You’ll Struggle to Survive in ‘This War of Mine’
War is Hell for civilians in heartbreaking new game
Bruno creeps into the supermarket. It’s night. Wind whistles through the holes in the walls. He hears the crack of rifles in the distance, but he doesn’t think it’s coming from inside.
Not that he really cares. He hasn’t eaten in two days.
Last night’s journey to an abandoned apartment complex earned Bruno some wood, but no food. His friend, Pavle, was dead when he came home. Pavle used to be the scavenger—the guy in charge of the nighttime supply runs … until he ran into a group of looters with guns.
He bled out while Bruno was raiding the apartment. Their group didn’t have the supplies to save his life.
Bruno picks through the ruined aisles, collecting tins of tuna and rotting vegetables. He hears whispers in the back room. He moves slowly toward the sound, remembering what happened to Pavle.
He kneels down and peers through a keyhole—it’s a man and a woman. They’re arguing. The woman is looking for food. The man promises he has food. He’s willing to trade. The woman doesn’t want to offer up what the man wants.
The argument gets heated. The man draws a gun.
Bruno bolts. He knows what’s about to happen and he can’t stop it. He’s hungry and the man has a gun. Bruno is unarmed and his backpack is now full of food.
Welcome to This War of Mine—the most tense, engaging and depressing video game ever.
There’s an absolute glut of games about war. Most—like the billion-dollar Call of Duty franchise—are pure fantasy.
In those games, players run around city streets firing round after round of digital ammo. Blood splatters, explosions tear baddies to pieces. You die and come right back. They’re about power.
11 Bit Studios’ This War of Mine is about powerlessness.
This War of Mine puts the player in charge of a random assortment of characters in the middle of a city destroyed by civil war. Each character comes with a brief back story and a special skill.
My first time through, I play with former football star Pavle, former TV chef Bruno and a plucky young man named Marko.
The three guys inhabit a run-down, bombed-out building in the middle of town. It’s up to me to help them find food and make their shelter livable. The game’s on a time limit—each day lasts 10 minutes and every second of that time is priceless.
Should I build a heater or a bed? Should Pavle stand guard through the night even though he’s sick? Can Marko still scavenge while wounded? The gameplay is all about managing resources and making decisions. Imagine The Sims set in wartime.
Get food, build a little more and survive the night. The game, however, is good at parsing out the supplies in such a way that there’s never quite enough.
If you’ve got plenty of food, then one of the survivors is sick and you don’t have bandages. If you’ve got plenty of medicine, then you’re out of water. If you’ve got plenty of water, then you don’t have enough food.
If you’ve got enough of everything, then other survivors will break into your house and take it.
I was always scrambling to keep my survivors alive. But even then, This War of Mine never lets up. For physically surviving isn’t enough. The game also forces the player to make soul-crushing moral choices.
Some of those moral choices are straightforward. A neighbor knocks on the door and asks the characters to help him board up his windows. Click yes to help one of your survivors takes off to assist. The survivor is gone for the rest of the game day, limiting the amount you can improve your hovel, but good deeds boost morale.
Contentment from good deeds has in-game effects. The survivors walk a little faster and aren’t as bothered by hunger and exhaustion. It’s an easy trade-off to make, but it’s not the only way the game tests the player’s character.
The game presents the harder moral choices organically. I never see them coming. The situation with Bruno in the supermarket just happens. No cutscene appears, no dialogue box pops up. I don’t click a yes or a no button.
I don’t realize I‘m’ making a choice. I force Bruno to flee and leave the woman behind. I could have stayed, but Bruno is my last survivor. I don’t want him to die.
My snap decision has lasting consequences. Witnessing the rape breaks Bruno’s spirit.
He’s depressed through the rest of the playthrough … literally. The word “depressed” floats on his status bar right next to “hungry” and “tired.” He talks about the woman constantly.
Halfway through preparing a meal or crafting some furniture, he’ll just stop, racked with guilt and unable to go on.
These moments are the heart of the game. There’s nothing else quite like it. In This War of Mine, the player’s choices have real consequences.
This War of Mine isn’t anti-war, per se. The politics of the conflict rarely factor. None of the characters complain about this or that dictator or rebel leader. There’s no propaganda on the radio.
In This War of Mine, armed conflict is a force of nature. There’s no stopping it. The characters just want to survive. I use the radio to get information. Like the weather. And which parts of the city to avoid.
The radio tells me that crime is on the rise and the price of coffee has doubled. Now I know to post more guards at night and look out for coffee beans to trade.
The player can’t win the war or escape the city. There are no win conditions beyond surviving one more day.
How one survives matters. This War of Mine forces the player to choose which pieces of the soul to ration off.
Update 11/20/14—It turns out a win condition does exist. Players just discovered that it’s possible to survive 45 days and see a cease fire.