medications must be derived from the local flora. Failure to do so can slow you down, blur your vision, and eventually kill you. A sheer majority of the game, thus, consists of wandering around the island collecting samples of plants, and then returning them to the nearest laboratory to examine them and use them to concoct various potions. In addition to medicines, you can also create potions to enhance your physical strength and perception. Doing so will allow you to run and swim further, and allow you to always know your location on the map (respectively).

Miasmata - doing science
Stand back! I'm about to do SCIENCE!

Unfortunately, the process of analyzing the specimens is automated (via a skip-able cutscene). You don't actually have to do anything in order to figure out what the plant's effects are going to be, and no actual scientific knowledge is required by the player. Each plant also only has one effect, so the potion-making mechanic (which is the core of the game) is pretty shallow.

The effects of each plant will be noted in your journal, which is one of the best journal features of any game that I've ever played. It has a handy status page that includes pockets for storing your medicines, as well as holding your water flask. It also shows your objectives and has tabs to collected notes, your research results, and the map. The journal is also populated with hyperlinks that take you to the journal page with the relevant information. For example, if you find a note with ingredients for an objective drug, the status page will add a hyperlink to that note underneath the objective. It's every bit the journal that Silent Hill: Downpour wanted to have!

As you explore, you'll also find camps left behind by the deceased research team. These camps can contain notes that can reveal bits of backstory, provide recipes for various potions, or point you in the direction of key plant specimens. The camps also act as safe places for you to restock your supplies (including water), rest, and save your progress.

Keeping yourself hydrated and rested is important, as failure to do so can aggravate the symptoms of your illness and potentially kill you. Unfortunately, the feedback for this isn't terribly great. You'll get a notification when you're thirsty, but the game doesn't bother to tell you that you're tired. Instead, your health just starts rapidly deteriorating for no apparent reason. It took me a while to figure out that it was due to a lack of sleep.

Miasmata - pointless weapons
Combat mechanics are present,
but they don't have any affect.

A curious omission is that you don't have to eat. The game even includes various weapons scattered around the island, and there is an attack and throw command. But you can't attack the hostile panther-like creature that occasionally appears to hunt you, nor can you hunt and kill any of the game's various wildlife (beetles, squirrels, birds, and so forth). So you can only run and hide from the creature, and you only collect plants, which don't need to be attacked in order for specimens to be collected. So why are the weapons and attack mechanic even in the game?

Probably the second most significant mechanic is the map triangulation feature. Instead of revealing the map passively as you walk through it, the player must actively identify the location of landmarks ...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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