This War of Mine review – Staying alive

Karl R. de Mesa

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This War of Mine review – Staying alive
Karl de Mesa lives through the horrors of war through the eyes of the noncombatants struggling to survive

Genre: Survival strategy/simulation
Suggested for: Gamers who like left of center war games, gamers big on emotional and narrative-driven stories, people who like side-scrollers.

Available platforms: Microsoft Windows, OS X, Linux.

Warning: This review contains minor spoilers.

MANILA, Philippines – Two things you need to know right off the bat about This War of Mine. First, it’s one of the nominees for 2014 Game of the Year, in the “Games for Change” category.

Second, it’s not, despite the stark look of its teasers, a shooter of any stripe.

I knew that coming in. I just downloaded the Steam client on my laptop so I bought it at a holiday discount of 15% off, for P425. It was a paltry price to pay for this top-shelf game.

The surprise of managing the survival of a group of (at the start) three civilians, in a city torn apart by the tail end of war, is caustic and intense and full of unexpected emotional resonance.

I died after less than a week on my first try and, so challenged, I dove right back into this side-scroller with visuals like a surrealist pencil sketch on meth, the ruined house that passed for our shelter and the bombed out, looted parts of the city where I hunted for food like a Van Gogh in palettes of only grey and orange.

We only come out at night

Conditions are harsh, to say the least. During the day snipers outside stopped me from leaving the shelter, so I needed to focus on maintaining our hideout. At night I got a chance to scavenge nearby locations for items that would help us stay alive.

On my second run I lasted longer, having gotten the hang of scavenging, knowing what items for barter to look for, building make-shift stoves, crafting weapons for our defense, and generally making better headway in carrying my group through the bad days.

This time the gamut of the experience opened up as I explored the city. I gave meds to kids with a dying mom even if we needed it more, got drunk on moonshine because we had nothing to eat, had to kill a priest for supplies — which broke our best negotiator and she refused to even stand after that. After a bit more than two weeks of starvation and brutality all my survivors died.

“This War of Mine” is depressing. It’s also realistic and gritty. Props must go to 11-bit Studios, the independent outfit that developed this.

Inspired by the 1992 to 1996 “Siege of Sarajevo” during the Bosnian War, the game sets itself apart from most war-themed video games by focusing on civilians during wartime rather than frontline combat.

I don’t know how they managed to pack in one of the least desirable experiences of humanity in a side-scroller that has pretty basic point and click UI missions, but they did.

“Is it for kicks?”

The game isn’t perfect what with the construction tree often getting in the way of actual builds, plus there’s little chance of propping your survivors up again after they’ve gone to the “Depressed” end. But the larger discussion here is: why play a disempowering game that has the odds stacked against you as a civilian? Or why make one at all?

One of my friends on Facebook asked exactly that after I posted photos of my second run at the game. This “friend” was an elderly woman, a non-gamer, and – just to put it into context – one of those people on FB I haven’t actually met in person.

Hers was a valid question but one that, being a journalist and creative (and a horror author), baffles me. But I thought I owed her a better than average explanation without condescension or pandering, or crafted in an offhand witty quip.

Below was our exchange: ‪

NON-GAMER: Karl, why enter the matrix to experience suffering of war when there is real war out there in the world? Why does your intellect, curiousity, humanity want this? Is it for kicks? is it for understanding? In your opinion what is the appeal? I am trying to understand.

ME: The developers [11-Bit Studios] made the game so people would better understand the plight of the war torn. Having covered areas of conflict on assignment, having been an activist who bore arms, and being a games reviewer I’d say they achieved their original mission with respect and great sympathy. But don’t take it from me, I suggest YOU play the game AND make a donation to the WarChild effort that part of the game’s proceeds go to. At the very least it’ll kill a few hours; at its most effective i hope the narrative lets you immerse in the shoes of the dispossessed and gain insight you didn’t have before free of pre-supposed opinion and agenda.

NON-GAMER: I know I can never play video games again although I tried a little some years ago. I enjoy science fiction on the level of future landscapes. This game sounds like once-upon-a-time fictitious games of novels are now a reality. I looked the game up first before asking you, then took a chance that even if I don’t know you personally, that someone like you could be thoughtful about reviewing the game and sharing insight on this virtual experience of war. So thank you for sharing. If you feel that it was fine with respect and sympathy I think I can take your word for it.

One must ask questions to learn more. One MUST delve deeper, poke around, stick their neck out, sometimes risking humiliation… and ask questions. There are times FB might create openings like these where I can take away new insight. Thank you for a gracious clear answer. I hope others who play the game gain at least as much as you have on the level of compassion and connection to communities in war torn areas near and far.

ME: Thanks for the trust. I think the crux of your dilemma is right there: NOT playing videogames and going into it defined by the thinking that they’re still, well, games you “play” when they are now their own convergent blend of storytelling and art, letting us take on roles and experience unique moral choices we never could. GTA4 featured refugees fleeing the Balkan war committing crimes to survive, one Call of Duty needed you to mow down women and kids at an airport so you could keep your cover and get to the head of a terrorist organization. This War of Mine is even more outstanding in the post-war survival genre letting us know how extremely non-combatants can suffer after a city is ruined by strife. You don’t play it as much as it plays you, conveying the message that often, in those scenarios, there are only bad choices – none of them evil.

Survivalism 101

KATIA DIED. The author loses one of his survivors. Screen shot from the game.

Now that I’m writing this review, in retrospect, I think what makes TWOM different is intent.

The developers have scattered the lessons of war and their effect on civilians across the game play, whether it’s on graffiti scattered across the city or in the thought bubbles of your survivors themselves as subtly as they can.

They may sound platitudinous (“War can arrive at anybody’s door step”, “In war, not everyone is a solder”, “During war, there are no good or bad decisions; there is only survival”) but they hit home once you start playing.

Pawel Miechowski of 11 Bit Studios confirmed as much in an interview with “Whatever gameplay mechanics are in the game, it’s not our idea but our translation of the facts that we know about war as seen from the perspective of civilians.” 

THIS is how hard it has to be exactly because the people at development researched that this is how hard it was. And now that you have an iota of the amount it takes to endure, maybe you’ll be motivated to donate to the WarChild charity effort that TWOM and other games are partnered with?

So far, 17 days is the longest I’ve lasted and I’m playing TWOM again for the fifth time, now on an update patch that allows you access to a new shelter that’s better equipped to begin with (mine already had a basic heater with it) and new characters for a higher chance of survival.

A new experience this time around was seeing a soldier try to coerce a girl for sex in exchange as I looked through a peephole. After he knocked her down I got so riled up I attacked the grunt with my shovel and managed to take him by surprise and kill him – I helped the girl and was rewarded with a shotgun and some bullets for my courage.

I also learned that survivalism is hardest on a bad conscience. Before my two companions expired in one of my runs one of them had to rob an old couple to get food we critically needed. But it weighed on their conscience so much that, the next day, she refused to do anything, refused to eat and just curled up on the bed wanting to die – despite constant attempts at pep talk.

By the end it didn’t work. They both passed from starvation and wound infection. In the end, desperate and angry, I tried to raid the shelter of a better-armed group and was shot for trying to spirit away supplies.

Such goes that Hemingway quote: “. . .in modern war, there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.” And you will. –

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