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This War Of Mine takes a literal cross-section of all-too-familiar bro-shooter level design, treating the actual war as a backdrop and focusing more on the people trying to live with it - the people in the buildings that line those streets of gunfire. When war is a part of daily civilian life, how do you survive? That’s the central question of This War Of Mine, and it’s one not often explored by video games.
To be fair, this isn’t exactly the kind of “fun” experience that games tend to deal in. Life’s glum in this vaguely Eastern European corner of the world - so punishingly grim, in fact, that playing through it can be something of a miserable experience. About the first thing you see, scrawled on the side of a wall, is the phrase “fuck the war,” and it doesn’t take long for players to start echoing that statement. 11 Bit Studios have layered the misery of wartime existence into every layer of This War of Mine, from graphics and graffiti to backstory and gameplay. Whether it’s the war or survival aspect that gets you, or the sign you encounter that says “Here lies Roxy, the best dog in the world,” you will be got.
Rather than puppeteering some jingoistic gun-toter, This War of Mine sees players controlling a handful of ordinary folks trying to survive in a building at the centre of a warzone, like an extremely depressing version of The Sims. As in XCOM: Enemy Unknown, your little survivors have just enough character to get you attached, making their frequently weakened states all the more stressful to deal with. There’s rarely (if ever) a time when no characters are tired, sick, injured, cold, hungry, or sad. In order to ameliorate those issues, and thus prolong survival, measures must be taken.
But those measures rarely involve acts of violence. Even if you can scrounge together the parts to assemble a working gun or even a crowbar, actually using such weaponry is very much a last resort. Combat isn’t presented heroically - it’s either a survival tactic, or something the oppressors do. Most of the time, your actions are much more humble. During the day, your characters kick around the house, making tools, patching up holes in walls, and slowly starving/freezing/bleeding to death. There are never sufficient resources to make everything better, so decisions have to be made about whose hunger is unimportant; who gets to sleep in the one bed you’ve built. It’s busywork, and appropriately, it feels like busywork. There are precious few hours in which to do these things, and night inevitably falls with many of your characters wanting for the basics.
Night-time is where the more “gamey” sections of This War of Mine take place. You set your survivors to sleep, guard, or scavenge, then control the scavengers as they explore various locations around the blasted-out city. Once you reach a location, it’s a game of looting as many supplies as possible, while negotiating your way through the real obstacles: other people. Each location has its own little story to tell, ranging from military abuse of power to a sympathetic priest trying to do good. Some people are terrified of you; some people are hostile; some are too drunk or drugged-out to care. Dealing with these interactions is the tensest and most soul-crushing of all the game’s tasks. Do you walk away? Trade? Fight? On occasion, I made decisions that I instantly regretted, stealing from people in need or committing murder for a few scraps of food. More often, I fled from any potential human contact, because people mean trouble.
This is not a bright vision of humanity.
Playing This War of Mine is a miserable experience, frankly, and in a way, that’s a big “mission accomplished” for 11 Bit. The neverending hardship you and your little figures are forced to endure brings to mind Papers, Please, as do the compromises you’re often forced to make. In an industry overcrowded with inane modern warfare shooters, it’s heartening to see such a thoughtful look at the human cost of war. Whether it’s realistic is not my place to judge, but it’s certainly dramatic, and that’s good enough for me.