Of Malice and Men
Austere comes to mind. But there are other fitting words: grim, haunting, depressing, frustrating, agonizing. Yet austere seems the most apt for encapsulating This War of Mine in a single word. This is not the most uplifting selection of words to describe something that is supposed to be entertainment. Yet I find myself nevertheless enraptured by This War of Mine. This is not due to some visceral sense of joy that comes from playing it, but rather as a sobering reminder of the realities of war and the fate of the common people that suffer through it.
So many games place the player in the shoes of a great general or emperor, commanding their forces from 30,000 feet above the ground at an altitude where the pains of the populace are all but invisible. Other times the player is cast in the role of the valiant hero, reluctant or otherwise, fighting on the front-line for the common good and committing great deeds of valor. In so many games, the line between the good and bad is crystal clear – and so we have no issue dealing out justice to those that oppose our ambitions. But all this visual carnage, glorified in every moment, hides away the colder truth that there are still people living in the places that we war over. So, when the front lines shift and the bullets stop, the good citizenry of the land clambers out from the ruins and tries to stitch together the means of survival. How often is their story told?
This War of Mine, released in 2014 and developed by 11-Bit Studios has the player controlling a small cast of survivors through their day-by-day tribulations as they try to stay alive in a wartorn, ruin of a city. The game uses a fittingly grim and dark, yet also personal and artistically rendered, side-scrolling format to tell the story. There are a number of narrative starting scenarios, and depending on what “story” is selected you begin the game with a set group of characters, each with their own subtle abilities and challenges. These character find themselves, by whatever twist of fate, together under the roof of a single, shared shelter. Said shelter is a partially ruined, yet fairly large house with one chair.
Before we get to the more remarkable aspects of the game, an overview is in order. At a fundamental level, the gameplay is simple. Every character has basic needs: food, rest, shelter, medicine, and psychological coping mechanisms (namely books, cigarettes, coffee, and occasionally Moonshine). During the “day” your characters are confined to the shelter, as the war rages on around you and traveling in the daylight isn’t safe. But there is plenty to do during the day, such as building crafting stations to make more advanced materials to construct yet more advanced crafting stations. You can build furniture, cobble together weapons, cook meals, eat meals, make cigarettes, smoke cigarettes, and so on. Maybe a little sitting in a chair and reading a book. If you’ve played a survival craft game before, this will all be imminently familiar.
At “night” you assign your characters roles. They can sleep, guard the shelter from nighttime prowlers and malcontents, or go off scavenging for resources. Only one person can scavenge per night, and you have the joy of choosing a location to scavenge from a map of the ruined locality around you. You receive a dose of information about the kinds of resources the different locations contain, such as the relative abundance of food, weapons, building materials, medicine, and so on, to help make your decision. You also get a sense of the likely risks: are the locations inhabited by well-meaning citizens that you may need to steal from, hostile thugs of ill-repute, or simply the scurrying of rats?
This decision point, of where to scavenge, is the primary challenge during the game. It’s a large and nebulous risk-reward decision, where you need to balance your most pressing resource needs against the very real dangers of getting shot to death for breaking and entering (or worse). And did I mention there is permadeath? Combine this with the need to maintain a constant supply of expendable tools, like lockpicks, metal saws, and crowbars, to get to the juicier rewards and the challenge becomes even greater. Then you need to consider who to send on the scavenge run, as some characters are better at sneaking, others at fighting, and yet others at hauling more loot. So here is one of the first cruel pragmatic reality in the game – as I often find myself saying, “who’s expendable tonight?” It’s a painful way of thinking about things, but it works with the theme quite well.
Ultimately, you need to survive long enough for a ceasefire in the war to be declared, which is somewhere on the order of 30 to 40 days. Along the way, a number of different events are triggered, such as crime waves where you are at greater risk of being raided and the dreaded “winter storm” that snows you in and blocks access to many locations. The latter is particularly nasty as you have the added need to keep your shelter heated or else risk plunging your survivors into the throes of sickness. If you manage to prepare well (pro-tip: listen to the radio!) you can overcome these harsher periods and hopefully make it to the ceasefire. Good luck with that.
An Ill-Fated Story of Woe and Despair
Before this gets too clinical I want to shift gears and tell my first story in the game – a story that lasted all of 17 days, not even halfway through the game. The following sections contain minor spoilers and strategy tips (or failings in my case!). If you are averse to reading such content you might want to skip down to the last section (but you will miss so much!).
This story starts with three fine caps in the shelter: Bruno, Marko, and Pavle. Bruno is a cynical and selfish man (you can tell from the personal remarks and commentary the characters drop periodically) but is good at cooking and is hence more efficient with his resources when it comes to preparing meals. Marko is a good-natured soul that excels at scavenging, and as a result can haul more gear at night than the others. Lastly, is Pavle, a former football (aka Soccer) player that is fast at running and good at playing the guitar. We did not have a guitar of course; but we so wish we did – for reasons that will be revealed shortly.
The tragic failing of my maiden voyage was in part due to my own faulty assumptions. So many games program us to be selfish bastards. To identify the bad guys and take them out, looting their corpses afterwards. To steal the goodies from the common people because surely these other weaklings don’t need them as much as us big, strong heroes do. This sense of manifest destiny creeps into our games, where the world is put on display for you to sample as you see fit. This line of thinking is very problematic in This War of Mine.
Things started out well enough – We raided a some fairly safe locations for basic supplies and what little food I could unearth. I kept my people nice and well fed. Another chap, a big lumbering beast of a man named Boris, came to the shelter and I accepted him into my clan of survivors. He looked like he could do some serious loot hauling.
Other people periodically come by asking for help: food or medicine, maybe some materials, or assistance in pulling a family member out of a collapsed building. I told them to get lost. Bruno smiled. Marko and Pavle started getting sad. We should have helped them they said. Like hell I thought. I wasn’t about to give up our last set of bandages – especially in light of the raiding I was planning to do.
You see, I had spent a great volume of materials fixing up weapons and armor: knives, hatchets, pistols, and a shotgun. I had some body armor and a helmet too. In my haste to get my crew weaponized, I had a serious food shortage on my hand. People were getting hungry and disgruntled. But I was ready. Pavle, my fast-running, guitar-playing hero was sent off to investigate a warehouse – rumored to be occupied by a band of thugs of ill-repute. Pavle was to be the hand of righteousness, liberating the warehouse and its resources for the greater good. But Pavle, aka me, didn’t know what I was getting into.
I managed to sneak Pavle into the warehouse and up to the second floor, keeping a careful eye on the sound pings and movements of the thugs. Peeing through keyholes, he was waiting for the right moment to strike. Finally I had Pavle kick open a door, guns blazing, and took out the first thug. But a moment later, Pavle himself was gunned down from behind. Breathless, I watched the game shift back to morning, back to the shelter, where I did NOT see the hero returning valiantly through the front door, for he was lying dead in a warehouse. Instead I was greeted with the message that we had been raided; and to twist the knife more, that Boris and Marko had both been wounded trying to defend the shelter. And Boris, the gentle giant, couldn’t handle Pavle’s death. His spirit broke with the news of his death and a he did little more than sit on the floor and moan. Marko and Bruno spent hours trying to console him to little effect.
There was really nothing else to do – we needed a victory, a conquest, to restore the troop morale; or so I thought. I wasted no time. Marko was outfitted with the remaining weaponry (surely we wouldn’t be raided two nights in a row!) and sent back to the warehouse, this time as the hand of vengeance. Marko’s plan, fighting through the tears of losing his dear friend Pavle, was simple: kill the bandits, grab food, and find Pavle’s body and equipment to bring back to the shelter. It would have been a great plan if Marko also hadn’t been gunned down. That wasn’t part of the plan. Things were unraveling.
Back at the shelter, Boris was still a wrecked, demoralized shell of a man. Curiously, Bruno’s coldhearted and selfish demeanor insulated him from the worst of the demoralizing effects. Pavle and Marko dead? Two less mouths to feed. That’s Bruno. Of course, Bruno can’t scavenge his way out of a tin can, and with no weapons left, raiding was out of the question. Time to switch to stealing! So that night Bruno broke into a kindly, elderly couples house, made a mad dash to the kitchen, stole some food, and dashed out. He was laughing – or was I laughing? We had food! Glorious food!
No one was laughing however when Bruno got back to the shelter – for we found that Boris had hung himself in the night. And with this final loss, Bruno finally slid into a state of depression, when it dawned on him (me) that he probably wasn’t going to survive either. A lone survivor doesn’t last long, and will quickly get into a death spiral of sleeplessness and sickness, constantly choosing between guarding at night to protect your dwindling rations or risking everything to go scavenging. And the winter storm hadn’t even started. I eventually ran out of food, and starving and sick, depressed Bruno took his own life one night as well.
And so ended my first run at This War of Mine.
A Cozy Ride to the Finish Line
It took a few tries, but eventually I figured it out and managed to survive, with all members alive no less, to see the end of the war. I had to play the game backwards from the typical violence-first programming of most games. Other than a far more calculated (and successful) attack on the warehouse I stole nothing, helped everyone, and kept my morale up.
More than anything, I feel that your survivors moral is a driving force behind the gameplay. It is a sort of barometer that tells you whether you are acting in the good conscious of the survivors themselves. When you go off the reservation they get depressed and uncooperative, a trend that can be hard to reverse in desperate times. But if you play things carefully and take the moral high ground, you’ll have just enough latitude to do something brash and get a leg up on survival. Also, helping people out in the short-term often gives you a long-term benefit later on, just when you seem to need it most.
Interestingly, the most basic materials (components and wood) become the most critical the further into the game you. Components let you build filters (which you need to clean water used for cooking, plant growing, etc.) and you need wood as a constant fuel source (again for cooking but also heating and distilling). You can get your survivors into a mostly self-sufficient state food-wise if you have a steady influx of basic materials, but it also costs a tremendous amount of resources upfront to build the necessary work stations to get you there. However, if you can squeeze every last resource out of the locations you scavenge and take advantage of trade opportunities, it is possible to be nearly self-sufficient and coast your way to the ceasefire.
The second irony of This War of Mine is that effective play (e.g. self-sufficiency and kindness) is monotonous and shockingly uneventful. From about day 20 onward, each day was a pattern: make filters, boil water, prepare food, eat every other day, check the traps, check the veggies, check the moonshine distiller, cycle the nightwatch into bed, chop wood, keep the fire going, play the guitar. At night it was the same: send the best scavenger to look for wood and components, load them up, and haul it home.
Yet I found this monotony to be fittingly thematic. Survival isn’t about glory and heroics – it’s about careful planning and tabulation of rations. I had a notecard littered with scribbles about how many components or other special items I left stashed in what locations. If my smokers or coffee drinkers were running low on provisions, I knew where to scavenge to get them what they needed. I played it safe, I kept my weapons at home to defend. I stayed warm in the winter and no one got more than a minor cough during the coldest spell. It was monotonous, but also sublime and oddly comforting. Pavle had a guitar this time around and would strike up a tune to keep our spirits up, both the survivors and my own.
When the ceasefire came and the war was paused, it was a surprise. My four survivors felt bonded in their routines of survival and the war ending felt like a momentary loss. How dare this change disrupt the delicate balance of self-sufficiency we had achieved. Yet it was time to move on – to leave the shelter and all we had built to find a new and better place in the world.
An Ode to Survival
This War of Mine is a remarkable game, and one that haunts my thoughts well after I’ve finished playing it. Aesthetically the game strikes the perfect combination of visuals and sound to get you in the right frame of mind. I was dubious about the side-scrolling nature of the game, but was quickly converted. The game manages to be intensely personal, giving you just enough cues to trigger your imagination and make the world all the more believable with you feeling like a part of it. With this level of involvement and investment, it can be quite an intense experience – and few games have managed to solicit such a real and emotional reaction from me. Say nothing of the many morally challenging situations and events you will face.
While the basic objective of the game is fixed, survive until the ceasefire, there are a number of different “stories” which you can select that determine the mix of characters, starting resources, available locations to scavenge, and sequence of events you will face. There is a custom story designer where you can pick exactly what characters you want and you can specify many of the narrative elements, like the duration and intensity of winter or the days until ceasefire. All in all, these different story options do help the game’s replayability. The challenges will be different each time as you get to see how each character’s’ backstory plays after the way.
On a broader note, This War of Mine challenges our assumptions about violence and how they are so often the main instrument of action in games. Violence is certainly a reality and tool in the game, but it is never one used without cost. Against the backdrop of a greater war, dictated by forces at a higher scale, the violence your characters might commit is even more ironic and painful. The war and its violence are the reasons why you are in this situation, and furthering the violence at a civilian level just feels doubly wrong – and many of the characters in the game will be quite up-front about that.
Yet this commentary on violence doesn’t come across as preachy or artificial, which is equally noteworthy. It is genuine, and people’s reactions to it, despite whatever temporary gains your violence produces, are likewise genuine. Some characters aren’t bothered by violence, others are – so you constantly felt like you are in a state of negotiation with the characters, striving to find the balance between peaceful self-sacrifice and violence-fueled survival. Not many games even give you those two options. This War of Mine does.
Overall, This War of Mine is a sublime and austere game. It nails the theme and mood of citizens struggling for survival and does so in a way that is both personal and challenging. The player routinely faces tough life-or-death type decisions or is put in a morally tight spot, where you have to balance your own characters survival against the survival of your fellow citizens. It can be a demoralizing game at times, but if you play your cards right there are enough glimmers of hope to keep you going.
Now it’s your turn …