On my very first playthrough of This War Of Mine, I was doing a recorded first impression video piece. Knowing that you're preparing something for an audience makes you play games differently. Certain behavioural traits can become exaggerated, you might play up a reaction for the sake of the camera or microphone, and there's always a little part of your mind conscious of the performative aspects. As well as playing through a game, you're often seeking to ensure that experience is watchable and personality-driven, filling the air with speech where normally you'd be silent.
It sort of wrecks the atmosphere for a game like This War Of Mine. Some game work better when you can reflect alone on the things that you've done.
During that first playthrough, which you can watch on this very page, I came across an old couple, waiting out the war that rages on in the background of this game, who were counting down the days until their son returned to them. In my flippant state of performance, I gleefully killed them and stole all of their things, such was my desperate need for supplies. And then I stopped. This was no rubble-strewn ruin filled with suspicious renegades who would have killed me for what little I had. There were pictures and ornaments and letters and a fireplace. The old couple might have even given me stuff had I asked or tried any other tactic than beating them senseless and picking their corpses clean. As much as I'd resisted the oppressive gloom of the game up until that point, I just had to stop.
Two days later, one of my survivors would kill themselves out of sheer misery, another would die of illness, and my last remaining soul would get shot by bandits.
You didn't make it, the screen glared at me. It seemed to enjoy saying that.
This War Of Mine is, in many ways, a little like The Walking Dead, but with the stabilisers off. Instead of a zombie apocalypse, there's a vicious and brutal conflict that has destroyed the city you're in and rubbished prevailing notions of morality and ethical behaviour. It's every man, woman, and child for themselves, and basic things like food and medicine are in short supply. You start with three characters, each with their own particular skill sets, and your job is to stay alive until the fighting stops. It's easier said than done.
The game presents players with a side-on view, removing the facades of buildings like dilapidated dollhouses, and letting you flit between the tiny gaggle of survivors at your disposal. Days are spent fixing your house up, ensuring that there's food and water, repairing things like the stove for cooking, and smashing in locked doors in the hopes of finding useful items. At night, you can take to the streets and scour nearby buildings, attempt to trade with other pockets of humanity, or if you have the firepower and muscle you can simply try to take what you need by force. You can't queue up actions, which can make things a little dicey at times, and a lot of time is spent staring at the walls, waiting for time to pass so you can venture out under cover of darkness.
Of course, there's always the risk of getting raided while you're away.
Every decision matters in this game. Do you leave someone behind to guard the house, or will you need the extra manpower? How much do you trust the folk around you? Can you afford to be sceptical when there are lives on the line? The mood of your survivors matters as well. Keep them fed and healthy and morale will be high -- they'll banter and quip in positive fashion. But if they fall sick and there's no medicine to be had, or if you do something morally repugnant, if days go by without food or sleep, they'll get tired and depressed. People are resources in this game just as much as sustenance and weapons and items of value. A good scavenger can mean the difference between life and death, a good thief can prove invaluable, and keeping your heavy healthy can mean the difference between staying safe and getting completely cleaned out just as things start getting even tougher.
I don't go into these games with a particular mindset, normally. And beyond that first, flippant playthrough, I approached the game from a personal honest perspective. I like to think of myself as a good person, and I try to do right by people when it comes to games which bestow decision-making capabilities on the player that can impact those around them. But This War Of Mine doesn't allow for that really. Its difficulty curve is steep, but not insurmountable if you're methodical and careful, yet you will fail, and the game will force you to chip away pieces of humanity from your charges as you scrabble around trying to survive. It shifts and changes each time you play, but the oppressive gloom and the tough choices remain broadly similar. It's a game that's frequently not particularly enjoyable to play, but one that's nearly always captivating and compelling.
It's a game that warrants reflection, and one that cultivates a deep sense of empathy with the victims of war as you play through the game, something that occurs thanks to the random generation of circumstances that shift between each playthrough, and the freedom that you have in essentially forging your own narrative. In fact, the only area in which the game really suffers, is when 11 Bit attempt to force story into proceedings themselves. The dialogue is a little clunky, and the obituaries that greet each character's demise are somewhat overwrought -- a clumsy hammering home of a point we've already gotten. But where This War Of Mine succeeds is in making the player an active part of this morally bankrupt society, and provoking understanding and empathy even as monstrous deeds are committed in the name of survival. It reaches an emotional level that games such as The Last of Us can never really reach by allowing us to go through that process ourselves. Interaction is the entire point -- that survival is what you make of it, morality what you deem to be acceptable under the circumstances, and that sometimes there are no good options when it comes to the choices that we have to make.
- Incredibly atmospheric
- Unforgiving world is deeply compelling
- No two playthroughs ever the same
- Deeply empathetic - emotion driven through gameplay
- Some small moments of heavy-handed writing
The Short Version: A deeply atmospheric, emotionally compelling game that manages to treat war as a serious topic and examines the hard choices made by those caught in the middle of conflict. You might not particularly enjoy your time with This War Of Mine, but it's definitely a game you ought to play, being one of the finest critiques of war that this medium has to offer.
9 – EXCELLENT: Only the exceptional need apply here. There might be one or two slight blemishes, but overall games that score a 9 are genre-leaders: must-have titles with perhaps the odd imperfection. You won’t be wasting a single penny in buying a game that scores this high. A few games of this calibre will make it worth spending hundreds on a console or powerful enough PC. Killer apps, indeed.
Developer: 11 Bit Studios
Publisher: 11 Bit Studios