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.
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.
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.
There's also a natural sense of escalation. As your valuable supplies dwindle, and as you pick clean the safer sites near your shelter, you must send your scavenger further away and into more danger. The invading army will also move in and lock down certain sites, and other sites may be inaccessible due to weather conditions, so that you'll have to look elsewhere. The onset of winter can also make your characters sick, forcing you to have to find more medicine and food in order to keep them alive.
The game utilizes several methods
of escalating the risk over time.
You can never get complacent. Even if you think you've got the salvaging optimized, you might return to the shelter in the morning with a backpack full of exactly the items you needed to craft the next tool(s) on your checklist, only to find that your shelter had been raided, one of your comrades has been seriously wounded, and the very bandages he needs to survive had been stolen. These factors will likely force you to resort to raiding and stealing from other survivors in order to keep yourself and your companions alive. It might even force you to have to kill.
If you ever wanted to play The Sims: Refugee
The gameplay plays out like a combination of The Sims and virtually any other post-apocalyptic survival game. You search through decrepit remains of bombed-out buildings for scraps of food, bandages, lumber, duct tape, and so on, you use them to craft weapons and appliances for your shelter, and you also manage the individual needs of your group of survivors. You don't have to tell them when to go to the bathroom or micromanage their social interactions, but you do have to feed them, give them time to sleep, keep them warm and dry, and treat them when they are sick or wounded. You might also need to make them console each other if events cause anyone to become depressed. You'll also need to provide them with books to read, cigarettes to smoke, and other modest entertainment needs that they'll automatically use during the day.
Areas not within line of sight are obscured, so you have to peep through doors to find out what's ahead.
Fail to take adequate care of your survivors, and they will become wounded, sick, and possibly die. They can also become depressed by witnessing certain traumatic events or if another survivor in the shelter dies. If the depression is not resolved, they can potentially stop performing assigned actions, and may eventually leave the shelter or kill themselves. I'm not sure how bad things need to get for this to happen, since I never actually witnessed it in any of my games prior to writing this review.
Stealth mechanics during your nightly salvage runs are also tense due to effective line-of-sight and sound mechanics. Areas not in your line of sight are obscured, and those areas may contain thugs, rebels, or soldiers who might shoot and kill you on-sight. You can peek through peepholes in doors to slowly reveal what's on the other side. People and things that generate sound (including your character) will emit a visible sound wave that shows where the sound is coming from and how strong it is. This lets you know where possible threats are (though they may just be rats), and it gives you an idea of whether or not your attempts to force open a locker with a crowbar might be making enough noise to alert nearby people.
Loud noises emit visible sound waves to identify the location of possible threats,
and to indicate whether or not your own activity will alert nearby people.
The game doesn't come with any kind of tutorial, which means that you'll likely end up restarting several times while you get the hang of the game. You'll want to make sure you read all the text and descriptions that are present so that you'll know which items are worth crafting and what supplies you'll need to look for. The interface is mostly comfortable and intuitive. My only major gripe is that you can't move items in your shelter once you craft them. So if you build a chair or a bed, you can't move it to a different room if you need to rearrange to make space for something else later. I like permanent consequences for choices, but this one's a little ridiculous. At least the placement of objects rarely seems to be relevant to its effectiveness. A rainwater catcher seems to work just as well in any room on the top floor, and heaters heat the entire shelter instead of just the room it's in.
You can't move a chair to make room
for other crafted infrastructure.
You also can't open up any of the crafting menus without sending a character over to the relevant crafting station. So if you just want to remind yourself of how much more lumber you need to build that bed your characters want, you have to march someone all the way to the workstation and activate, which uses up some of your valuable time. This is partly the result of the game treating both right and left-clicking as the same "select" command. So the game doesn't have any way to context-click something to learn more info. You're always either selecting something or someone, or you're activating something or telling a character to move to a location. It's inconvenient, but not game-breaking.
The last little frustration that I had with the game had to do with the barter mechanics. I kept getting messages on the radio telling me that coffee was in short supply, and that it's value had increased in the city. So I wasted some inventory space trying to take some of my coffee out at night to try to trade it. But every trader I came across didn't seem to value my coffee any more than any other "common" item. Even the trader that visits your shelter during the day didn't seem to value coffee any higher. What was I missing? Am I supposed to take the coffee to one specific place to get the higher trade value? Does this simply not work due to a glitch?
Despite radio broadcasts extolling the value of coffee, its trade value never seemed to go up for me.
Something that This War of Mine does exceptionally well is creating informal, emergent, procedural narratives. There aren't cutscenes or dialogue, but each character starts with a bio which gets updated as significant events occur. The bio will also regularly be updated with backstory about the characters. Situations crop up every few days that provide opportunities for you to build character and personality for your survivors. You have to go a bit out of your way to make sure that you remember to read the bio updates, so it can actually be very easy to miss these details. Without them, the game can feel very cold and detached. But with the flavor text, there is a sense of an evolving narrative that provides insight into the struggles that normal people must go through during war.
When a fellow refugee comes to the door asking for help, you can chose to provide the help, or deny them. Some characters may be happy that you are helping others and will become sad if you refuse. Other characters might even get annoyed or frustrated that you are freely offering up your own group's hard-earned resources to complete strangers. These disagreements never seemed to make a significant impact, which makes the feature feel a bit incomplete. I think the worst that ever happened was that a character stopped doing what he was assigned to do in order to complain about another character. All I had to do was reassign him, and he finished the task anyway.
The other people you meet might be benevolent, and sometimes, you can even offer aid to your fellow survivors.
The game is also very humanizing, even as it strips your own humanity from you. Sure there are other scavengers and raiders who might steal your stuff or kill your characters, but the game is also populated with people who are genuinely benevolent and altruistic. Traders will wander around offering to barter, some scavengers may be willing to share the plunder of a salvage site with you, and yet others may come to you seeking help. Both the best and worst of humanity are on display, and since you can't immediately tell which way a particular encounter with another person might go, there's tremendous tension as you wait to see whether they'll pull their gun on you or invite you to join their salvage op. There's also no specific villain. The game doesn't take a political stance on who's on the right side of the conflict. The army and rebels are presented as equally good and equally bad. Either can offer trade or shoot your scavenger on-sight. There's no definitive "us and them" delineation.
Compare this to a game like The Last of Us which paints every human you come across as an automatic enemy, and if you fail to sneak past undetected, then you are forced to take lives. If you kill in This War of Mine, it is probably an absolute last resort. Despite the bleak nature of the game design, it's actually a much more optimistic game than The Last of Us.
The combination of procedural story and rogue-like gameplay means that almost every player will likely get at least one game over. But don't quite and restart the game! Such fatal eventualities actually create just as effective and poignant a story. In some cases, a particularly conservative player might experience an even more touching and tragic story of an altruistic group that refused to compromise their principles, wouldn't steal from their fellow refugees, and were rewarded for their inflexible compassion with a slow, painful death via starvation.
The developers even encourage this sort of open-ended storytelling by providing an easy "Story Workshop" interface for creating your own modded scenarios that can be uploaded to the Steam Workshop. You can create your own characters, select which scavenge sites will be available to them, set the harshness and length of the winter, and so on. Sadly, I didn't see any custom story-writing or event-scripting capabilities, so you're stuck with the stock character bios and can't script your own events. But still, you're free to play around with any combination of characters and locations in the game.
You can create your own custom characters and scenarios and publish your story to the Steam Workshop.
Unfortunately, there's only so many replays that I can sit through - even with workshop scenarios. The very early stages of the game can feel like a considerable grind in repeat playthroughs, since it's mostly just an exercise in walking through a location and picking up the stuff you want. A few locations have some alternate scripted events to add a little bit of variety, and earlier winters can certainly make things tougher and more engaging. But you'll see everything that the game has to offer sooner rather than later, and starting a game knowing exactly which locations are safe or where you can find an easy gun just sucks most of the intensity out of the game.
But boy does that first playthrough really shine - whether you succeed or fail!
Video game Oscar bait
This War of Mine is an insightful and powerful look into how people behave in desperate times. It's stark anti-war message is inglorious and ignoble in ways that make it so much more successful than other games with more ham-fisted anti-war narratives (such as Metal Gear Solid or Fallout). All this is wrapped in a compelling and challenging package that looks pretty and plays well. You aren't simply told that war is bad and that it hurts some nebulous "people" that you never actually get to see; you get to experience the plight of these survivors as they have to make hard decisions whether or not to search around an empty gas station that's probably already picked clean, or to break into someone's home and steal from right under their noses.
A version of the game called The Little Ones is scheduled for release on PS4 and XBoxOne early next year. It will feature children as playable characters, and I fully intend to check it out when it gets released.
This is not a game for the timid. Your characters will suffer, and some of them will probably die.