11 bit studios’ This War of Mine comes at a particularly important time in videogaming: with games that depict modern realistic warfare like Call of Duty and Battlefield dominating the gaming landscape, there’s a plausible concern that today’s blockbuster shooters are appropriating the most romantic ideas of war while jettisoning its more palpable effects: the consequences it has on the civilians caught in between. Very few videogames depict players as ordinary people stuck in extraordinary circumstances, and those that do tend to pit them against zombies and other fantastical scenarios. This War of Mine puts you in command of these ordinary people, forced to deal with something far more sinister than any zombie or alien: the worst aspects of human survival.
This War of Mine’s concept is relatively simple but astoundingly effective. A 3D game taking place entirely on a 2D plane, there are two sections of the game that you constantly switch back and forth between. During the daytime, the game takes place at your headquarters, a bombed out building where your survivors hang about. During this section, you must micromanage each of your survivors’ needs. Some need to sleep, some neat medical treatment, and they all need to eat. You can upgrade your headquarters with beds, stoves, barricades, workshops and so on, and on occasion you’ll get visits from roaming traders and other survivors looking to join your party.
Each of the survivors you bring into your group has their own skills, like cooking, sneaking, crafting, and so on. But that’s not all; they all have their own personalities, and with your every decision the game will update their biography page with their thoughts on the situation at hand. Some might approve of your decision to loan one of your survivors to help a family fix up their shelter, others will not. Managing your survivors’ health is just as important as managing their state of mind, and to that end TWoM isn’t just a game about physical survival, but mental survival as well.
Once nightfall approaches, the game switches to the scavenging mode. You pick one survivor to head out to one of several dozen locations, such as supermarkets, construction sites and abandoned houses, to scavenge for supplies. The rest can be assigned to guard the HQ or sleep. Every locale you visit is different. Some might be abandoned and contain plenty of supplies for you to take, others will already have settlers that you can either trade with or rob, and the more well supplied areas will be home to dangerous folks that you can either sneak by or kill. The game alternatives between these two modes, and as things progress, you will find yourself juggling between a grocery list of priorities.
TWoM is not an easy game at all. While supplies are all over the place, you’ll need every bit of them to survive. Food and medicine in particular are a tremendous concern, as survivors need to eat something every day and will deteriorate rapidly if they are injured and no bandages are on hand. Initially, I played it safe by only visiting abandoned areas that contained crafting materials to improve the HQ. However, as survivors grew more hungry and sustained injuries from the occasional attempted burglary that would happen while I was out scavenging, I ironically began to feel a survival instinct of my own and risked sending my runner, unarmed to free up more inventory space, to dangerous territories that had food and medicine.
Despite the amount of supplies you bring back, TWoM prevents you from ever, ever feeling like your survivors are in a zone of comfort. You might bring back loads of food for everyone to eat, but that one survivor with the nasty flesh wound still needs bandaids that you didn’t find, and her deteriorating health is making everyone else sad. You might then bring back bandaids, only to find your home burglarized by raiders because you lacked the necessary firearms to fend them off with. Then you might bring back guns and ammo, but now the food’s run out and everyone’s going hungry again. It’s a troublesome cycle that refuses to end, and TWoM is absolutely unflinching in the way it stamps home its message: There is never comfort when you are surviving.
Needless to say, the experience of sending a lone survivor you’ve grown to really care about into a decrepit house patrolled by psychopaths with nothing but a knife is unlike anything I’ve ever felt in a game. My heart was pounding, not just because the game doesn’t allow you to quicksave, but also because there was so much riding on me finding food and medicine. If I didn’t find any, or found the enemies inside too much to contend with, then my survivor would return home depressed, and the ones who needed those supplies would become hungrier and sicker.
As you’ve probably figured out by now, part of what makes TWoM challenging is not just the challenge of managing supplies, but the challenge of dealing with the consequences of your actions. At one point in the game, I became deeply annoyed when I returned from a trip to find two of my survivors injured and supplies stolen from a raid. Afterwards, I sent a survivor to a house to scavenge. I noticed that it was guarded by someone with a rifle. My gamer instinct kicked in, and I had my survivor sneak around and stab the guard from behind, allowing me to loot the place with gleeful abandon. While this took place, however, I noticed a woman run past my survivor and kneel by the dead guard, crying “Ivan! Oh God no! Why? Why? Please get up, please…”
And then it clicked in me. I had no right to be disappointed when raiders looted my HQ when I was doing the exact same thing to these people. Upon returning home, my survivor achieved a “Sad” status, clearly unsettled by having to kill another person. Similarly, the other survivors were troubled by what had to happen for their supplies, all except one of them, who accepted what had to be done for everyone’s survival. It felt very strange to finally play a game that showed you what it was actually like to kill another person; and despite its lack of voice acting, TWoM communicated the experience extremely well.
Of course, war turns people into monsters who need to be put down, and as such you will encounter characters during your scavenging trips that are best taken out. This is where the game stumbles a little bit; the entire game can be controlled using the mouse, and while this is adequate during the game’s daytime section, it becomes cumbersome at night. You essentially have to switch to a different “stance” that allows you to target enemies and left click on them, upon which your survivor will take aim and fire, or run over and attack with a melee weapon. The game even lets you take cover behind obstacles, and given all of this, it would have been nice to have more controls, such as having the WSAD keys move the camera instead of pushing the cursor to the edges of the screen, or perhaps having those keys move your character while the mouse would be used to aim and attack. As it currently stands, combat feels clunky, but perhaps that was the feel 11 bit were going for in order to take out the military-grade precision that other games afford you in combat sequences.
Additionally, it would have been nice if you could send more than one survivor on scavenging hunts, in order to open up more tactical advantages. The main reason why TWoM is so hard is that your one survivor can only carry a limited amount of supplies each trip, barely enough to to get your team through the next day. This is, of course, part of the game’s charm, but I found myself so invested in the game that I wished it would present me with the choice of bringing another survivor along to scavenge at the cost of having less people to defend the HQ. Many of the levels have a fairly open ended design, and I could foresee more depth to TWoM’s gameplay if one could mix and match the varying skills of the survivors during these trips.
There’s also a very restricting time limit to your scavenger hunts, and while this creates a sense of urgency when you’re rummaging through a house, it does become very limiting when you’re trying to study an enemy’s patrol pattern while constantly watching the timer dwindle down. It isn’t often that you get the kind of strategic depth out of a horizontal 2D game like TWoM has, so it would have been nice if the game gave you a little more room to consider your options.
Of course, these are but minor quibbles compared to the remarkable accomplishments TWoM has achieved. At its foundation, it is an incredibly addicting strategic survival game in which every single decision you make matters. Do you purposely deprive your survivors of food to keep supplies stocked? Do you deprive them of sleep to guard the house from intruders? Do you fire your gun and use up precious bullets to save a girl from being raped by a deranged soldier? Do you temporarily lose a survivor to help your neighbor out? Every choice you make has some form of ramification, and TWoM succeeds at keeping you on your toes. Even if you stripped away its moral message and themes, it would still succeed from a purely gameplay perspective.
But of course, you’d be stupid to do so, because TWoM, for all its simplicity and non-triple A-ness, is one of the most important games to be released, and this is not a statement I make lightly. It thrusts you into a familiar videogame setting: a war-torn city, and instead of soldiers, you are in command of civilians. It is a telling detail that your survivors’ portraits, which show up when you click on them, blink. These aren’t just commodities and assets; these are people with stories and backgrounds. They don’t live to gun down the next bad guy or galavant around in a tank; they live to, well, live. It’s also worth mentioning that another reason why TWoM is so effective in its depiction of war and survival is that it looks and sounds great. Every character has a distinct look, and despite their words being written instead of spoken, their body language communicates a lot. Character animations are very lifelike, which definitely helps with immerse one in the scavenging scenes, as you watch your survivor sneak through hallways, clamber over ledges and up ladders, and rummage through debris.
In spite of the detached perspective you view the game through, I became so attached to my survivors that at one point I considered getting them to a relatively comfortable state of mind and body and then stopping to play the game entirely so that they wouldn’t have to continue suffering through the war.
The Final Verdict
Ultimately, TWoM is a game in which one confronts war not out of a desire to shoot anything that moves, but out of love for your fellow man and a desire to triumph over a conflict that threatens to destroy your humanity. TWoM will undoubtedly succeed in inspiring its players to consider war in both the real world and videogaming in different ways, but I’m also hoping it will inspire other game developers to take a long, hard look at the medium’s obsession with romanticizing war and strive to create something we can both enjoy and learn from.
+ Extremely effective strategic survival gameplay
+ Lifelike characters you will become attached to
+/- Combat is clunky
– Scavenging sections are a bit time restrictive