PC Review: This War of Mine (2014)
George E. Elliott
The representation of war in media and cultural products has long been problematic and questionable ethical territory. Video games often remold war as pure entertainment where meaningful commentary is rare and, arguably, the depiction can near full blown pro-war propaganda. An entire generation is growing up playing video games that recreate a mock war spectacle void of any story or reason; young men blow other young men’s brains out simply because they’re on the ‘blue’ or ‘red’ team while calling each other “faggots”. It’s a sad and frustrating phenomena to witness for those who are enthusiastic about the possibilities video games can offer as a medium of social and political commentary and serious storytelling. This War of Mine offers a telling of war like nothing we witness in the popular first-person shooters being pumped out year after year, like the Call of Duty or Battlefield series.
In the past decade the video game industry has been – to use a trade cliché – ‘disrupted’ by a revolution of sorts, where the medium is being reclaimed from the potent forces of commercialisation. The rise of the independent developer, propelled by advances in digital distribution, new platforms, the democratisation of software and the community magic of crowd-funding, means that modest developing teams are no longer bound by the publishing giants and the hard-wired hunt for profit. The genres, game mechanics, and themes that the so-called triple-A companies won’t touch can now be explored in video games. The award-winning This War of Mine is a telling artifact born out of this radically changing environment.
The brainchild of Grzegorz Miechowski, a pioneer in Poland’s game industry, and built by 11 bit studios, a small Warsaw-based team of about 40 employees, This War of Mine (released 2014) is a survival-themed strategy game that focuses on a group of civilians collecting resources, building items and crafting tools to stay alive in a paradoxically beautiful and startlingly realistic re-imagining of one of the most brutal post-WWII war crimes in Europe, the 1992-1996 Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. The civilians caught up in war, their personalities, experiences and raw horror are seldom given a voice in pop war games and it’s refreshing to see a game where you play as the victim of conflict rather than the invulnerable “hero”.
This War of Mine uses a simple cross section platformer–esque layout and is illustrated with a unique rough charcoal style sketchiness. The art doesn’t aim for photorealism but instead builds nightmare-like scenes where time itself is under siege. The soundtrack is just as emotive, albeit slightly tiresome. This War of Mine plays out in a cycle of two phases. By day, your characters complete chores around the house; laying down traps to catch rats, filtering rain water, crafting tools, tending to your rudimentary garden, and boarding up holes in your shelled out dingy home. At night you decide who will venture out to scavenge and who will stay home and guard the house or sleep (in a bed if you have one). There’s a number of locations your nominated scavenger can go. At first you’ll be visiting empty ever-burning family homes, with materials and parts to collect to craft the basics back home, like a fireplace or cooker. As the game progresses and winter approaches you’ll get more desperate to find scraps to eat or fuel to throw on your fire. You’ll come across a range of strangers: the sick and starving, the local priest who you can trade with, bandits or militiamen who will shoot you on-sight and other paranoid and sickly survivors trying to get by. Weapons are scarce and stealth is often the best option. Bring some books, booze and cigarettes home and your party of survivors will be content for a few days.
The gameplay is unapologetic and a new player will most likely start a new game a fair few times before getting that hang of things. Each character (there are three when you start) has unique attributes, backstories and needs. Depending on your actions, your characters might be starving, tired, wounded, sick broken or content. Without food or if something terrible happens (like one of the party being murdered) the team will spiral down towards catatonia and eventually suicide. When someone dies, they die. You’ll face many moral challenges: do we give food to that old man? Do we steal from the survivors sheltering at the church? Do we intervene when we see a soldier attacking a young family?
This is one of the saddest and darkest video games I’ve ever played. It’s a highly challenging, emotional and thought-provoking experience that will test your strategic skills and force you to aggressively contemplate your moral assumptions about war and human nature in the darkest of hours. Additionally, and just as importantly, This War of Mine will make you question the direction and purpose of video games all together.
Originally published in Critic