This War of Mine
Inspired by the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war This War of Mine is a mature, bleak depiction of civilian life during wartime. Developed by 11 bit studios, the game tasks the player with managing the lives of a group of survivors in besieged city. It’s a simulation game with a heavy emphasis on resource and party management in the vein of titles such as Oregon Trail and FTL: Faster Than Light.
The ultimate goal is very simple: survive to the cease-fire. To do this, the player must keep the group healthy by managing their level of sickness, hunger, emotional state, and making sure they get enough sleep. Each survivor has a special ability that they contribute to the team. Some survivors are better at preparing food and can make more meals with fewer resources than others. Some can clear ruble faster than others and some can carry more loot in their backpacks. Exploiting each survivor’s skill is critical to making it to the end of the game. If even one character is temporarily unavailable due to being sick, wounded, or depressed it severely cuts the chances of the party surviving.
One of the things the game does well is forge an emotional connection between the player and each member of the party. At the start of a game you’re given a random group of survivors, each with their own back-story. None of them are commandos, ex-marines, or secret agents. These are normal people who never planned on getting caught between two armies trying to kill each other. As the game progresses the survivors flesh out their feelings in heartbreaking journal entries. Living to the end of each day often means making cruel decisions, including robbing, killing, and turning away neighbors seeking help. These choices have a heavy emotional toll, and witnessing your party’s morale degrade because of them is never easy.
The game is divided into day segments and night segments, with a ticking clock constantly reminding the player to work quickly in order to do what is necessary to live. This is all presented in an ‘ant farm’ style, with the player seeing everything from a side perspective. During the day, the survivors remain in the abandoned house they’ve claimed as their own to craft weapons and tools, cook food, and upgrade the house. At night the player can have people sleep, guard the house from raiders, or go out scavenging. When scavenging the player controls one member of the party in a new location for a very brief period of time and tries to scour and collect as many resources as possible before the sun rises. There’s also the possibility of running into friendly or unfriendly survivors, such as another scavenger, the military, or the residents of the place you’re looting. These characters sometimes want to trade with you, but often simply want to kill you for your stuff. Players may choose to defend themselves, but you’ll generally only have a crowbar or a kitchen knife with which to do it. Overall, other characters are so deadly that fighting is discouraged, especially early in the game. Hiding and sneaking through an occupied building is much more viable, and provides a great deal of tension. It’s a welcome change from game play during the day, which can feel static.
On the aesthetic front This War of Mine presents an intentional ugliness, immersing players in a damp, dirty, and dark world. Even during the day there’s little evidence of the sun as an almost constant rain, peppered with shots of thunder, assaults the survivors’ spirits. The house where you spend the days at first feels like a sanctuary, shielding you from the horrors going on outside, but quickly starts to take on the vibe of prison as the war drags on. A plethora of tiny details can be found in the house and the locations you visit at night. Paintings on the walls, sticky-notes on fridges, bicycles in hallways, half torn sheets covering windows, all of it harmonizes to create a distinct sense of gloom and anguish. What stands out most is the game’s atmospheric soundtrack. Solemn guitars, dark horns, and eerie synth sounds create a tone that conveys misery and hopelessness. A personal highlight during my time with the game was when, after nearly twenty days, my characters were able to build a radio and found a classical music station. There is an almost overwhelming feeling of joy when, immersed in darkness, you find a tiny bit of light that reminds you of your own humanity. Perhaps This War of Mine takes that as its thesis.
This War of Mine doesn’t always stick the tricky balance between being engaging and the weighty themes it wants to explore. Late in the game it’s possible to master the day-to-day needs of living, leaving the player with little to do other than save up for another upgrade. Additionally some players might wish for a different way to control the characters, as the point and click nature of movement can sometimes feel clunky. Still, none of these issues go so far as to break the great atmosphere and tension developed early in the game.
If you’re looking for an interesting spin on simulation games, or if you take your games as bitter and cheerless as black coffee then This War of Mine is what you’ve been waiting for.