Flipping the established script, This War of Mine is unique in its depiction of videogame combat. Rather than playing as a grizzled soldier on the frontlines of battle, you instead inhabit the role of a group of civilian survivors trying to eat, sleep, and stop themselves from falling into depression or ill health as best they can. Keeping everybody alive by foraging for food, weapons, medication and equipment is your primary concern, while simply making it through the night or finding a good meal is cause for celebration. Headshots do not apply. Violence is a lethal last resort.
Initially you control a group of three strangers. Your primary interaction is to direct each of them around a cross-section of a war-torn house, searching through rubble for resources and building items on a basic survival tech tree. This is their base of operations. It’s where they’ll spend hours crafting chairs or a makeshift radio, patching up holes in the walls or collecting rainwater; setting traps to capture animals, or cobbling together semi-functional medications from local herbs. If they’ve any chance for happiness then it’s within those four walls, so your primary goal is to make this a comforting, warm environment in which they can relax, recharge and recuperate.
Could you steal from your neighbour?
It’s not an easy task. The atmosphere is overbearing; heavy pencil lines accompany starkly desaturated visuals, while explosions flash in the distance and gunfire is carried on the wind to haunt your little corner of the world. The musical score is understated, complimenting the sombre tone, and while you’re never told much about the war in which all this devastation is set (though the trailer suggests Sarajevo), it’s clear that this is their last-chance saloon; their one solitary anchor point amidst the chaos. It’s everything, and it could be wiped out in a second.
To keep them alive you’ll need to manage their requirements in the manner of The Sims, and the rubble and debris in the building itself provides a gentle introduction, with enough resources to get them through the first couple of days. Perhaps a wood burner can be built to keep everybody healthy and warm, or maybe a stove to best utilise the scant amount of available food and keep strength levels topped up. That tiny box of medication found in the bathroom cabinet might be used to halt an illness debilitating for one of the group, or building a bed might speed their recovery and allow for much-needed rest.
So far, so good. While the needs of each individual are measured out with simple words (“sad”, “hungry”, “very tired”, etc), their solutions are equally straight forward. Before you know it though, your supply of food and fuel runs out; the temperature plummets, and there aren’t enough resources left to make any water filters. What to do? There’s only one choice. The clock is ticking, and they need to head out under cover of darkness and scavenge the warzone.
The message is pretty clear
Those night-time hunts make up phase two of a single-day cycle, which is then repeated 40+ times provided you make it to the end of a campaign.
Potential resource areas are dotted around the city map, but their contents are only hinted at (“lots of meds”, “Some parts”, “Danger”, “Potential trade”, etc). A quick synopsis of each locale is also present however, raising some interesting moral choices for you to consider before heading out. Do you risk the supermarket taken over by the military in the chance of finding food? Maybe not. Perhaps that abandoned house is a safer bet, but it’s only got a small amount of resources to grab. So maybe the house to the north of the city is the best bet, but, it’s still inhabited by a lovely old couple. Do you have the heart to steal from them?
Those decisions matter. Whatever atrocities take place at night will affect the mood of your group for weeks, sometimes sending individuals over the edge. Stealing can be as devastating as outright murder in this world, but as winter draws in, the needs of your group become ever greater while potential supply points become less fruitful. You need to become cold, sometimes sacrificing the sanity of one member in your group for the sake of survival for the rest. It’s never an easy decision.
Defending yourself is necessary
Violence is always an option in This War of Mine, but it’s usually a result of circumstance or surprise. When scavenging a factory you might stumble across a group of paramilitary troops boasting about destroying an aid convoy, but such opportunities for relatively consequence-free action are few and far between. Other survivors might surprise you in the darkness and engage by mistake, while the contents and occupants of some locations are so heavily disguised as to become a real sucker-punch when you learn of their origin. Sneak, if you can. Leave the humans undisturbed.
When the day begins again, so again does that desperate cycle. Create what you can, feed whomever you’re able, send the wounded to recuperate. For a game so heavily based on human needs and moods however, it is more than a little strange that each member of your group is essentially isolated from the others, even while under the same roof. They never really interact outside of a few bits of optional biographical text that describe their feelings towards the night’s events, and yet there were numerous points in which I was screaming out for a “hug” command. He needs help, can’t you see?
THIS WAR OF MINE VERDICT
Regardless of its shortcomings, This War of Mine is a hugely powerful game. Your reaction to those stark visuals and battles of conscience will dictate what you take away from it, but make no mistake, this is a grim, grim experience, and I’d hesitate to state that any of its content is “enjoyable” in a traditional fashion. The survival-game building blocks are solid however, and there is a straightforward message here that modern-day war is capable of sucking the humanity from even the most virtuous soul. Occasional moments of levity and human interaction do manage to cut through its gloom with beacons of short-lived hope, and it’s those sporadic sequences that drive you forward.
You need to get your survivors through this, but the human cost is never less than tangible.