This War of Mine never gives the impression it’s a standard-issue game. Inspired by the siege of Sarajevo from 1992-1996, This War of Mine creates the type of gameplay experience that makes you ask real questions about yourself, the people around you, and society as a whole. As an American, I don’t have any first-hand experience with war on home soil. Hell, I haven’t even been to war abroad; the closest I’ve been to a conflict zone is watching the beginning of the protests in Ferguson, MO in August of this year firsthand. That said, there’s definitely something for everyone to experience in 11 bit Studios’ title that turns typical war games on their ears.
Bruno, Pavel, and Marko are three men living together in a bombed-out house. They scavenge for supplies, listen to the radio for news of the war raging outside, scrape meals together… It’s not a complicated life. It’s drab, boring compared to the settings of games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and other shooting-based war franchises. That nature is reflected in the stark, black-and-white visual style and slow, methodical movements of your players. Boiled down to its component pieces, it feels like a roguelike, war-torn version of The Sims; during the day, you’ll tell your characters (who may or may not be those three) what to do: to clean up the house, find supplies, make meals, and handle other issues of the day. At night, they may rest while you send one out to scavenge for the tools needed to stay alive another day. Character actions are controlled indirectly; you tell them where to go and they go there themselves.
Sometimes imprecision causes characters to make mistakes, not hiding when they’re supposed to or taking an action when asked. In critical situations, these errors can be the difference between life and death, and I did experience the latter a couple of times as a result. But as you stay alive and gain supplies, you’ll craft new tools and upgrade your home, creating beds, stoves, and other amenities to push forward. Still, sickness, fatigue, injury, raids from other scavengers… These of the consequences of daily life in This War of Mine. If it sounds depressing, that’s because it is. But it is also inherently compelling in a way not many games can channel.
Choice is everything in this war. Will you raid the grocery store, filled with food but surrounded by dangerous criminals, or will you steal food from the civilian neighborhood trying to maintain a normal life? Will you sneak past the sleeping man in the abandoned school, hoping he won’t sound an alarm if he wakes up and sees you, or will you kill him to avoid potential concern? Your fastest runner is getting sick and is tired, but may be the only one who can get the medicine you need for your sick party member: do you send him out to forage another night, or do you let him rest and hope for the best in the morning? This isn’t a mission to save the world, destroy an evil power, or rescue someone you love from the grips of a terrorist: this is survival, plain and simple, the kind of which makes you wonder why you even bother trying sometimes. I know these descriptions sound terrible, but I can’t emphasize enough how much this game has left an effect on me with its storytelling and visual prowess.
I remember one mission at night in particular: a sniper was posted in a hotel in the distance, and one false step could’ve cost my player’s life. I walked by an injured man who couldn’t sprint back to his apartment, but needed an underground route through the sewers opened. I made my way to the apartment building, and could have raided the apartments for supplies, but instead opened the underground route and rescued the man. He came through the sewers to deliver medicine to his sick infant, and told me to take the jewels he’d hidden under his bed. Could I have tried to take more? Probably. Maybe he would have attacked me, maybe he wouldn’t. But at that moment, I understood what was important to him, and my ability to help him in a time of need was enough. That said, when I got home I still didn’t have enough food or medicine for my party. Sentiment doesn’t fill stomachs or ward off illness.
Perhaps this is an atypical review, but This War of Mine is an atypical game, one that deserves attention and analysis. As much as sections of it hurt, I enjoyed it. It’s not just a quality gameplay experience, but also an eye-opening thought experiment on what really matters when the chips are down and civilization falls apart. I certainly hope this won’t be the last of games like this one.