Meant to be an experience exposing the player to the horrors of war, This War of Mine shifts the focus from the gun-toting, hard-talking soldiers we’re used to and instead implants its players in the role of more fragile, more familiar, and more relatable people: the civilians.
They’re often the ones who end up catching the worst side of the war, often rendered defenseless, helpless, and stuck in a world gone to hell. Looters raid buildings everywhere, survivors attempt to hunker down in makeshift shelters, and life is a daily struggle in a lawless city from which they cannot escape. It’s extremely dark, deeply disturbing, and incredibly effective.
It controls in a manner similar to The Sims. Several characters inhabit one shelter, each with their own unique backgrounds, personalities, and strengths. Pavle was an athlete before the war, and can move quickly when needed. Bruno was a professional chef and can cook great meals. Emilia is a talented lawyer.
Instead of quirky conversations and clear-cut meters indicating happiness and well being, the citizens in This War of Mine are limited to small cards that display their status. If not properly looked after, some can become exhausted, dangerously ill, wounded, depressed, or starved, among other factors.
As the god-like creature overseeing everyone’s well being, the player’s job is to make sure each of them are kept in good health and contribute equally to the cause of survival.
This survival is wholly dependent on two things: crafting and scavenging. Crafting is done through various worktables built in the shelter, and can provide all manner of essential items necessary for survival.
These items cannot be created without the needed materials, however. Scavenging is important, and must be done at night to avoid sniper fire and the other wartime hazards that appear during the day.
It’s not an especially varied gameplay loop, but it is still very successful at making one feel small amounts of progress, no matter how inconsequential or challenging a night was. Having names, personalities, and traits assigned to each of these people helped me grow fond of them, making the task of keeping them alive all the more harrowing.
There’s no winning in This War of Mine. Not in the traditional sense. There are no high scores, no leaderboards, no fun collectibles, no skill challenges.
But each tiny acquisition of crucial materials feels like a tiny victory. When two of my survivors were waylaid by severe wounds and illness, finding medicine and bandages while foraging and being able to patch them up upon return felt like a major success. I had managed to keep them alive for one more day. There was no guarantee tomorrow would be the same, but that didn’t matter. For today, everything was all right.
It’s a moment-to-moment game, filled with difficult decisions painted varying shades of gray. There are no binary morality meters, no black and white decisions. Every decision must be weighed and carefully considered, always serving your survivor’s needs. They can die quickly, and decisions must be made on the fly to ensure their security, particularly during times of conflict with other survivors.
As a game meant to expose players to the horrors of war, I found This War of Mine to be completely effective. It’s dark, presented in different shades of black, blue, white, and gray. The music is somber, occasionally punctuated by guitar chords and light strings. Characters often rest on the floor, despondent, inconsolable, and broken. Their decisions haunt them, and doubts occupy their minds, leaving very little room for hope. Rather than a bastion of new opportunity, each new day presents a question of whether or not these survivors will be alive at sunset.
Despite the darkness, there is still hope sprinkled in This War of Mine’s crushing darkness. Survivors speak to each other, cheering depressed friends up and attempting to take care of the less fortunate. Redeeming items are scavenged, offering redemption for a survivor on the verge of death. Acts of charity result in the group receiving help not found anywhere else.
This War of Mine has a clear message and agenda, and it never makes any attempt to shy away from it. There are moments of ham-fisted dialogue or forced interactions that shatter the nuance it carries, but even those are not enough to wholly negate the powerful and effective mood it seeks to convey. War is hell, and it’s often the civilians who end up on the ugly side of things in times of conflict. Using the interactive nature of a video game to great effect, This War of Mine brilliantly conveys this message by forcing the player to not only witness it, but live it, experience it, and suffer through it firsthand.
To read Cassidee’s extended review, pick up the Dec issue of CGM.