This War of Mine
It must have been a tough call for the developers to dare make a game based on actual events that took place in a neighboring country. 11 bit studios is a Polish-based game developer we all know and love for the Anomaly franchise of games for mobile and desktops.
This War of Mine, also cross-platform, is based on the 4-year-long Siege of Sarajevo that took place in 1992-1996 during the Bosnian War, and took the lives of one hundred thousand people, military and civilians, and ended up with NATO intervention. It was a landmark point in the European history and had the deep, controversial effects on international relations of the key nuclear states.
The reason I am dipping my toes in the historical background is because I like to notice things like ethics and things that are sacred to humanity, or at least that part of us who have the notion. Blood is thicker than water, and we keep capitalizing on or seeking entertainment in that. What do the real survivors of the Siege of Sarajevo think about the game then? Probably, the same things the survivors of Hiroshima think about Blindflug’s First Strike. At the end of the day, This War of Mine is a game that could make a difference in this world, just like the First Strike could. But the skeptic in me tells me it’s just that – a successful game that will make you sad for a while.
Down at its core, TwoM is a resource management survival strategy that takes you to the heart of the besieged city. Instead of placing you in the shoes of a J.I.Joe with a sniper rifle, a handful of grenades, a good load of muscle and fat under the skin and Datrex 3600 calorie food bars with high nutritional value in your backpack, it makes you a civilian.
You are a cook, or a soccer player, a housewife, a reporter, a lawyer, a student, a logistics manager…. you know, an ordinary civilian with no skills of survival under extremely hostile circumstances. During your first gameplay, the game gives you a team, well not exactly a team – they are just stuck together, of three men Pavle, Marko and Bruno. Overall, there are 12 playable characters you unlock with each new re-start.
By day, they hide in the ruins of a shelled building, gathering the meager resources they could find in it and trying to rest, feed and heal, or sleep. They don’t go out at daytime because the snipers are taking down everything that is moving. At night, one of them has to go out to scavenge for food supplies, water, ammo, meds and whatever equipment they can find.
You control the three of them at the same time and your goal is to keep them alive till the randomized ceasefire comes into effect – each time it’s at a different stage of the game. However, surviving does not just involve a practical and reasonable resource and character management. It involves something much worse – moral choices.
Do you steal meds from a sick man? Do you kill an elderly couple for a food ration? Do you pass by when an armed slug is raping a woman, or do you intervene and save the girl, but most likely die because you’re unarmed? Do you leave your best scavenger hungry and let his wounded companion have the only meal in the backpack? How much a consolation can you offer when one of your companions is sobbing all night after killing someone on a scavenge hunt gone bad?
The game is jam-packed with these choices, and your careful planning and resource management skills may still see you sending all your heroes to an untimely death – at least that’s what I keep doing. After all, life is not just about survival, but about doing the right thing.
Explaining how it works is a bit tricky, but the good part is the game makes the multitude of commands an intuitive affair, so by the time you go out to scavenge, you will have the UI and controls sorted out.
Each character has a portrait at the bottom right corner. If you don’t see the character on the screen, just tap their portrait and the game will show where they are. From the portrait, you can read the character’s bio, and it expands as the game evolves. Emotional state and the life story is reflected there. Also, the portrait shows some basic stats about the character you should take into account, such as – hungry, starving, slightly wounded, badly wounded, on meds, depressed, tired, exhausted, etc. These will help you make choices – who goes out scavenging, who gets to sleep in a bed, who gets to guard the hideout.
Also, a special skill is important, so keep that in mind when you choose characters for specific actions. For example, Marko is a skilled scavenger, so it might be a good idea to keep him strong for the night while Bruno is an excellent cook, which means he can make a good meal using less resources and optimizing the little ingredients they have to feed the three of them.
Now, the hideout has several areas highlighted with action bulbs for medicine, food, gear and upgrade. The kitchen, or what’s left of it is where the medicine and food is. Select a character and tap on the action button – the character will go there and complete the action.
The gear icon lets you craft stuff from the materials and equipment you have. What possibly can you craft under the circumstance? A simple bed is very important and lets you sleep better and get sick less. A radio gives you the heads-up about the dangers and events. A simple stove lets you cook some raw food and keep a room warm. A shovel lets you clear the rubble quicker. There are a lot of things you can make, but for that you need resources.
Finally, when you have enough of resources and gear, you can improve some aspects of your daily struggle.
So, the resources issue brings us to the scavenge part. The character who goes out to scavenge has a limited number of slots in his backpack, and he or she can take something from the shelter, like a weapon for self defense or cigarettes, coffee or medicine for trade. Each slot in the backpack can contain multiple identical items, like 10 cigarettes, or 4 wooden planks.
There are 22 locations on the map, but they are not available all by default – you unlock them as you go, but the realism of the game is you can go back to each location multiple times and get what you could not take the time before. Each re-visit leaves you with less things in this location to scavenge for, but also opens an opportunity to go through the place without the company you might have had the night before.
Some locations are desolate, others open the opportunity of trade while some are dead dangerous, so mind the button “Run to the Exit” on your left.
A neat mechanics of the game lets you peek inside rooms and have a limited view of the insides. You can also zoom in on the areas, but you can’t rotate the buildings to have a different angle, though.
One of the things I found useful is the fast-forward button – End the Day, which is useful when your people don’t have much to do but sleep during the day, and Run to the Exit when the scavenge expedition gets dangerous or pointless. When your scavenger returns, he shares the assets with his companions.
Time is also the difficulty of the character management in a way that each action has a cool-down timer. Cooking is relatively short, so is taking meds, but clearing rubble is time-consuming, especially when they do it with their bare hands. Also, they can’t complete the same task together, which brings us to the need to multitask between three or four characters on the same screen and mind who does what.
The bad part is when the task is completed, the game does not automatically zooms in on the respective action and character – you have to remember to follow-up on the action. For example, get back to Pavle after he’s cleared the rubble and check out the room behind it. Or, switch from Marko who just ate to Bruno who is starving to give him the meal. My accidental tap on the feed bubble fed Pavle three times and left Marko and Bruno starving – oh well, we all learn from mistakes.
I can’t possibly say the shelled buildings, desperate people and a city in ruins is beautiful, but TWoM definitely has the touch. Its black, white and gray ambience drags you into the depths of sadness with each screen and each thought bubble you read. The picture of the characters are animated – they blink, and close their eyes, which further deepens the emotional connection you develop.
Multiply that by the fact that whenever they get depressed, too hungry or tired, they become slow at tasks and may eventually become unresponsive. In other words, you basically start over because they are slowly dying.
It’s atmospheric and engrossing, and has the potential to induce depression in sensitive players, so be advised. The sound score is subtle, like a voice screaming in your head – nobody can hear it but you. Overall, the experience is engrossing.
This War of Mine is an incredibly addicting game, and the amount of locations and character combinations let you enjoy a huge replayability. Now that the game has crossed the great divide and made it from the desktops to handhelds, you can play on the go – no connection required. It auto-saves at the end of the day or at the end of the scavenge mission. If you need to quit in the middle of the gameplay, just hit Continue the next time you play. Or, choose a new game and start over. I can see it becoming a long-time favorite for many players. The only tiny downside is the game’s weight – some players with limited storage may have to uninstall whatever Cut the Rope fancies they had to give this game the real estate it requires.
On the one hand, the players can’t control the difficulty level, and choose an easy mode, choose to not be raided at night, or on the contrary, choose the most hardcore mode there is. The only default difficulty level here is the impossible one. You guess what it means.
On the other hand, there are plenty of things to learn and areas to explore, which makes the gameplay a realistic experience. Your people will die, and you will learn to mourn them – another word of caution for the sensitive. My girlfriend can’t play this game; she says real people died in that war, and the experience is seriously disturbing and not ok. I can’t blame her.
- Engrossing, addicting gameplay
- Intuitive UI and smooth controls
- Realistic, humane
- Controversial, thought-provoking, depression-inducing
- 12 characters, various character combinations, 22 locations
- High replay value
- Plenty of resource management and planning for the fans of the genre
- Spectacularly gloomy, atmospheric design
- I am still torn by the controversy – despite the game’s playing on the players’ humane chords, does it dehumanize the victims of the actual wars? Think a likewise game based on the Twin Towers or Pearl Harbor tragedy – would you feel equally entertained?
- The game occupies a lot of space, which might be an issue for some
- No way to adjust the difficulty, and it’s a hard game, brutal, unfair and punishing, sometimes quite frustrating
- Makes you make uncomfortable choices and ponder about your own “heroic” self
- Questionable entertainment
- One thing that I noticed is despite controlling three or four characters at the same time, I felt like each one of them, instead of feeling the one in control of them, and it creeps the hell out of me. The level of personal involvement this game induces is toxic.
According to Wikipedia, This War of Mine earned back its production costs within the first two days when it went on sale for desktops in the fall of 2014. Considering its $15 price tag, some or many of you might be on the fence about the purchase. In terms of price-to-value ratio, the game is certainly worth its cost. The production values are high – it’s polished, runs buttery smooth and is intuitive despite the complexity of the micro-management. In terms of replayability, it is a long-time appeal, with a structure perfect for short and long gameplay sessions at home or on the go, plenty of scenarios and novelty to offer in each new game. In terms of fun or entertainment, however, I am not the one to tell you if it’s your cup of tea. If there was a scale to rank it, TWoM would cover the entire spectrum from interesting to appalling – that’s how good and controversial it is.
Finally, it’s difficult to find a reason that would make the players whose reality is Christmas discounts, home-baked turkey for Thanksgiving and Pina Colada on Hawaii in summer entitled to actually enjoy the game.