As brutal as it is earnest, Jacob Wellman reviews This War of Mine, the game that gives us a perspective on war rarely presented in entertainment media.
One of the many things your survivors can build in This War of Mine is a transistor radio which has, amongst other things, a classical music station. I put it on every day, after checking the news and weather, because it helped me through the day as much as it did the survivors.
To say This War engaged me is an understatement. I downloaded it from Steam in early December, a couple of weeks after it first came out, at about nine pm. Ten hours later, my first war ended. I stumbled out into the early morning sunlight and just sat on the low wall in front of my house for a while, the emotions diffusing into something more manageable, aided and abetted by a mug of coffee and a cooling breeze.
You’ll notice that I said “engaged”, not “entertained”.
The premise of This War is simple. The war was meant to end after a couple of weeks, but the rebels have dug into the city and now your collection of survivors are in for the long haul. The mechanical set-up is about as simple as it gets; you can left click to tell your survivor to go somewhere or do something, while right-clicking gets them there quicker.
The Eastern European setting is a deliberate choice by 11 Bit Studios, an attempt – successful, I believe – to write something close to home. In an interview with RockPaperShotgun, senior writer Pawel Miechowski cites accounts of the sieges of Mostar and Sarajevo in modern Bosnia and Herzegovina, along with stories from the teams’ grandparents, survivors from Warsaw and Leningrad in the Second World War, as principal sources of inspiration.
The art style, courtesy of art director Przemyslaw Marszal, also deserves a mention. The grey-scale, cross-hatch effect gives quiet melancholy and sombreness against the white-and-orange action circle icons. The icons show you what you can do, filling up as a task progresses, or pulse with treacherous bursts of noise during the stealth sections. This War is a perfect example of how to integrate story and gameplay.
Structurally, This War is split into two equal, interrelated parts. By day, you’ll manage an ant farm view of your shelter which needs to be made habitable and the people within kept healthy and sane. Occasionally someone will manage to sneak past the snipers and come to your door to trade or ask for help; how you deal with this is your call, but how exactly do you think turning hungry children away will effect your group’s morale?
By night, you’ll take one of your group out scavenging to one of about a dozen locations while the rest sleep or stand guard against raiders.
I found that the two halves integrated seamlessly: by day I’d craft a shovel that would help me move debris and get to rooms, or brew up some moonshine to sell for crucial supplies. But with all the plates you have to keep spinning – food, materials, goods to be bartered with, medical health, morale, self-defence – there are never enough supplies, and sooner or later, you’re going to have to make some hard choices.
However, nothing is explained to you. You’re simply given a half-ruined house, a group of randoms and a ticking clock and left to work out the rest for yourself. In the RPS interview, Miechowski says that this is exactly the point; “when war breaks out no-one would tell you what to do, there would be no tutorial.” I think this is one example of what This War does extremely well; where most games about war are power fantasies, this is a vulnerability fantasy.
The seasons will roll around like clockwork and the war will rage to its own beat, closing off locations with heavy snow or heavy fighting. Soldiers from either side are an equal threat, and won’t lift a finger to save you, except to take it off the trigger. Eventually, the war will end, yes, but it will happen suddenly, and you will never be told why, or how, or who ‘won’. There are no winners in this war; only survivors.
What are your impression of This War of Mine? What games are you playing at the moment that you would see as mature? Let us know in the comments below, or drop us an email at email@example.com. For more on everything else games and tech, check us out on Facebook and Twitter.