This War of Mine, a game made by 11bit studios, takes place in a fictional Eastern European country ravaged by civil war and under siege by the military. The scenario is inspired primarily by the real-life Siege of Sarajevo as well as other numerous devastating sieges and uprisings. In it, you control a small group of characters that has found refuge in an abandoned house. You, the player, control each character to assign them various tasks around the house during the day: search through the rubble to find anything useful left behind, try to build something of use, eat if there’s food left to eat, rest if you have to, or just stand and wait. By night, you decide who will stay up to watch for bandits, sleep (either on the floor or in a bed), and who will go out and scavenge for supplies. But remember—survival is the easy part. Maintaining your humanity while you survive is the hard part.
The game’s visual style and presentation reminds me of Schindler’s List in that it stands out as a unique art style, but won’t distract you from what’s on-screen The charcoal/pencil line style depicts the world in an artistic light without prettifying the events unfolding before you. It looks like a moving painting and a filming style. The in-game character models are sufficient enough. The characters are designed to look as if they’ve worn the same clothes every day for weeks, if not months. But the most memorable aspect of each character’s appearance is through his or her supplied bio page and photo (pictured on the bottom right of the screen in the above screencap). These stark, black-and-white photos just stare at you, as if directly pulling the player into the action. Once in a while, they blink. When characters die, their photos, along with brief descriptions of how they died, are shown. In death photos, the characters have their eyes closed as if they are in a troubled sleep. This approach helps to humanize the characters you control, and brings to mind a certain infamous saying: “One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” It’s easy to detach yourself from the idea of civilians dying in a war-themed game if they’re just off-screen NPCs, but not if they’re given a human face and a name.
In the latest DLC (as of this writing), for an optional low price, you can purchase additional street art that you can find throughout various scavenging areas. The proceeds go to War Child, a nonprofit charity organization dedicated to improving the lives of children in war-torn countries by providing access to education, opportunity, and justice. It might not be especially useful DLC from a gameplay standpoint, but for its low price, and the fact that the proceeds go to a good cause, it’s worth it. Each street art item you find is tied to the theme of the game or a specific location, and is especially powerful. This particular piece of art, shown above, showcases that brilliantly: three bright-faced, happy animals are set against a cheerful hilly backdrop, like the kind you’d find in a daycare or in an old children’s book, but the innocence of this art is ruined by bullet holes, scorch marks, removed paint, and a bloody handprint upon the octopus’s smiling face.
This image is in the hospital’s children’s ward. The hospital happens to be the area that took the most casualties in a previous shelling.
Before I delve into the writing , I should tell a story about one of the three playthroughs I did for this review. After completing the game once, you unlock the option to play with other characters. The first time, I chose Katia, Arica, and Marin. And because the game hates me, I started right in the middle of winter. Marin fell ill due to the shelter’s lack of heat, and finding meds for him became a priority. I found some, but he got worse after I made him stay up for guard duty when the furnace was only half full. After Emilia joined the house, Marin died, and everyone else became too thoroughly broken to feed each other or talk to each other. Then Arica ran away, and Katia starved to death. Emilia survived on her own for the first few days, aside from one embarrassing drunken episode. Then Bruno came along just in time for a crime wave to begin. Anton joined and helped out in the last few days. The war ended on Day 25. Emilia survived, but was scarred for life. Bruno and Anton picked up the pieces. Life went on for all but those who had died or run away.
There are no spoilers in that paragraph, because ultimately, the story is what you make of it. You start out with a small group of survivors—usually three or four. You can survive by following the straight and narrow, rob a defenseless elderly couple, or risk it and go up against the military. This War of Mine is not a preset story with rules. You’re given a house, some characters, and that’s it.
Character development is dependent upon how you choose to act, and with whom. All that factors up in the epilogue, which provides a short summary of each character’s fate. If you make it to the end of the war, the message that follows is not “You won.” It’s “You survived.” It also takes into account the happiness of the characters at the ending,how much they had to sacrifice to survive, whether they stuck with the shelter to the end, and even how a character died. There are two different epilogue narrations for dead characters: one for those who died of other causes, and one for those who committed suicide. The epilogue brings home the point that you can’t just kill or rob a ton of people and expect to live the rest of your life unscathed. Simply surviving is not enough to give a character a happy ending. If you really want to see an ending wherein your characters survive the war and conquer their inner demons, you’ll need to earn it.
The characters’ backstories are gradually unveiled in their bios as the weeks go on, and the hardships presented in these stories feel very real. Because of this, it’s easy to find characters to relate to and want to see survive. Naturally, it’ll be all the more devastating if they die. Earlier, I mentioned that character development is dependent upon how you choose to play, but that’s not all—it’s also related to the survivors’ reactions to hardship. Sometimes, when idle, they’ll utter stock phrases reserved for a certain situation, but in their bios, you’ll learn more about their feelings. Everyone, for various reasons, despises the military, so few tears are shed when a soldier is killed, but robbing other survivors, killing innocents, or failing to save other survivors, has varying effects. Some people are absolutely horrified by these actions no matter what, while others will attempt to justify them. War tends to make you realize what you really are.
The war in the game is the major setting and backdrop, but you never get the full picture of what exactly happened to create this situation. Focusing too heavily on the history and politics and backstory of the war would take away the focus from the stories of the survivors. Elements are hinted at but never explicitly spelled out: nationalism; proclamations and treaties that the characters resent; the corrupt and often merciless military, anti-government rebels; compulsory drafting, etc. But none of these is the main focus. Is this game anti-war? Perhaps. It doesn’t romanticize war, and shows how the people caught up directly in the conflict are the ones who pay for it the most. Every story has some sort of underlying political and/or social commentary, but it doesn’t need to keep hammering home that war is hell, because you know that already. You’re living it. Does that necessarily mean that the rebels are noble liberators? Or that the soldiers are just simply defending their noble capital? No.
The game does not label the soldiers and rebels as good guys and bad guys. The military is capable of downright horrible atrocities. Some of them are mentioned in passing, but there are others which you have the chance to stop, should you choose to risk your life. However, if you kill a soldier who is not actively harming anyone, some of the other survivors will call you out on this decision. It’s suggested that the rebels are as brutal towards civilians as the military (Roman was a member of the rebel militia, but deserted once things turned ugly), but at the same time, quite a few members are either neutral traders or will help some areas of the city in need. This complex approach makes the scenario more accessible and realistic. At the same time, it also made me think about how such a situation could be easily oversimplified by Hollywood or the North American media.
But even when the NPCs are at their worst, your survivors aren’t necessarily better. There are situations in which they can be far worse—for instance, if you choose to have them turn a blind eye to others’ suffering, or have them outright kill defenseless civilians in the hope that these innocents have some food. These characters are not heroes or villains. They’re just people trying to survive. As long as you keep all their stats in check, you can survive just fine. On some days, you’ll luck out and only have one or two “problem stats” to deal with, and you might have enough food and medicine and bandages for everyone. Of course, this is assuming that you have easy and ready access to the necessary materials necessary and don’t encounter certain random events. The game’s not always going to be doom and gloom, but when it is, it becomes fun to play in the same way the last half hour of Grave of the Fireflies is fun to watch.
So if this game can easily be compared to two of the most heartrending war films of all time, this begs the question, why? Why would you ever even consider playing a game that’s apparently so depressing and heartbreaking? Because it’s not primarily or solely about suffering, and it’s certainly not shallow tragedy porn. It’s about thinking closely about your own humanity, and how to keep a hold of it during even the toughest of times. You will be presented with situations where you’ll have to choose between casting aside morality for the sake of survival, or to hold out and hope for the best. These are moral dilemmas where you’ll have to step back and think carefully about your options and weigh the potential consequences of your actions, similar to a Telltale game. It’s not sad for the sake of being sad, it has a point to it and makes you think about what’s on-screen by thrusting you into the middle of the action.
The one criticism I have is that the only opportunity that the characters get to interact with each other is when someone is depressed and another survivor must lift him or her out of it. Otherwise, they don’t actually talk with each other—their thoughts on the current situation are just thoughts they’re saying out loud. But the more selfless characters will feel guilty and sad about seeing “friends” starve. The intention is probably to show how war brings people together, but at the same time makes them feel isolated (from a practical standpoint, it would be one more programming task), but it would’ve been nice to see more basic interaction.
Where gameplay is concerned, This War of Mine is both straightforward and messy. There’s no tutorial, leaving you to figure the game out on your own, but it’s easy enough to figure out how to manage each character’s problem stat. The problem is that it’s still possible for things to go wrong anyway, especially if you’re in the middle of two special game events that last for several days: an outbreak of crime or a short but harsh winter. With the former, you’ll need to keep everyone on guard every night, and there will always be a chance someone will get injured. With the latter, it’s far too easy for otherwise healthy, strong characters to freeze to death overnight if you don’t carefully monitor how much fuel you have in the furnace (assuming you have one) or have enough warm beds for everyone. I lost Emilia on two separate playthroughs to freezing.
Freezing is an especially harsh stat since it is not visible and there is no way to tell when a character moves from “slightly cold” to “very cold” to “freezing” to “frozen to death.” You can only find out the hard way. Aside from freezing, the other potential major danger during winter is that if you leave the cold temperature inside the house unchecked during the day for too long (or even if you don’t), it’s easier for characters to fall sick, and unless you find meds quickly, a sick character can die within days. During this time, the hospital, along with other areas, becomes inaccessible. That’s when you’ll have to send your characters out to other areas to scavenge—and some of those areas may be more dangerous than others.
The combat system in the game is a bit tricky and awkward to work through. It’s clearly meant to be stylized as if an untrained, inexperienced civilian really were going up against an armed man who’s just as scared. You need to wait precisely for the right moment to attack someone from behind or the front; or, if you have a gun, you need to wait until the game lets you know when your aim is precise (when the target circle turns orange). If your aim is off even by an inch, that gives your opponent plenty of time to attack you, and sometimes, you need to just keep blindly hitting him until he finally goes down. Of course, none of your weapons last forever, and guns don’t come with infinite ammo. You’ll need backup plans. Depending on what you’re expecting, this will either make or break the game for you. While I did find it added to the realism of the game, it also made getting supplies much more difficult and frustrating.
There are many different ways to survive or to experience the war. You can have everyone be a good Samaritan, or you can go for the worst possible options. You can barter with alcohol and cigarettes. Sometimes, if combat is necessary, you’ll fight with knives, guns, hatchets, or whatever is at hand. But sometimes you’ll never need to enter combat at all. The game is a test of wits more than strength; you’re forced to debate when a risk is worth the potential reward. . In addition, while there are some murders that will not bring down your survivors’ spirits, such killings are the exception rather than the rule. The key to physical survival is also psychological survival as well.
The gameplay does have a few minor elements that are not entirely realistic, but I can still give them some leeway.
Your characters can only die on-screen if you send them out looking for supplies and get them killed doing something stupid, and then get killed. Otherwise, when someone dies, it happens overnight and offscreen, even when his or her status is at a place where, realistically speaking, death could happen at any time. But honestly, this is for the best. If the characters suddenly started dropping dead in the middle of the day, or suddenly committed suicide while I just sat there and screamed, the game would be traumatizing and unplayable instead of just somewhat depressing.
The stories I have shared about my experiences with this game are just a few of many. I remember several of them, and each contains something special. I remember making the tough decision to rob a defenseless elderly couple to save the starving Cveta, only to come back and learn she starved to death anyway. I remember laughing in triumph when I had Roman successfully stand up to a drunken soldier. On another occasion, I had Katia and Pavle risk their own lives to save a man from a sniper and get him home, but soon realized they were too injured to risk crossing back. So I told them to stay with the man and his son until sunrise. I remember the heartwarming and jubilant playthroughs, the devastating and heartbreaking playthroughs, and the ones that walked the line between both.
It goes without saying that I absolutely recommend this game. But if you are playing it for the first time, do not look up any strategy guides beforehand. Just go into it blind and make the decisions you would make in real life for the first three or four playthroughs. Play it as an experience first and a game second. There are many ways in which you can experience This War of Mine—you can be a saint, a monster, a combatant, or a pacifist. But most of all, you can learn whose war this really is. Is it really our war? Or is it this war of mine?
P.S. There’s allegedly a new update coming soon. I’ll be sure to do a separate article on it when it comes out.
Review: This War of Mine
Ugly yet beautiful, triumphant yet devastating, heartwarming yet heartbreaking, This War of Mine is not just one of the best war games of all time, but also of the best war-themed pieces of all time, period.
- Writing (9.5/10)
- Presentation (8.67/10)
- Gameplay (8.33/10)
- Replay Value (9.42/10)