This War Of Mine Review – Who Will You Become In Hell?

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Posted November 21, 2014 by Chris Henrikson in Video Games

This War Of Mine

Developer: 11bit Studios

Publisher: None

Release Date: November 14th, 2014

Available on: PC

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My situation isn’t good at all. Katia, one of the survivors in my group, has fallen ill and is in dire need of medicine. All three of them are hungry, as they haven’t eaten in days due to losing a good chunk of their supplies during a raid on their camp from the other night. There are no more food or pills in the “safe” areas around the house where the survivors are hiding out, and thus I have no choice but to send one of them further into the city, where the spoils are greater, but so is the danger. I don’t want to risk putting one of their lives at risk, but if I don’t, all three will be dead by morning. I choose Pavle, who was an athlete before the war broke out, and thus will be able to run away the fastest if things go south. Armed with nothing but a crowbar, Pavle goes to the supermarket… But he is too late. Armed forces have already taken it over — whether they’re from one side of the civil war, the other or just survivors trying to salvage some valuables, it doesn’t matter. All that matters to me is that there is a person with a rifle standing right at the entrance. I curse my luck — if I return empty-handed Katia will not survive, but attacking him head on would be suicide. Ultimately, I choose to engage, which is an irrational choice, but then again, nothing about this war of mine is rational. Pavle pulls out his crowbar and prepares to attack. The man at the entrance looks at me. The killing shot will come any second… Except it doesn’t. “Come in, my friend”, the man tells me. “There’s plenty of food for both of us”. My mouth gapes open. As the realization of what I just witnessed reaches my brain, tears are already welling up in my eyes.

After hundreds upon hundreds of games over the years have tried to convince me that human beings will turn into savage dogs the moment they’re faced with a dire situation, This War Of Mine finally showed me this gigantic, yet often overlooked side of our species — our compassion, our empathy. The man at the door wasn’t a random mook placed there to halt my progress, or as yet another encounter on the path to the next cutscene. He was a real human being, a fellow survivor of the war who could understand my plight and despair. This nameless man had lost everything, just like everyone else, but that hadn’t turned him into a murderer, quite the opposite — it had opened his heart, causing it to share what little supplies he had with his fellow man. I had never seen anything like that, especially from a nameless, voiceless NPC that I stumbled upon.

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This War Of Mine is a brilliant masterpiece of interactive storytelling. Words can not do it justice when it comes to describing just how big of an achievement it is for gaming, in both its cultural worth and its value as a videogame, but I’m going to try anyway. Because this game is by far one of the richest, most heartbreaking and depressingly realistic ones that I have ever experienced, and it deserves to be talked about. Let’s just say there’s a reason why pretty much every major gaming outlet is covering a small indie title with little in the way of adverisement, and that is because This War of Mine is by far the strongest contender for Game of the Year that we’ve gotten thus far, as arbitrary as such a title would be given the game’s nature. This is no mere popcorn entertainment where you blast generic bad guys while dressed in a futuristic exoskeleton — this is an experience that allows you, in the smallest of ways, to live what hundreds of thousands of people are going through every single day, and it does it in an engaging way that similar titles such as Darfur Is Dying could never achieve.

The game is set in an unnamed country (located somewhere in the Balkans, judging by the architecture and the names of the characters, which makes everything all the more scary for me, considering I was born and lived most of my life in Bulgaria) which is torn apart by a horrible civil war. Interestingly enough, by the time we join the survivors, the war is already over, but peace has yet to settle in. Snipers monitor the streets, firing indiscriminately at anyone who dares to cross. Whole areas are patrolled by armed forces stationed nearby. Commodities we take for granted, such as water and electricity, have been missing for a long time. There’s barely a building in sight which has been untouched by the bombings. The civilians, caught in the middle by the conflict, have no choice but to resort to scavenging in order to survive, as any sort of currency has become worthless in this world. Really, it’s hard not to draw parallels between the setting of This War of Mine and any fictional world that has been ravaged by an apocalypse. I couldn’t help but think of the “DON’T OPEN; DEAD INSIDE” graffiti on the hospital door in The Walking Dead when I saw some writing with white chalk on a stone fence saying “SNIPER”. Except this country isn’t plagued by zombies, vampires or the aftermath of an asteroid collision, but by a very realistic armed conflict. And that makes everything about it all the more MODERATELY UNCOMFORTABLE.

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You start the game off with three survivors who have taken refuge within a half-destroyed, yet thankfully devoid of life building. Each of them has his or her own unique skill, some more useful than others — the aforementioned Pavle and Katia are a fast runner and a skilled negotiator, respectively. But regardless of their skills, all of them need to leave their comfort zone in order to survive by clearing off rubble, lock-picking doors and constructing tools and equipment from what little materials they can get their hands on. Their new home acts as a hub of sorts, which can be “upgraded” with the creation and placement of various useful items such as beds, stoves and radios. But don’t expect to turn the house into a hotel paradise — just like in The Last Of Us, the resources at your disposal are severely limited, and you will often need to make hard decisions when it comes to their use. Do you use the wood you have to build another bed so that everyone can sleep in relative comfort at night, or do you use it as fuel for the fireplace and stove?

Of course, materials aren’t the only resources that you’ll depend upon. The survivors in your care are real human beings that require food, water, rest, medicine and, to a lesser extent, entertainment. Food in particular is probably the most valuable commodity safe for firearms and ammo (which are so rare that they only start being useful long after you have started playing), as it’s extremely rare even in locations such as the supermarket. Everyone needs food, and because of the other scavengers I was only ever able to get a few cans and some meat, which needed to be cooked properly before being eaten in a process which consumes fuel. Medicine is less essential for immediate survival, provided you keep everyone out of harm’s way (though there’s no way to protect them from raiders or sickness), but you need different types of it depending on what it’s used for — pills for sickness, bandages for injury and so on. The simple act of keeping everyone alive becomes an excruciating exercise in micromanagement, and it is one that does not always even have a proper solution. I’ve rarely felt so powerless while playing a videogame as when all survivors in my group were starving and there simply wasn’t anything I could feed them with. While there’s some resources left in the house where you’ve taken shelter, the vast majority of them need to be salvaged from other locations under the cover of night, and that’s where the game truly shines.

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Once night falls, This War Of Mine turns into a full-blown stealth game where you can send one of the survivors in your group to scavenge supplies from several different locations throughout the city. Some of them are completely devoid of life and allow you to move about as you see fit, but as a rule of thumb, the safer a location is, the less items there are to take. The opposite is also true — it makes sense that places with plenty of valuables like food and medicine will have armed guards protecting them. It’s a brilliantly simple, yet also very realistic risk/reward system that feels highly appropriate for this kind of game, especially since it doesn’t tell you just how dangerous each area is and allows you to draw your own conclusions based solely on the number of supplies available there. But where you scavenge isn’t all that matters — it’s what you scavenge that truly counts. Each survivor has a certain amount of items he or she is able to carry at once, but it’s never more than 12. As such, you need to decide very carefully whether you want to sacrifice one or two of these slots in order to send your survivor with some sort of equipment like tools and weapons, or have him or her go unarmed and helpless in favor of bringing more upon returning. Even better, this mechanic forces you to make choices on the fly about what exactly you want to take and from where. Keep in mind, just like in a real war death is permanent, and if your survivor dies during a scavenge he or she is gone alongside everything that was gathered. Every moment of every scavenge is about evaluating the opportunities and choosing which risks to take, and your choice will not always be rational.

But your decisions go way beyond mere evaluation of the risks, as war is no strategy game — it’s also a situation that tests the ethics and morality of everyone involved. Each location looks and feels different from the rest in some way, and most will confront you with a moral dilemma. I already described my encounter with a compassionate soul at the supermarket, but that wasn’t the only one that stood out in my mind. The time I raided another group of survivors for the very first time also made my mouth gape, yet for completely different reasons. Prior to visiting the house, I had no idea that it was going to be inhabited, and ultimately, I had the choice of going home empty-handed or robbing innocent people who were just trying to survive, like us. I ended up picking the latter, prioritizing our own survival, and sneaked into the house where I proceeded to steal all of my victims’ food and medicine, essentially sentencing them to death. I felt terrible, and so did my characters, but I had to do it. Because that’s just what war does to people — not all people, as the man from the supermarket proved, but that’s what it did to me.

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It has been a really long time since a videogame made me feel the way This War Of Mine made me feel. It offers an experience filled with utter despair and helplessness that no linear plot or scripted events could possibly deliver. It would have been so easy for 11bit Studios to just make a very basic product with a simple storyline full of heavy-handed exposition about how bad war is. And because of the subject matter, the game still would’ve drawn praise. But that’s not what we got. Instead, we got a game that’s incredibly engaging and well-designed, with a unique setting and very interesting artstyle, but at the end of the day, This War Of Mine is so much more than the sum of its parts — it’s a simulator of human condition in what must be the Vaguely Unpleasant possible living conditions. Whether you abide by your moral values or resort to theft and murder to ensure your survival is up to you, but either way, the choice will not be easy. And for that, This War of Mine has managed to become my personal Game of the Year.


About the Author

Chris Henrikson

Ever since he first got his hands on an NES controller when he was 3 years old, Chris Henrikson has been completely obsessed with videogames of all shapes and sizes. His passion led him to study game design in the UK and, of course, to write a whole lot about videogames. Follow him on Twitter (@ChrisHenrikson1) and add him on PSN (RaidenDP1)!