War through the eyes of the powerless
War, what is it good for? For starters, it makes for easy entertainment in fiction. With the rise of war games over the last two decades, it’s common to see these experiences as nothing but an over-the-top spectacle to show off explosions and the might of the military. But in recent years, we’ve begun to see more games that pay attention to the philosophical and existential conflicts related to war.
One of my favorite last-gen games, Spec Ops: The Line, subverted expectations by reintroducing the horror and dread that war imparts on those it touches. And with last summer’s Valiant Hearts, which told the stories of men and women during World War I, I’m glad we’re seeing more of the human and emotional side of armed conflict.
Back at PAX Prime 2014, I had the opportunity to experience another such title called This War of Mine. Meeting with the developers at 11 bit studios, I got to chat about the origins and intentions they have with their survivalist take on war.
This War of Mine (Android, iOS, PC [previewed])Developer: 11 bit studiosPublisher: 11 bit studiosRelease Date: November 14, 2014 (PC)
After a war breaks out in an unnamed country, the citizens of a city caught in the crossfire are left scattered and isolated from the outside world. With the collapse of society and law, survivors must fend for themselves while avoiding the raging conflict to live another day. But as the war grows increasingly hostile, desperation and despair become more apparent, and with the remnants of society out to get you or in need of help, you’ll have to decide how far you and your allies are willing to go in order to survive.
It’s rare for a game to show this side of war, specifically the human cost of war. In other titles, the survivors would be background characters seen for only a brief moment, while the big and well-armed soldier you’d likely be playing as would make a small comment about them to show some humanity before going to mow down dozens of enemy soldiers. This is one aspect of war that the developers wanted to see more of, and having an experience from the side of powerless shows the unseen torment and misery absent from most other war games.
“My brother, who’s also the CEO [of 11 bit studios] brought me an article called ‘One year in hell’, and it’s an interview with a guy who survived a siege of a city in Bosnia during the Yugoslavian wars in the early ’90s — and the end line of the interview is that ‘when war breaks out, you are not prepared for it, and in war there are no good or bad guys, you have to do certain things in order to survive,’” said Pawel Miechowski, senior writer on This War of Mine. “We were so moved by this interview, that everyone on the team agreed that it would be great for our next game — and it certainly evolved from a game to more of an experience.”
In order to survive in the war-torn city, you’ll have to work together with your band of characters as they scavenge, build, defend, and support one another through the conflict. Your survival begins in an abandoned three-story shelter, and using the skills and know-how of your allies, you must keep it safe and stable enough for what’s to come. At the beginning, you’re given a random set of survivors with varying specialties and backgrounds. I started off with Pavle, a former football player; Bruno, a cook who knows how to handle resources; and Marko, a street hustler who can get in and out of scavenging missions quickly.
During the day, your group must keep busy and manage the various areas of the shelter. Using supplies and resources found from scavenging, you have to decide what resources your allies need. Should they have a furnace to keep them warm? Or perhaps they need beds installed to sleep comfortably. What you choose to build is up to you, but putting off important necessities, such as a stove for cooking or a workbench to build weapons and support items, could lead to tragedy later on. During the night, other players can raid your shelter, and if you aren’t prepared, bandits could take everything — even the lives of your group.
With constant threats around during the day, you’ll have to wait for nightfall to venture on supply runs. Choosing the right person for the job, you can send them out to scout and scavenge the nearby ruins, meet traders, or find new allies. In most cases, you’ll find abandoned homes littered with valuables and items used for crafting, but you’ll encounter other people on occasions who have taken up residence in certain areas. And these folk are just like you. They’re not bandits or marauders, just regular people protecting what’s theirs from outsiders. Of course, what they have could help your crew out, and you have to decide if sneaking in and taking their stuff or stealing it by force is a better option than just simple trading.
The tension is palpable, and with the unpredictability of the environment, one moment can change the fate of the survivors. For the first half hour, my characters were in relatively decent shape. They had food, medicine, and scavenged enough supplies to build stoves, radios, and workshops in the shelter. While they certainly weren’t comfortable, they had food and shelter — which was enough. But during a scavenge run with Pavle, things took a turn for the worst. After killing another scavenger in self-defense, he returned to the shelter a changed man. He became depressed, sick, and even began to openly consider suicide. Each character has their own biography, sort of like private diaries, and this recent event affected him greatly. This also affected the other survivors, as they were clearly disturbed by what he had done, and began to openly question his actions.
“What you do has an influence on [the characters’] emotions,” said Miechowski. “If you do something that goes against their beliefs or attitudes, they may get sad, depressed, or even suffer a nervous breakdown. We have an immense emotional layer.”
This War of Mine managed to really impress me with its way of illustrating moral ambiguity. As civilians caught up in a war they have no part of, they’re left to scrounge and eek out a living in a hostile environment, all the while trying to preserve what dignity they have left. And with others needing to do the same, you’re confronted with situations that call for tough choices, and often times you have to make a decision that will haunt you long after.
With my group in dire straights, and in need of medicine, I sent the depressed David out to scavenge a seemingly abandoned home. Once he got there, he found out it was not abandoned; it was the home of an elderly couple. Their house was chock full of supplies, and with no defenses, I could have made out like a bandit. But I didn’t. I felt terrible for the couple, who were frightened and asked me for mercy.
While I felt I made the right decision, I soon paid for my good intentions by seeing my group’s morale and health further deteriorate. It all came to a head when my shelter was raided during a supply run, and with only an ill Bruno and a depressed Pavle to guard it, they were easily picked off. The most tragic part about this event was that Marko had just come back from his best supply run yet, finding enough medicine, food, and guns to last for the days ahead.
“The best thing I believe is that you are the moral judge,” said Miechowski, “and because you’re the storyteller, and your deeds create the consequences, the game expects you to live with your decisions.”
I don’t regret leaving the elderly couple in peace, even if they possibly had medicine and food for my group, but I do wish I made better choices leading up to that defining event. It’s moments like this, which are randomly occurring, that made This War of Mine feel unique and evocative. Morality during war is such an interesting subject for games to tackle, and it’s incredibly refreshing to see a game that focuses on the survival of your allies as the meat of the experience, and not the shooting.
I found a lot to like with This War of Mine. I was surprised to see how quickly I became attached to the characters, which made it difficult to see them go out so awfully. With its release next month, I feel that a lot of people yearning for a different kind of war game should sit up and take notice. We seldom get a war experience that’s haunting and gut-wrenching as this.