This War of Mine may sound like just another Call of Duty, or any other shooter released over the past few years that features an unstoppable super soldier who makes Commando’s John Matrix look like a flunky, but 11 Bit Studios had different plans for its atmospheric war title. Rather than put players in charge of another generic military archetype, 11 Bit opted to tell the tale of This War of Mine from the perspective of the civilians living in a city that is under siege by enemy forces.
By doing so the developers were able to showcase one aspect of an armed conflict that has never really been depicted in a video game, which makes this title a very relatable experience considering most gamers will never see a battlefield while armed with future gadgetry and a rechargeable shield that keeps them alive if they hide behind cover long enough. These Michael Bay style shooters are a blast to play, but rarely do they capture the atrocities of war, rather they make war look like an extreme sport that is both fun to experience, and free of any emotional baggage. This isn’t the case in This War of Mine, which paints a very depressing picture of what happens to productive members of society when their lives are ripped from them while living in a combat zone, and its message is simple; survive at all costs, because there are no good or bad decisions while living in a hell on earth.
You are constantly presented with this conundrum and it will begin to affect you like no other war game has before it, which is just one reason why This War of Mine shines even though its tone is very dark and depressing. At the start of each game you are presented with three survivors who all have their own individual backstories. The three survivors have holed themselves up in a shelled out building with limited supplies and a slim chance of survival. It’s up to you as the player to give each of the three survivors tasks to do to improve their situation, which range from building furniture and other life sustaining apparatuses for the shelter, to formulating medicines, weapons, and tools that can be used to fend off looters, cure sick companions, and scavenge for new life sustaining supplies.
You interface with the survivors by pointing and clicking on various icons that appear in the shelter for them to interact with. The shelter has its side cut off so you can see into it as if it were a dollhouse, so at all times you can keep an eye on each of the three party members and select them to perform actions to help keep the group alive and somewhat well. At the start of a new game the first day of action is simple because no one is sick, tired, or mentally unstable yet, but over time, either due to your actions, or actions of the AI system, these states change, so you must stay on top of them or risk losing a valuable member of your group.
The game has its own clock, so during the daylight hours you can’t venture outside to scavenge for new supplies, so you must manage your shelter and the survivor’s conditions. For example, let’s say Katia (survivors are set at random during each new game) went on a scavenging mission the previous night but got into a fight with another survivor. Upon her return her condition will change to tired and hungry because she didn’t sleep at night, and she may also be wounded from the skirmish. You must decide how to alleviate her condition, so you can choose to let her rest if you have a bed built (various items can be used to craft new items) without eating, or you could feed her if you have spare food and then let her sleep, or you could keep her awake and put her back to work in the shelter.
Here is where the emotional bond between the player and the characters begins to form, as well as the whole survive at all costs motif. If you have enough supplies from previous scavenging runs the decision on how to treat Katia is simple, but if you failed to secure enough supplies you’ll have to make some hard choices. There are also the other survivors to think about that didn’t go on the scavenging run, which takes place at night in a location you choose on a map to explore while also choosing to allow the remaining two survivors to guard the shelter, or get some sleep while the hunt for supplies takes place. If the shelter gets attacked during the night you will have to treat the wounded, but you may not have enough bandages for both Katia (wounded during the scavenge mission) and the wounded survivor that stayed behind, so you must decide which one gets the help they need. This decision may not kill the other survivor, but it will surely affect them over the coming days until you can find enough supplies to heal them as well.
Unfortunately, finding the supplies you need during the scavenger runs aren’t guaranteed. Each location lists potential items that you may find, but there is no promise that they’ll actually be there. There is also potential to run into other survivors on these hunts, and most of the time they won’t take too kindly to you sifting through the loot, so they may attack you. If you can’t run or defend yourself you will die, and the character you sent on the scavenging run will be gone forever, so there is an element of permadeath in This War of Mine, and it can legitimately make you feel emotionally wonky, because after all, you’re the one making the decisions.
In my experience I lost multiple survivors by getting greedy and staying in a location too long while knowing an enemy presence was strong. By doing so I not only lost a valuable contributor, but I also lost any supplies the character found on the run, which had far reaching repercussions for the remaining survivors. Thanks to the day and night time system I would have to wait a full day to make another supply run, but now instead of three survivors to choose from, I only had two, which meant the one staying behind would definitely lose sleep so he/she could guard the shelter, or in a worst case scenario situation they get whacked by an invader, leaving me with only one survivor, which never resulted in a happy ending. Depressed, malnourished, and sickly survivors will die if unattended, and in some cases they may even take their own life due to the decisions, or lack of decisions you made, so you’re always going to be second guessing your calls knowing how they can potentially impact the future of your fragile survivors.
You will face some very tough choices in This War of Mine that can impact you personally, which is why this is such a special indie title. I’ll never forget the story of Marko, who I sent out on a scavenging mission to what I thought was an abandoned home, but upon arrival it was clear that an elderly couple was living in the residence. I had Marko enter because his fellow survivors desperately needed food and other supplies (Marko was new to the crew after Katia died, which is also why I desperately needed supplies because I missed a few scavenge opportunities with only two survivors on hand), so the old man confronted Marko and pleaded with him to leave them alone. I had Marko rummage through a few areas anyway, to which the old man still made pleas against, but I had to bring supplies back for my team or they would die. I then stumbled upon some much needed medicine, but the old man pleaded forcefully with me not to take it because his wife needed it to stay alive, but I took it anyway, which completely made me feel awful in real life as I did it. Once Marko returned home his mental state went into the toilet after stealing from the old couple, so like me, he knew what I had him do was wrong, but again, in war there are no bad choices, there is only survival, so I found this experience to be chilling, and one that perfectly highlights what This War of Mine is all about, as well as how horrific it would be to live in a war torn city.
11 Bit’s latest title is a gem to behold with its simplistic, yet very artistic visual design, which is complimented perfectly by a somber soundtrack that keeps the tone of the game feeling overly depressing and void of hope. Although, it’s the interaction with the survivors and the awful decisions you must make that turn This War of Mine into one of those special titles that can transcend its interactive digital medium and make the player feel real emotions over what they’re experiencing. The gameplay is thoughtful and strategic but light on action, which is the exact opposite of how most war games are portrayed, and why 11 Bit’s efforts should be applauded. These days it’s far too easy to cash in on the AAA phenomena of big budget shooters that feel like Hollywood films, so this title was a refreshing, if not a slightly depressing but highly emotional experience to behold, and one that many other games, regardless of genre, fail to achieve.
I hope to never be a civilian living in a city under siege, because while This War of Mine is just a game, it’s also a reminder that millions of people, to this day and in the past, have had to live in a constant state of fear and flux due to war, which forces them to make decisions that no human should make living in a modern era, and that’s a very sad but true look at our world. The fact that a video game can translate this experience is very special, and why This War of Mine is one of the most impactful war-based video games to ever grace the entertainment medium.
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Review Statement: The author of this review was given a Steam code for this game on the Mac platform for the purposes of this review.