This War Of Mine Review
Doing the best they can..
War, as we’ve been told so often, is hell. Very few of us would choose to dispute this, but somewhere along the line, video games’ depictions of it took a turn for the glamorous. Series such as Medal of Honour, Call of Duty and Battlefield are (or have been) regular fixtures in the yearly release cycle, sexed up to the nines with all the clout that triple-A marketing can provide. Polish indie studio 11 bit invites us to consider the ramifications of such endeavours for regular folk caught in the crossfire of a conflict they never asked for with This War Of Mine.
We’ve seen the opening aphorism from Hemingway “In modern war… you will die like a dog for no good reason” as one of the arguably pithy collection of typical quotes peppered throughout the aforementioned series which at best excuse and at worst glorify the trials of combat, but in this game which deals with not soldiers but civilians, it takes on a different context. The game opens with three unfortunate souls (randomly selected from a pool of ten) who have watched their city become a crumbling warzone and have found strength in each other’s company within the walls of a still-standing but rickety house. Their supplies are meagre, so each night one of them must venture out into the surrounding area to scavenge for food and further provisions. Your only goal is to keep them safe and fed, but with scarce resources and dozens of others attempting to do likewise, this increasingly becomes a near-impossible proposition. Each person, despite them being ordinary civilians with no combat training, possesses some kind of skill which can benefit the group. Our group initially consisted of Bruno, a chef, Katia, a reporter with good negotiating skills, and Pavle, an athlete. Due to his quick pace, Pavle was most frequently chosen to do the scavenging runs. We should have known his days were numbered.
Home is where the heart is.
When night falls and the sniper fire relents, a decision must be made where to loot. Their choices are few, they get fewer, and none of them are good. Do you try the supermarket, where supplies could be plentiful but also being snatched up by other desperate looters? Do you try the small apartment where an elderly couple reside, knowing they are unlikely to resist you but by raiding them you’d essentially be condemning them to death? Choose, or starve. If you’re lucky, you get to live a while longer. Days are spent in the house, feeding the hungry, treating the wounded, and using what little you have to craft simple tools and make some improvements to your equipment. Endless choices to make, with little idea if they’re going to pan out. Sometimes locations are inaccessible as the fighting is too intense, and the order these occur in and the items in the locations themselves are randomised on each playthrough, so you can’t win by memory or foresight. Instead, risks are weighed up and acted upon. Do you use your remaining water to cook, or to distil some cheap moonshine to barter with later? Do you keep a tattered book in the hope the words within its pages will provide some solace to the reader, or do you burn it for fuel? A knock comes at the door. Friend or foe? An honest soul come to trade, or something worse? Steel yourself with a mercenary aloofness, or open your heart and believe in karmic returns? Let them in, or don’t. More choices. The only certainty is that doing nothing results in your imminent demise.
Once more unto the breach.
The tone is undoubtedly sombre, but is exceptionally well-presented. The muted brown palette of sketch lines and smudges is reminiscent of Valiant Hearts, another great game about the horrors of war. The locations feel tangibly dirty and derelict, as you rummage through the rubble in search of anything that might sustain you. Morose strings are layered on top of the echoing distant gunfire, though if you deem it a worthy expense, a small radio can be crafted in the hope that crackly classical refrains will distract you from the unbearable here and now. The echoing rings of guitar which accompany the daytime scenes are almost optimistic at times. In the bottom corner though, weathered and crumpled portraits of your group have eyes that blink at you accusingly. Their movements become weaker and more pathetic as their energy and spirit evaporate with sickness and fatigue.
Better get used to this happening.
Pavle’s luck ran out on day eleven. Ambushed and seriously wounded, he stumbled back to the house, but without any bandages to treat him, he died in bed a few days later. Katia was unresponsive, literally; staring out the window and refusing to respond to commands. For a moment we thought it might be a glitch until we spied the word ‘broken’ listed in her stats. The game wasn’t broken; she was. Unlike the protagonists in its more bellicose gaming brethren who can restore themselves by simply hiding behind a wall, This War Of Mine teaches the tedious inevitability of our human fragility, that of being beaten not by an indomitable opposing force but by hunger, an infected but treatable wound, or our own inner demons. The weather becomes colder as the days roll on, and if you haven’t adequately prepared for it, the cold can take one of your number in its icy embrace. Bruno was able to help Katia through her dark time; had he not, she would have likely killed herself the following day.The stark boundaries the game pushes at you to uphold or break are light-years away from the fairly insubstantial, inconsequential moral choice systems previous titles have presented. Choosing to rob an elderly couple of their last few remaining supplies because they’re an easy target doesn’t feel very ‘renegade’, just... awful. It’s certainly not what would typically be classed as ‘enjoyable’, but the harrowing role-play it provides offers a unique insight into what a great many people are going through for real. It’s not fair because life isn’t fair. Sometimes the you-know-what hits the fan and there’s nothing you can do; one of your party might get sick after you’ve run out of medicine, and you are powerless to alter the outcome, despite your best efforts.
Good to trade, or to just dull the pain...
Whether you choose to perceive it through a moral lens or not, there’s a great tactical survival mechanic driving this game beneath the didactics. Although the events it depicts are depressing to contemplate at length, I found myself coming back again and again to try and get it right somehow, beat the odds, and save my people. The game claims a ceasefire can occur anywhere between twenty-five and fifty days into the battle, but it never feels close. After what seems like another inevitable loss, the game over screen doesn’t chastise or berate you, but simply asks if you’d like another try? That’s all we can do in the end.