War. It’s a common thing in video games as is the violence that results from it. Very few games remember the horrors of war, and that is the core of This War of Mine. You don’t play as a muscled soldier, gruff commander, or spy. You play as a group of civilians; people trapped in a country at war with no way out. Some have strengths that help them survive in these desperate conditions, but none of these are the right people for the job. They aren’t trained for war, but it’s the situation they are left in. Unprepared and left to fend for themselves, it’s your job to guide them from this nightmare.
The gameplay of This War of Mine isn’t complicated. You point and click, and that’s pretty much the gist of it. Depending on the context you will perform different actions, such as scavenging through a pile of rubble or hitting a guy. While the system is very simple, that simplicity is what makes This War of Mine compelling.
If someone asked me to tell them what genre This War of Mine belong to, it would be difficult to place it. In the big picture, it’s a dark survival game, but it also has elements of point-and-click adventure games and roguelikes. If you fail to guide your group to survival after all, you will have to start all over again if you want to try and push through to the end.
The characters you control are human beings not ready for the conditions of war. If people in the group die, if they are unable to help others at crucial moments, or if bad things happen to them, they will start to break down emotionally. Other people in the group can comfort them, but they are still emotionally damaged, and it will make it difficult for them to keep going, falling into depression or worse.
The human element of This War of Mine runs very deep. Group members might want to satisfy old addictions such as smoking, and become depressed if they can’t. They need hope, or even a semblance of normalcy in the form of a comforting book. In the end though, there is nothing you can do to stop them from suffering. At some point, you’ll come across someone that you will not be able to help. To survive, you may need to be willing to go to extremes, or sometimes even be selfish.
There are emotional scenes and harsh moral choices scattered throughout. A man wants to help his son, but needs you to take time to clear a blocked door. A man is hungry, and needs food from you, but will you waste a night of scavenging to return to help him with some of your essential supplies? Sometimes helping people will reward you, but sometimes it won’t and you’ll need to wonder if your charity is doing more harm than good.
Despite wanting to do the right thing, you can’t save or help everyone. This is a brutal truth that you will need to confront at some point, no matter how lucky you are. Especially in your first few times through, which will most likely lack success thanks to a low level of guidance from the game. Just as if you were in a real situation like this, you’ll need to figure it out for yourself.
As it is in the real world, there is no ‘choice wheel’ to direct your decisions along predetermined paths. No dialogue option to decide what you want to do. You either help, or you don’t, and most of the time it is a purely gameplay move you make. Which, despite simple mechanics, still feels more natural than decisions you normally make in games. That in turn makes the decisions more engaging — especially when the consequences are this dire.
The choices you make in This War of Mine can cause your character to become sick, tired, or hungry. They can also become depressed from a recent event, or starving from a consistent lack of food. What makes that compelling is when those things show in the way each character moves, the sounds they make, and their animations as they shift and shuffle their feet to show just how aware they’ve become of their grim situation. At their lowest moments they may break down and refuse to move for extended periods, making it more difficult to produce things essential to your survival, or refusing to go out scavenging, making the situation even worse.
To survive, your group will need a lot of supplies. Food is the most important, naturally, but there are many other things that can be just as essential to survival. You’ll need weapons to defend the group, parts to build tools and equipment, and materials to build your new home into something more livable and defensible. In order to acquire these things, you have to go out at night to scavenge around the war-torn city because going out in the daytime is too dangerous.
There are many things that make surviving more difficult. At night when out scavenging, your home will be assaulted by looters on a frequent basis. Sadly, they aren’t that different from your group, simply trying to survive by stealing your few possessions. There are also people out in the city that are not friendly, only looking out for themselves and their own survival, shooting others on site. There is hunger, cold, and despair to contend with on top of everything else. This War of Mine is a very difficult game, and it should be, because the lives your group lead are not easy.
Scavenging has a small collection of frustrations associated with it. The combat is really finicky at times, and trying to fight someone in melee range is a barrage of rapid clicking that almost always ends badly for you. Sometimes you will get caught and need to run, but when you click to run somewhere it will occasionally sluggishly react to your direction, which can easily result in your death.
Overall though, the stealth gameplay is easy to understand.. Sometimes, you won’t even know what is making noise out of your line of sight, adding truth to the phrase “Fog of War”. What your character can’t see is shrouded, and your only clue to potential living dangers is a red ping moving around elsewhere in the current building. It could be a rat, or it could be a man with a shotgun ready to kill you. You won’t know until you check, and the consequences for being wrong can be fatal.
Obviously scavenging is about picking up supplies, but the decisions you need to make on what to carry with you in your limited space for that night are always harsh. You will also need to determine what the group needs most, and remember if you’ve left something important behind so you can return to retrieve it later… even if you are retrieving it off of the corpse of a dead member of the group.
Compelling is a great word to describe This War of Mine. At some points, all allusions to you having fun are thrown out the window. But, somehow, that’s the beauty of it. An experience like this doesn’t need to be fun to be engaging — especially when, even as much as you’d like to deny it, there is truth behind it all. The dark, simple, and gritty graphical style, low-key music, and the donation link on the main menu says it all. These kind of things really happen. This experience is inspired by the real stories that are created in warzones everyday.
There are some small issues with the game that can occasionally break immersion. The experience can feel too “gamey” at times, such as how the rainwater collector always gives you the same amount of water. There is a lack of game speed controls, leading to a lot of waiting around while actions, especially digging through rubble, are being performed — I keep my Nook nearby for these times. Actions in your home don’t finish if you use the button to skip to the end of the day, meaning you have to wait while your group members sleep if you don’t want them to be tired at night.
But in the end, the game is punishing until you get better at it, accurately portraying the harsh life of civilians in a warzone. The emotional moments are compelling and ring true in the best and worst ways. The moral decisions are engaging and natural. The game is dynamic and changes each time through. Most importantly though, it shows that there doesn’t need to be zombies or science-fiction phenomena for bad things to happen. People make them happen, and that drove home some of the most emotional realizations I’ve ever had while playing a videogame or even just experiencing any piece of art.
This War of Mine shows, like many recent indie games, that you don’t need to have a big budget or a big team to be creative and invent an engaging experience. It shows you don’t need to have a game grand in scale, directed and complicated in narrative, or beautiful in graphics to convey the deepest of emotions. It shows the real horrors men and women go through in war, and it does it in an elegantly simple way.