Siege survival video game This War of Mine, reviewed.

A Brilliant Video Game Asks: How Do We Maintain Our Humanity in Wartime?

A Brilliant Video Game Asks: How Do We Maintain Our Humanity in Wartime?

The art of play.
Feb. 23 2015 10:20 AM

Life as a Target

This War of Mine shifts the focus of war games from the shooters to the civilians caught in the crossfire.

This War of Mine.
This War of Mine.

Still courtesy of 11 Bit Studios

The appetite for games about war is immense. From Call of Duty to Battlefield, videogames set during violent conflicts—particularly shooting games—are some of the most popular and lucrative in the world. But the experience of war they offer tends to be notably narrow, focused almost exclusively on one perspective: how it feels to be a powerful man with a gun.

This War of Mine, a survival game created by Polish developer 11 Bit Studios, shifts that focus profoundly. Rather than offering the pseudo-heroic thrill of rampaging around a city wielding heavy weaponry, This War of Mine focuses on the people who usually end up as background characters or collateral damage in most war games: civilians trying to survive the chaos and violence around them.

You begin the game by selecting a group of two to four people, each with his or her own backstory—teacher, warehouse worker, celebrity chef—and specialized skills. As a violent siege of unspecified origin rages in the fictional Eastern European city of Pogoren, you find your survivors huddled in a dilapidated house, the faint sound of automatic weapons echoing in the distance.

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There are two primary cycles, day and night. After the sun goes down, your survivors can sleep, stay up to guard against thieves, or head out to scavenge for materials, perhaps becoming thieves themselves. The daylight hours are spent inside, where snipers can’t find you; if you’re lucky enough to have supplies, you can board up windows to protect against looters, make food, or build the beds, stoves, and vegetable gardens that will keep you warm, fed, and alive.

On leaner days, there’s nothing to do except watch the hours tick by as the survivors mill about, anxiously smoking cigarettes. (You can push a button and skip to the evening, but then you might miss something important, like a neighbor or trader knocking on your door.) It takes about 10 minutes for a “day” to pass, time spent idle in a way that feels unusual in a video game. The silence is the hardest part about the waiting; I’d often have one of the characters turn on a radio and listen to classical music, the broadcasts punctuated occasionally by the nearby sound of shelling. It’s a strange feeling, this sort of waiting, not only because you don’t always know what’s coming next but because there’s a very good chance it could be something worse.

It is an often unforgiving game, one in which your survival always feels like it rests on the edge of a knife. No matter what choices you make, there never seems to be quite enough food, medicine, or time to rest. Who sleeps? Who eats? If everyone is sick or injured, who do you send out to root through the wreckage of the city for supplies, knowing they’ll surely return worse off—if they come back at all?

Although the game is based partially on the Siege of Sarajevo, 11 Bit creative director Michal Drozdowski emphasized in an interview that it’s not meant to depict any specific historical event but rather the broader experiences of civilians during war. “It’s about many modern conflicts,” he said. “Warsaw was heavily destroyed during World War II and most of us have grandmothers, grandfathers who saw and remember the face of war.”

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The most difficult part of the game isn’t evading armed thugs but the moral choices you make about how far you’re willing to go to get the things you need. The decisions seem easy, at first, but as your supplies start to dwindle and your shivering, half-starved survivors start succumbing to illness or death, the ethics of stealing and violence start to seem a lot more ambiguous. War has a way of wearing you down. “When you’re a civilian and war breaks out, you need to defend your family and friends,” Drozdowski said. “Your beliefs and opinions are not important. That’s what This War of Mine is about.”

One of the most disturbing moral dilemmas involves a location known as the Quiet House, where you find an elderly couple living relatively untouched by the war. The house is full of food and medicine—two of the most valuable commodities in the game—and you can steal as much of it as you like without any resistance. The couple is helpless; they can’t lift a finger to stop you from taking everything they have, and certainly not from committing violence against them if you want to.

Unlike the more war-torn areas you encounter, the Quiet House feels like a small pocket of civilization, and violating it feels far more disturbing. “Oh please, we need that. Have a heart!” pleaded the old man as my character strode through their charming home, rifling through their cabinets. I realized that I must look exactly like the armed thugs who had tried to storm my own shelter so many times.

This War of Mine, The Quiet House
The Quiet House.

Still courtesy of 11 Bit Studios

Drozdowski told me the Quiet House scenario has provoked some of the most interesting responses from players. During playtesting, they watched as one woman initially decided to steal all the food in the elderly couple’s house but later regretted the decision. She returned to the house and put half the food back in the cupboards, so the couple wouldn’t be left to starve.

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This spontaneous act helped inspire the 11 Bit team to create emotional consequences for ethical decisions within the game itself. Help out your neighbors when they come knocking, and your survivors will feel happier. Steal or commit violence, particularly against unarmed civilians, and your survivors will react with everything from sadness to a complete emotional breakdown. Regardless, it’s a mark of success that This War of Mine doesn’t actually need to reward or punish you with in-game consequences to make its moral decisions feel meaningful; the act of simply making the choices—and living with them—feels like reward or punishment enough.

Although I managed to avoid committing any serious acts of violence my first time through the game, I later read several strategy guides that explained how to take out the armed rivals you encounter and claim their stashes for your own. When I played through a second time, I decided to try attacking some of the militants I’d avoided. After all, I’d killed opponents for power-ups a thousand times in other video games. Maybe things would have been a lot easier if I’d just been more aggressive.

The next time I found a building full of resources and an armed sentry told me to get lost, I hit her with a crowbar. She didn’t die easily; it took four or five swings to finally kill her as she tried desperately to flee. As I headed off to loot the building, a man walked in from another room and discovered her body. He was her friend, and he reacted with grief and rage, screaming her name and running from room to room in search of her killer—in search of me. I ended up bolting for the exit before I had a chance to take anything. I had murdered her for absolutely nothing.

After my character made it safely back to our shelter, I closed my laptop and stopped playing for the night, a sick feeling in my stomach. Nothing about this was easy. This War of Mine might not be fun, in the traditional sense, but it’s deeply engaging for a reason that feels diametrically opposed to most war games: empathy. Although the game occasionally compels you to do terrible things, it also pushes you to feel the human impact of those choices on your own characters and on others. In most war games, life is cheap and killing is easy; in This War of Mine, taking a life tends to be expensive—it exacts a terrible price.

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The scene that haunted me the most, however, took place in an abandoned supermarket. Shortly after I arrived, playing as a young woman named Katia, I peered through a crack in a door and saw a soldier accosting a girl; the encounter escalated quickly from creepy comments to a demand for sexual favors at gunpoint. I wasn’t sure what to do. I’d just started playing the game, and I didn’t know even how to fight, or whether I was strong enough to take on the soldier as an unarmed woman. Like anyone facing a difficult, potentially violent situation, I had no idea what would happen.

And so I did nothing as the soldier forced the girl into a nearby shed and locked the door. Later, as I guiltily crept back to my safe house with my looted goods, I swore that when I played through the next time, I’d do things differently; I’d be better prepared. But call it whatever you want: In the end, I didn’t intervene because I was afraid.

That uncertainty is something the developers wanted to provoke, and it’s the reason you can’t save or restore your game, or why you can’t start more than one game at once. “In reality you cannot live two lives at once,” said 11 Bit art director Przemek Marszal. “In This War of Mine there is no tutorial, because when war breaks out, there is no tutorial of people telling you what do to survive and save your family. You’re just on your own.”

Although you often make decisions blind, it doesn’t stop them from haunting you—either inside the game or outside of it. After Katia returned home from the supermarket, she seemed distraught, and talked about what had happened to the girl for days. But I remained true to my word. When I played the game through a second time, I went back to the supermarket, this time as a burly man named Bruno who was armed with a knife. I was ready, I thought. This time I’d do the right thing. When the moment came, I intervened to save the girl, struggling with the soldier as she ran for the exit. The soldier slipped out of my grasp and shot me to death. A Polaroid picture of Bruno’s corpse appeared on the screen. He died a hero, I suppose, although it didn’t feel like it. It just felt like he was dead.

Without a third pair of hands to help out during the bitterly cold winter, my other two survivors had to work even harder, with illness and exhaustion as their constant companions. One of them developed a serious illness, and with no medicine or time to rest, she soon died. Maybe saving that girl was a mistake, said a voice in my head as I watched my final survivor slowly starve to death, snow drifting softly behind the abandoned house. The game didn’t offer any answers. I didn’t have any either.