In This War of Mine, Polish developer 11 bit Studios, whose previous commercial foray was the well-received Reverse Tower Defence series Anomaly: Warzone Earth, have given us an incredibly hard game to play. It’s not the interface (it’s totally intuitive), the absence of a tutorial (it’s just not necessary), or the pacing (the action unfolds at a calm, steady rate). What makes this game hard is that it pulls you in almost instantly, makes you care intensely about your handful of characters, and quickly convinces you that if Katia starves to death tonight, you are going to scream your head off.
Set in a modern urban environment that could be anywhere from the Balkans to Syria to Ukraine, there’s a civil war on, the streets are full of rebels and the whole thing is encircled by government forces. Between the two of them, they’ve turned your town into a smoking, rubble-strewn mess. It’s a scenario ripped straight out of the headlines, at once familiar from the dozens of military shooters that have preceded it, but also slightly alien and exciting because of its carefully researched, meticulously detailed portrayal. 11 bit partnered with War Child, the UK-based charity for children affected by war around the world, and worked with Amnesty International, drawing on tons of research material. They were also inspired by various insiders’ accounts of surviving a modern siege, including those of Emir Ceremovic (a Sarajevo survivor), and originally, an article entitled One Year in Hell, by another Bosnian Crisis survivor.
The action plays out, day by day, across a series of highly detailed cross-sections of various bombed-out buildings. Each game begins with three random survivors in the same small, semi-destroyed apartment block, with multiple levels and multiple rooms. Some of the doors are boarded-up or locked, sometimes piles of rubble block your way and must be dug through to clear space or reach an enticing medicine cabinet or wardrobe. There are sniper- and bandit-friendly holes in the walls and the whole thing is ramshackle, dirty, cold, and unsafe. It’s also your home.
Fortunately, it can be improved in various ways, and this is intuitively discovered through the presence of a small workstation in one of the rooms. From this workstation, a whole variety of tools, implements, ramshackle furniture and other workstations can be created or repaired, including distilleries for brewing valuable alcohol, home gardens for growing medicinal herbs and food, rain catchers and other useful items, such as heaters and radios (the fully tuneable radio is particularly well-implemented). The parts necessary to accomplish all of this are scavenged from other buildings around town, or traded for. It’s all part of a circle of life that quickly becomes clear: to survive, you must eat, defend yourself and improve your surroundings. To do that, you need tools, weapons and supplies. And to get them, you must scavenge and trade.
TWOM is a game of two halves. The vaguely Sims-like first half of domestic improvement and care for your survivors (if The Sims was a bleak, distressing struggle against ever-diminishing odds) occurs in the daytime, when your people hide themselves away from the worst of the fighting outside. At night though, they come out, and that’s when the second half presents itself. You begin by assigning duties – who will go out scavenging, who will stand guard, and who will sleep. The scavenger chooses tools (shovels, lockpicks etc), weapons (crude knives and rusty, laboriously re-constructed pistols with bullets hand-made from traded gunpowder and old casings), plus any items for trade, and sets off. A map of the town then presents itself, with various locations marked on it. These increase as the days wear on, and include a bombed church, the hospital, ruined cottages, a devastated supermarket and so on. To begin with, they’re not that unsafe, but as more and more of them unlock, the risks gradually increase from bands of frightened homeless people huddled in school basements, to paranoid homeowners barricaded in relatively unscathed suburban villas, to rebel snipers and armed bandits. Creeping around in the smoking ruins of your former life, praying to find food (the holy grail) before sunrise, is incredibly tense. Small red ‘pings’ illustrate noises heard around you, and these could be anything from a mouse to another person. What you find, and whether you make it back unscathed, is nearly always a game-changer. The first time you meet other looters is nerve-wracking. When I encountered armed bandits in the ruins of a supermarket, I almost filled my trousers. But for all that, it’s also strangely relaxing. Your goals are clear, get what you can and get out, and your decisions are (mostly) simple ones: do you take more wood and try to block-up the holes in the wall, or do you drop some and make space for more of those dried herbs that maaaay help fight Roman’s infection? Do you stealthily rob the elderly couple of their last few vegetables, probably condemning them to death? Having the power of life and death, whether your judgement is delivered directly or indirectly, is somehow much easier to cope with than watching your friends slowly dying in front of your eyes at home.
This brings us back to the daytime, and the people you share it with. These people are the heart of TWOM, and 11 bit have absolutely excelled at making their random misfits believable, sympathetic characters. You begin each game with three different people under your control. On my first go, I got Bruno, a celebrity TV chef, Katia, a journalist, and Pavle, a footballer with the local team. Everyone begins in reasonably good condition and has a short bio that slowly grows, recording their major thoughts and feelings about the events of the game. These are accessed by simple, postcard-like images in one corner (which, brilliantly, also occasionally blink at you in the manner of those gifs animated with tiny details). Their postcards also list one major skill (such as Good scavenger, Good cook, Fast runner), and one major character trait (Coffee drinker, Smoker etc). The former provide a bonus on scavenging runs, the latter – well, the latter can mean the difference between the will to live another day and curling up in the basement to die. Graphically, the characters move in a fluid, believable way that recalls the venerable Flashback or the original Prince of Persia, and there’s something about the small, photo-realistic, probably mo-capped figures that makes you lean in to the screen to study them more closely. As with nearly everything about TWOM, its technical accomplishments as a ‘game’ actually serve to break down its ‘gameness’ and close the emotional gap with you as the player.
So your survivors slowly fall part in front of your eyes. They begin to starve, they become dangerously ill, they get depressed, develop survivor’s guilt, sometimes even commit suicide. These extremes can take a long time to develop, which makes it all the worse. Like watching a beloved pet suffer in its old age, you start to think that it would be better if everyone just died. But you can’t let that happen. You can’t, because life must go on, and you’ll do what it takes to make sure your survivors’ lives go on. This thinking can take you two ways – to insurmountable guilt the first time you murder someone in their sleep for a bottle of unmarked pills, because otherwise Emelia the talented lawyer will die, and to a brief, tear-stained burst of hope for the future, when you turn around and give those pills to two children whose mother is dangerously ill a block away. Occasionally, new people will bang on your door with various requests, and sometimes even ask to join you. You can send them away again, or let them in to join your group. Even though it means an extra mouth to feed, it could be that your newcomer is still relatively fit and healthy and will be able to turn your group’s fortunes around. In this way, as the days pass into weeks, a rolling narrative is formed that makes everything so much more real and meaningful. You regard the grateful, eager new ones with a wistful eye, wondering if they’ll ever be as helpful as poor Bruno, killed by a sniper on a run to the town square, and then remember that Bruno died… ages ago. TWOM excels at creating these deeply personal narratives that, if you approach the game honestly and with an open attitude, throw all your choices in to mercilessly stark contrast. Kill one to save one. Save one and let another die. It all gets horrendously complicated and in this regard is quite wearying. If the game has one failing, it’s that more sensitive gamers may manage one good, epic play-through and then not touch it again for a long time.
But ultimately, This War of Mine succeeds on so many levels that even one, long go at it is well worth your time and money. It succeeds as a war game because it sings a song that brings you closer than you’ll (hopefully) ever get to the feeling of being trapped in a warzone, as opposed to the simple, one-note adrenal melodies of MoH, CoD and BF et al. It also succeeds as art, because it provokes deep thought and deeper feelings. In this respect, it’s closer to some of Telltale Games’ best adventures than any sort of blood-stained military efforts. Finally, it succeeds as just a damn good game that’s fun and highly rewarding to play. Yes, at the end of the day, you are just clicking things on a screen, working out systems and mechanics in order to ‘win’ (high scores in This War of Mine will undoubtedly be measured in days – I made it to Day 10 on my first go, which took around 4 hours of real time). But the consequences of those clicks are more powerful than a hundred head-shots, knife kills or terrorist take-downs. To paraphrase the meme, ‘You don’t play TWOM, TWOM plays you.’
An emotional ride you’ll remember for years to come.
What we say
Ultimately, This War of Mine succeeds on so many levels that even one, long go at it is well worth your time and money. At the end of the day, you are just clicking things on a screen, working out systems and mechanics in order to ‘win’. But the consequences of those clicks are more powerful than a hundred head-shots, knife kills or terrorist take-downs. To paraphrase the meme, ‘You don’t play TWOM, TWOM plays you.’