This War of Mine – The only thing worse than the gunfire is the silence

Written for Continue Play, recreated with permission.

Depression is a state of mind.

It isn’t a single sensation that crashes like a wave, toppling the stability and the crushing character. It isn’t a sniper round, screaming through the air before skewering the flesh and laying the body to waste. It’s a slow death, a quiet one. It’s a pressure, one that lingers in the distance and is a constant presence in the mind. That sort of madness haunts the mental landscape like a ghost, not omnipresent, but quietly enduring. A discomforting and unstable sort of mentality that doesn’t lash out at the mood, but settles. It accompanies the thoughts that drift on the edges of the brain moments before sleep, and replaces the order on waking up in the morning with the bookshelf toppled over or the laundry strewn about the room.

That is the sort of feeling that inhabits the totality of This War of Mine. It’s a haunting that scratches at the doorways and claws at the floorboards. Every in-game night grants another chance for something to go wrong, gently, easily, inevitably, as any night might. It’s a feeling that isn’t about the explosive climax; it’s about the tension. The tension that sits in mind, with a lawn chair and a cooler of vodka, ready to rake at the back of the mind. It is a game that offers the player no sense of peace. It’s a landscape whose only sights are the hollowed and dismantled husk of a city torn apart by war, wounds still too fresh to be addressed or sterile. It’s a cold, dismal, saddening sort of atmosphere. Where every bullet is important, every survivor is equal parts asset and liability, and the opportunities also represent challenges.

This War of Mine takes place in a fictional, Eastern European city called Ulraznavia that is currently under siege. In it, many citizens are stuck in their homes, without access to food, water, and other basic amenities. The only things many of the survivors have are minor luxuries like coffee, tobacco, alcohol, and a radio. The player begins controlling three survivors, randomly chosen, each with special abilities or personal skills. They must work together to clear the home that makes up their safe house, build up resources to survive the nights spent in the war-torn city, and collect enough material to build tools and furniture, feed themselves, stay healthy, and thrive in a war-shattered city that is constantly under siege, and whose streets are unsafe to roam in the daytime due to the presence of snipers everywhere.

While on the face of it the objectives are very simple, the evolving nature of the war does a great deal to complicate survival. Survivors have a limited amount of daytime to rest, eat, cook, craft, and keep up their spirits. Anything done during the day takes time, including cooking, eating and upgrading the utilities in the house to make everything more efficient. Where the time is limited, resources seem even more so. The only way to gather resources are to grow them, given sufficient upgrades to the safe house, or scavenge them in the night. The scavenging is always done at-risk. Bandits, raiders, or military that happen upon the survivors will not hesitate to open fire and kill the survivor. Death for that survivor is permanent, and any materials they carried on their death are lost with them. While one survivor goes out to gather materials, food, and scavenge useful items, the survivors at home must be assigned to sleep, or stand watch for break-ins. It means that no matter what happens, to be fully safe from raiding, there will always be multiple survivors who stay awake through the night. As they do this, they grow more tired. Then, come the morning, survivors will need to contend with tiredness in addition to hunger, sickness, wounds, and their dwindling mental state.

Because of how much can seemingly go wrong, resources always feel scarce. Have surplus supplies or tools often means little, as lacking something pivotal like food or weapons can change the tide of the goings-on in an instant, bringing the best plans and careful preparations to the ground in a pile of rubble, just like the city outside.

In that way, 11Bit Studios has created with This War of Mine a beauty from the bleakness that is war. It’s quiet, the background dull and tinted in grays, little splashes of color that even in their brightness manage to feel washed up and muted. The entire game is teeming with the sense of suppression, where even the graffiti is tired and defeated. The characters are in a constant battle with sadness, and the whole assemblage just feels wrong. Between the artful sketching of the backgrounds, the waves of sound that radiation from footfalls, and the ambient sounds of gunfire, the entire game radiates the sheer sense of helplessness and defeat. The war is a living part of the scenery. The survivors and victims of the war have no hand in its beginning or ending, it’s a happening beyond control, a going-on that is out of any one person’s depth. The inevitability of more suffering being a single night’s sleep away is a powerful feeling, and one that is almost guaranteed to follow each successive day.

The game’s interface is largely clear and direct, explaining most of what the player needs to know in any given situation, but more than that, the entire aesthetic is masterfully crafted. A feeling of melancholy accompanies the sluggish, lethargic movement of the NPC’s, the flashes of sound that follow players and NPC’s into and around the darkness, and the little snippets of dialog all come together to make the game feel more like a reality. An inescapable, honest reality that depicts a harsher side of war and what struggles people face in the midst of it. It’s a cold, harsh, demeaning feeling from a merciless situation.

The dark corners are so haunting because of it all. The war, the desperation in claiming and keeping supplies, the need to continue building and upgrading in order to be able to continue just one more day, knowing that that day’s preparations exist to make the next survivable. This War of Mine is a deeply personal experience, one that calls into question what feels acceptable. Fifteen days into the war, with supplies constantly bleeding away, does it become okay to not just scavenge from empty, uninhabited stores and abandoned houses and being to steal from other survivors? After three or four days of no food, which does it become acceptable to kill another survivor for their supplies? While the war wages on outside, often unseen but heard with the staccato rhythms of automatic gunfire in the distance, a mental war lingers in the minds of survivors. How far will a player have to go to survive, and will it be worth it?

As a result, This War of Mine is a disquieting, uncomfortable, and tragic experience. Even a good run can go bad, and give players the unenviable position of having to choose between dying or killing. Even after drastic measures are taken, having to watch survivors grow sicker, die of starvation, or get killed when scavenging for absolutely pivotal supplies, sometimes it’s not enough. As survivors die, it can be just as hard on the player to keep on struggling through each day, only to spend the night trying to earn enough to make the next day survivable. Just like the war it portrays. It can be nasty, cold, miserable, vicious, and promises absolutely nothing save that tomorrow will bring more of the same. It’s a game that asks a lot of the player’s peace, and gives nothing back except for a little bit of perspective. It’s a hard game to play, but an important one.

Because of that, This War of Mine is also a triumph. The cold and uninviting aesthetic, the harshness of the realities of war foiled by the bitter struggles to capitalize on what few opportunities come about, and the misery that seems to linger eternally speaks to just how perfect the message of the game communicates itself. It is a beautifully well-realized game, the mechanics interact wonderfully with telling the story of a group of survivors struggling to get by, and the war constantly haunts the player in the background, omnipresent and representing a nearly insurmountable challenge that takes dedication and strength to endure. It makes the survivors feel like survivors, and questions whether or not any of it is worth it. And that is a worth that cannot be undervalued.

  • 90%
    Score – 90%

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Taylor Hidalgo Avatar

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