This War of Mine (PC)

By Chris Dahlberg

Published on Saturday, December 13, 2014

There are so many video games that deal with the subject of war, but the majority of them put you in the role of an action hero and provide you with a shooting gallery of faceless soldiers without any real consequences. Only a few have examined the consequences and harsh realities of what happens during warfare, and one of the latest to do so is This War of Mine from 11 bit studios. Rather than placing you in the shoes of a soldier, this title puts you in the role of three regular citizens who are now trying to survive in the middle of a war. It’s one of the most powerful and depressing video game experiences that I’ve ever played, but over the fourteen hours I spent with the title I couldn’t tear myself away from it as I tried my best to get my band of survivors through the war.

This War of Mine takes place in an unnamed Eastern European country, with in-game events inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo. Each time you start a new game elements are randomly generated, and the three survivors that are under your control may be completely different. The game is split into distinctive day/night cycles, and each day that you are able to make it through only leads to more hardship and tension as the war progresses. At the very beginning, you are introduced to the three survivors you will be controlling and told what skills they possessed before the war started. Certain character’s skills may not seem that useful, but some of them have abilities you will want to make use of. At a certain point in the game you are also given the option of taking a fourth person into your shelter, but this will only increase the amount of food and other resources needed to survive, so it is up to you to decide if you can afford to take on the risk or not.

During the day, there are snipers outside so you cannot do anything except work on your shelter and take care of your survivors. For the first few days, you can make each person sift through the rubble of the house you inhabit for materials and items, but after that point it is up to you what you want to accomplish. You can use available resources to upgrade structures and build necessities like a heater and stove, as well as create weapons and items like moonshine to sell, depending on the amount of materials and other items you have on that particular day. Days are also useful for letting some of your survivors sleep if they’ve been out scavenging or protecting the shelter the previous evening. Occasionally a trader may come by offering items, or nearby neighbors may ask for assistance or items. It is entirely up to the player what options they choose, and every choice that you make has an impact. For example, it might be tempting to try and stock up on as much food as possible to give your survivors plenty to eat as the days pass, but if you don’t give them some weapons and upgrade the shelter with some boarded up windows to decrease the chance of looting bandits may come in the night and steal all of your food. All actions are handled by pointing and clicking, and you can assign all three people to perform a task simultaneously. Once you tell someone to do something, you will see a progress meter that gives an idea of how long it will take to complete that task. Time passes fairly quickly, and before you know it the day will have passed and it will already be evening.

The evening is left for scavenging, and this is where your survivors can gather additional resources and conduct trading in hopes of obtaining enough items to make it through another day of the war. You can only send one person out in the evening, and each survivor has different amounts of items they can hold in their backpack. The remaining two or three people can either sleep or guard the shelter, and considering that they can get injured or sick it may be a good idea to let at least one of them sleep during the night. When heading out for the night you are shown a map with available locations to explore, along with a completion percentage that gives you an idea of how many items/materials are left there and how thoroughly your survivor has explored it. It is only possible to go to one location per night, so you must choose carefully, and random factors may make certain areas inaccessible (such as a heavy blizzard or increased fighting). What you encounter in each location also changes with each play through, as you might go to a church and find a priest willing to trade items. The next play through, you might go there to discover the priest has been killed by a bandit and the entire area is now filled with additional danger. While the layouts don’t change, it’s hard to predict exactly what you’ll find at any location which adds to the amount of tension.

Actions are handled the same way during these evening sections are during the day, as you click to a location on the screen and the character moves there (or double click to make them run). Certain areas require tools to traverse, meaning that you may need to craft saw blades and lock picks if you want to scavenge all of the rare items an area has available. Taking a weapon is also recommended if you are going into areas with potential danger, but engaging in combat is usually discouraged. When in a potentially hostile area you can have your character take cover behind objects and attempt to hide in the shadows, as well as try and sneak up to stealth kill an enemy. But since the majority of them are normal civilians with no combat experience, encounters are rarely predictable. Even if you plan out every move and then click to have your character attack, they still might barely make it out alive or have the tables turned against them and perish.

With this in mind, the best way to make it through This War of Mine is to stay one step ahead. Even if everything seems to be going your way, you will be forced into making some tough choices as the war stretches on for weeks and people in your shelter deal with illnesses and depression. 11 bit studios has done a fantastic job at making the game tug at your heart strings, as by the time you’ve gotten through your first full week and made some decisions on whether your characters were able to eat or had to focus on something else you’ll genuinely care about their survival and want to help them. Every action has a consequence, and it’s harder to take the easy road out the further in you get. On the run where the majority of my characters made it to the cease fire, we had exhausted most of the resources from the abandoned areas and had to send someone out to scavenge where some rogue soldiers were stationed. Despite my best attempts to have my chosen scavenger sneak around, he got caught and was shot on sight. The war ended only a few days later, but the death of this character stuck with me, particularly because just one wrong choice had caused it.

This War of Mine is full of situations like these, and it can be downright depressing to play. But that’s part of what makes it such a powerful statement, as it truly enforces the impact of one’s actions. It may be tempting to try and play this like a traditional game and ransack much needed supplies from a helpless elderly couple, but the effects of doing so might send your scavenger into a depression that then prevents them from responding to your commands. It’s rare to feel this helpless as you play a game, especially one where you’re given this much control over the decision making. But that’s what makes this a game that people should play, because it sends a powerful message about the negative effects war can have on ordinary people and what they may have to do to survive. I don’t want to spoil too many of the specific situations, because the fluidity of the situations and the sheer unpredictability are what help to create such a powerful experience.

There is one thing that I did want to see more of though, and that’s interaction between the survivors. The majority of the dialogue comes in the form of inner thoughts from the different characters, but unless one is trying to get the other out of a depressive state there isn’t any banter between them. Sometimes you’ll be given an alert that two of your characters got into a fight, but there’s little representation as to what caused this. Additionally, when it comes to dealing with NPC’s, your only options are typically to trade/talk with them if they’re peaceful or sneak past/fight them. I found myself wondering if it might be possible to talk my way out of certain situations without getting instantly shot but this never seemed to be the case. A few more dialogue options and interaction between the survivors could have added to the group dynamic and better portrayed what it is like for unrelated people to come together in trying circumstances.

This War of Mine has a very striking look, as it has a very dark and dreary feel that reflects the war-torn locations. 11 bit studios has packed a considerable amount of detail into each location, and they do a great job of showcasing the level of destruction that war has on what would otherwise be normal houses and stores. The camera stays zoomed out, allowing you to see all of the rooms of your shelter during the day. This is also true at night, but areas that your character isn’t close to are blurred out until you approach them, creating a sense of uncertainty as you can never be 100% sure what is behind a door. Areas don’t reset either, so if you visit an abandoned house and destroy its furniture with an axe for wood, they will no longer be there the next time you come back. It’s these types of little details that immerse you into the game, and each area has some type of note the player can find that tells a story of what another civilian has experienced during the war. Despite all of the uncertainties and elements the player can’t control, the developers have provided an interface that works perfectly and provides you with just enough information to get by. Icons on each screen show what can be explored for items, broken with an axe/other tool, or areas where you can hide. Because you don’t have to worry about glitches with the interface or other performance issues, you’re able to completely focus on the lives of your survivors and any errors you make that cause them to die are entirely your fault.

Rather than using spoken dialogue the game presents everything through text. When you encounter an NPC dialogue will appear above their head letting you know whether they are friendly or hostile. I think that the decision to not include any voice acting was a good one, as it allows the player to interpret these situations in their own way. There is background music that fits the somber mood, but it is used as a subtle enhancement to many of the scenes rather than standing out on its own. What stood out the most to me audio wise were the sound effects, as this is where the game really nails its atmosphere. This War of Mine where the sound of gun fire or a door opening can be truly terrifying, as your characters aren’t soldiers and when potential danger lurks around the corner there may not be much they can do to protect themselves. As you’re sneaking around a house desperate for supplies, you might suddenly hear a door open and a sense of panic will set in, because it isn’t clear whether the person opening that door is armed or not. 11 bit studios has used the audio as a means to enhance the tension and keep that sense of uneasiness during the night scavenging, and it will leave an impression on players.

This War of Mine is a powerful and physically draining game that you will still be thinking about for some time to come after you complete it. It’s not the type of title that one might describe as “fun”, but it’s one that you won’t be able to stop playing from once you’ve spent a few days with a band of survivors and developed an emotional interest in seeing them make it through these horrific situations. Video games so often use war as a means for nonstop action, so it’s a nice change of pace for one to come along that makes the player stop and think about the consequences of war and the impact it has on regular civilians. This type of realistic portrayal of war and the emotional impact it delivers is exactly the type of thing that this industry could use right now, and it’s an experience that anyone who chooses to dive into this game won’t soon forget.

This War of Mine

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