This War of Mine (PC review)

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“Day 10: It’s been a harsh winter and we’ve continued to weather out the cold inside our shelter. Marin’s illness is getting worse as the days pass without any medicine in our cupboards. We’ve barely maintained our hunger from scraps of raw meat. Bruno went out to try and scavenge things we can use to trade for essentials but most of areas have been picked clean. Night raids are happening more frequently and I don’t know how long we can hold them off.”

The above was something I wrote as a mini-dairy while playing 11bit studio’s new game This War of Mine. We play video games because they’re fun and often a form of escape from our real lives. This War of Mine isn’t fun or enjoyable, but it’s an experience I wouldn’t have any other way.

That’s what This War of Mine would like to address.

There’s no intro cinematic or fancy grandiose setting to greet you when you start the game. With nothing but a single option that reads “survive,” you know that nothing good could come out of this. You start off with three unlucky refugees that have gathered in a barely standing house. All you know is that there’s a war going on and these unfortunate souls have found themselves working together to ride out this hellhole. Each person has a short bio about their life before the war and some comes with a handy skill. For example, Bruno can cook food much better than the others thanks to his experience as a cook show host. Katia has good bartering skills thanks to her journalism background. It serves as a reminder that war is something that affects everyone regardless of status.

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The lessons to take home when I was playing This War of Mine were consequences of every action I took. We’ve been so spoiled by auto-saves and reloads that it’s desensitized us. Once you drop into the game, there’s no tutorial or magic talking voice to teach you how to play the game though it’s very simple to pick up thanks to everything being controlled by the mouse. A Day and Night cycle separates two separate modes of gameplay. During the day, most of it is providing for your digital survivors what they need to get through the day. Once your characters have muddled together enough scraps, it’s time to build some things. Things like beds and stoves can be built to furnish the barren house (which somehow has a working refrigerator). It’s all pretty straightforward. (I’m sure someone has already compared TWoM to the The Sims at some point.).

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The majority of your supplies will be obtained through nightly expeditions to other parts of the war-torn area. Only one person can be sent to scavenge, leaving the rest to either stand guard or sleep. Each area has a little explanation along with rumors of what material it may possess. At first there are only a few you can access, however more will pop up as the time pass. You always have to be weary of the people you meet along the way. Some are hostile and some are on the verge of suicide. There are danger areas that hold a wealth of resources to loot, but they’re guarded by soldiers or others groups who’ve managed to procure guns. They won’t bother you so long as you don’t step into their house and take their stuff. But you eventually realize they’re just like you, trying to get by without a stray bullet hitting them or shell crashing into their makeshift home. To them, you were the night raiders that tried to take their food they probably went through hell to get.

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I started with purely wholesome intentions. The first couple of days will often go on without a hitch. If someone’s sick, medicine would be the first priority on my list. Trading is the easiest way to obtain it, but at the cost of raw materials I could have use to build another bed or even a workshop to make it myself. If I let one sleep on the bed, the other has to sleep on the cold hard floor only to end up getting sick the next day. It’s the kind of give and take that makes TWOM so brutal that it pounds into you. One of my playthroughs surprised me with a scenario where my neighbor discovered a supply crate to pick up supplies. I offered to help and several days later a group of militia men asked me if my neighbors were the ones who stole from the crate. At the time I was running low on food and the militia men offered a generous heap of food and water if I fess up. Normally it would take a lot for me to backtrack but my people were sick and hungry. Blinded by survival, I broke down and confessed. The consequences of my actions weighed heavily on my group. They sank into depression about what I had just done. We turned our backs to them and ousted them for several cans of food. Was that the value of a human life in that world? It didn’t matter either way. Raiders came into the night and stole it away. Even that slither of justification was crushed by the brutalities of war. Our tough guy Marin committed suicide a few days later.

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When things went downhill after our supplies were stolen, I felt in the back of my mind that we could never recover at this point. Night runs were becoming increasingly more dangerous and I resorted to attempt stealing, only to come away empty-hand with a bullet wound. The next day I was left without anything to do and Pavle needed bandages. With nothing in the house to do, time ticks slowly away until the night. (Thankfully, TWoM includes an option to end the day prematurely.) Turns out that surviving a war can be pretty boring at times.

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This of War Mine is a difficult title to review because on a purely gameplay scale; it’s extremely constricting and often presents players with choices that have no gratifying consequences. Perhaps you may encounter the same events again during another playthrough and things may play out better, but that’s only because you had the taste of the bitterness of living with a decision that decided one’s fate. You might get sick of listening to the same ambient soundtrack over and over. Or sick and tired of getting raided even though you’ve done all you can to fortify your home. But that’s war for you, either to wait for the end or die waiting.

It’s easy to forget that while playing our hyper power-trip first person shooters that there are real conflicts being fought around the world every day. Sure, you can rank up a 30 kill streak without batting an eye and proceed to level an entire village with your precisely aimed bomb strike. There are movies and documentaries about the horrors of war. Yet, we are largely removed from the experience when we watch them from the comforts of our daily, normal lives. So what about all the other people that never asked for that? 11bit releases an indie gem that should be experienced if you have the slightest interest in trying out something different for a change. And it’s only just $20.

In the end, none of my survivors ever made it to the end. A small footnote at the end is all that remain of those people whose lives were lost as a byproduct of war. Thanks to them, This War of Mine will continue to remind us how fortunate we are. At least I have a bed to sleep on at night.

Rating: 4/5 Atoms (but really don’t based your decision on an arbitrary number, TWoM is worth it to gamers everywhere)

NR 4 Atoms - B(1)

Reviewed on PC. Played 12 hours across 5 play throughs. Survived up to the 16th day at best.

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