This War Of Mine
We can hear the cries of a woman being raped by a soldier behind the bombed-out supermarket we’re searching. We thought about intervening when we saw him take her, at gunpoint, to the now-locked storage container out back, but we’re unarmed and there are three others back at our shelter waiting for our return, two of whom haven’t eaten in days. The supermarket is empty now, so we can gather as much food as will fit in our bag and scarper.
On a different night, we enter the home of an elderly couple in our search for medical supplies. The husband sends his wife upstairs to hide and then follows us, pleading to be left alone as we rifle through their cupboards without a word, taking everything that looks useful. Many games promise tough moral choices, but very few deliver as ferociously as This War Of Mine.
The game’s unflinching depiction of wartime suffering is particularly unsettling in a medium that commonly focuses on pyrotechnics and headshots. That’s not to say combat is absent from 11 Bit Studios’ game, but it’s very much a last, desperate resort and one that can have far-reaching consequences. While the supply runs you undertake each night might target abandoned or poorly defended locations, they could equally take you to militia-occupied warehouses, gang-run brothels or even a military base. Get into a scuffle with someone wielding a knife or a gun and you’re likely to come off worse. And even if you survive the encounter itself, a deep wound will kill in a matter of days if you can’t find any bandages.
Minimising your chances of acquiring a puncture wound means sneaking around dangerous locales and managing the amount of noise you make. Clicking on a location once will make your party member tread softly, but slowly, towards it, while double-clicking will make them break into a noisier run. The amount of noise you’re making is depicted by a shockwave that radiates from your character as you move around, one that grows to nerve-racking proportions if you need to shift rubble to clear a path or bust into a cupboard with a crowbar.
You’re not the only thing making noise, of course, and movement elsewhere is revealed by smaller red circles. It might be just a rat, but it could be somebody else. You’ll need to pay close attention to such warning signs, since building interiors are obscured by a fuzzy shroud only cut through by your line of sight. Peeking through keyholes will provide a limited view of the next room before you enter it, but doors left open will alert others to your presence. Cubby-holes provide a place to hide if you need to, but if you’re discovered you can also take cover behind door frames as you try to escape (especially useful if you’ve found or made a gun).
But while some people will attack on sight, many potential aggressors will issue several warnings to leave,
Many games promise tough moral choices, but very few deliver as ferociously as This War Of Mine
or stop stealing, before they attack you. You won’t know how short someone’s fuse is until you approach them – a risky proposition in a city achingly in need of food and supplies, but a demonstration of the uncommon nuance built into this game. That attention to detail is also reflected in the characters you control – a party of survivors, up to a maximum of five strong, selected randomly at the start of each game – who all have their own motivations and moral codes. Ignore the pleas of a starving homeless man in an abandoned tenement while controlling charitable former musician Zlata, for instance, and her mood will worsen in the days after the encounter, making her significantly less productive if you can’t find a way to cheer her up.
Managing everyone’s wellbeing is just as crucial as scavenging for supplies, then, and between nighttime sorties you’ll spend the daylight hours upgrading your shelter (a large, but mortar-damaged, building) and keeping everyone in good spirits and good health. Building a stove to cook food is essential, and you’ll need to think about heaters as the winter months approach, but equally important is ensuring that the group has enough chairs to sit on, a radio so they can listen out for news of an impending ceasefire, and books to help escape their ordeal until then – or, depressingly, burn when there’s no other fuel to hand.
Almost every furnishing you build can be further upgraded – stoves, for example, become more fuel efficient – and you can also manufacture traps to try to catch rats for food or create weapons and other tools, all assuming you’ve come by the necessary parts. If somebody’s particularly forlorn, you can get another survivor to give them a pep talk; if they’ve fallen ill, you must ensure they get plenty of rest and eat well. Medicine will also help speed along recovery if you can find any and haven’t been raided or traded it for food during a particularly desperate patch. In among the agonising drama, there are echoes of The Sims.
But for all the hard decisions and harrowing consequences it makes you face, This War Of Mine is lifted by the contrasting acts of humanity and warmth that pop up across the duration of its nameless war. For example, the simple pleasure offered by a good book or the moral satisfaction of deciding to give medical supplies to the ailing hospital without asking for anything in exchange are all reflected in the diary entries of each character and, more importantly, in you as a player. Each small flicker of hope in a seemingly hopeless situation feels disproportionately rewarding, and the sense of elation at discovering a stash of food that will make the difference between surviving another night or another three is palpable. Presenting such affecting light and shade without moralising is no small feat, but your journey through This War Of Mine’s conflict will be all the more personal for it.