Emotion and Play in This War of Mine

I don’t typically review games. If anyone asks me for a specific recommendation for a game based on themes or gameplay, I gladly contribute suggestions, but I almost never recommend a game to absolutely everyone. This War of Mine has hit that status. If you have an hour or two to spare, pick up this game. It is a grounded and eloquent take on some raw emotions that I would argue can’t be captured in other media quite as well as they are in this game. Kudos to 11 Bit Studios for creating a game with feeling that doesn’t beat players over the head with it.

This War of Mine is a survival game in which the player is tasked with helping a group of civilians survive a modern day siege. The game was inspired by the Bosnian civil war in the early to mid 1990’s and asks the question, “How would you make it through a modern day war?” As you play, you answer that question in some unpredictable ways. The game is dark; it is grim, and completely unforgiving. But what makes this game different from other games? Let’s take a look at player choice and player effect first. Role playing games often give the illusion of choice through dialogue options. Occasionally, they’ll let you alter the game world through action, but even when they do, they tend to overuse or over emphasize the mechanic. This War of Mine works because it is subtle, incredibly subtle. It never gives you a prompt which explains “If you do X, Y will happen” (example: Dishonored prompts the player throughout that if they kill people, more rats will spawn and there will be more plague victims). It just happens.

Some people may look to this feature and just laud the game for not holding its players’ hands. There has been a ton of praise going around for games being more ‘hardcore’ or ‘old school’ when they leave out the instructions and prompts. This War of Mine is not Dark Souls and that’s not the goal. The lack of hand-holding feeds into the game’s motif, it works. Quick, a war breaks out in your town tomorrow, did you remember to pack your instruction manual? Finally, This War of Mine is deeply emotional without overdoing it. Games can capture emotion incredibly well, but often, they fall flat when they try too hard. 11 Bit Studio doesn’t force the player to feel anything. There is a reciprocal relationship with the player. You get emotions out of it by reflecting on the implications of what your characters are doing, not going through a bunch of gameplay so that you hit a cutscene which inserts the emotional counterpart to rather grindy gameplay (many many examples of this).

From the opening scene to your almost inevitable demise, the game challenges you to make tough decisions through gameplay rather than dialogue choices. Where role playing games often lack the freedom of choice associated with actions, players of This World of Mine don’t rely on a series of responses in dialogue to help shape the game world around them. This War of Mine has few dialogue choices and gameplay is shaped through reactions from the player’s decisions.

I played This War of Mine a few different times, restarting after my group had died. The most poignant lesson I learned was that there is no such thing as a hero in a situation as ugly as this one. I, like many others, tend to think that I’d do well in survival situations. I also feel like I’d be able to keep my moral compass pointed in the right direction. If need be, I could be a hero. This War of Mine showed me the depth of my delusion. During the day, your group has a few options: do work around the hideout, sleep, or relax. During the night the game asks you to assign each member a task: scavenge, guard, or sleep. The tasks are  pretty intuitive, so I won’t explain them here. Once your choice is made, you play as whichever member you sent to scavenge resulting in some of the most nail-biting, spine-tingling, suspenseful  moments I’ve experienced in gaming.

In my first playthrough, I sent one of my group members to a nice area of the city rumored to be untouched by the war. When I broke into a house, I found an old couple sitting in the livingroom. The old man heard me enter and yelled at me to leave. Not expecting to find people in the house, I turned to leave. “But wait, I thought, I can’t go back to the hideout empty handed, the group doesn’t have enough food to make it through another day.” So I tried to sneak into the house without the old man noticing this time. He caught me while I was trying to leave the basement. I thought the old man would attack me, so I struck first. I hit him, but he didn’t hit back. I wasn’t sure what he would be coded to do after I hit him, so I hit him again-killing him. I felt bad, but it’s a war game, after all.

In the morning when I returned to the stronghold my character had changed. He was wracked with guilt. Unable to believe what he had done, he slipped into depression. The mood of the whole group blackened quickly. The next evening, I sent another member of a group back to the house since I wasn’t able to loot everything the night before. When I got there, I found the old woman dead. Without her husband and without the food I stole the night before, she wasn’t able to survive. I hadn’t expected that. I just assumed everything would carry on in her little video game world. I had killed two people over a day’s worth of food. My group had slipped into crippling depression and soon couldn’t survive any more. I never meant to hurt anyone. I thought I could be the hero.

In my next playthrough, I came across an even more difficult situation. As I was trying to loot a grocery store, I came across a soldier harassing a young girl. He held her at gunpoint and was leading her to the back of the store planning to rape her. They hadn’t noticed me yet, so I could have just continued to loot the store and get the supplies my group needed. But how could I leave? I always told myself that I could be a hero in these situations. If I feel like I can do that in real life, surely I can manage a simulation, right? I silently followed the two of them, picked up a shovel, and hit the soldier square in the back without any damage to his body armor. I tried again for the head, but he was wearing a helmet. A second later, my character was dead, two shots to the chest. For a brief moment, I considered the character’s death was for a good cause, but I know that isn’t true. The game carried on. My two remaining characters waited that morning and received no supplies. They were dead within three days. Thanks to my act of heroism, three people died, and I hadn’t prevented a thing.

On my third play through, I knew that This War of Mine had won. I entered the scenario with a hardened heart. I would help no one. Only my group mattered. Scavenging was efficient and unapologetic. If someone needed help, they could look elsewhere. If they had left their supplies unguarded, I would take them without remorse. My group lived a long time. They were a well-oiled machine, but they had lost their humanity. Now I was just playing a survival game. I had removed the emotion from it. Is this what it takes to survive?

Jesse Sell grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, where he spent most of his time playing volleyball and video games. He received a B.S. in Cultural Anthropology and Classical Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. Jesse spent his college summers working aboard cruise ships in the Caribbean and the Pacific Northwest. Both his education and employment allowed him to meet and work with people from around the world. Through these connections, Jesse began to notice the universal and connecting nature of gaming. At CMS, Jesse is a member of the Education Arcade. His research interests include the power of play as a tool, livestreaming, and the future of professional gaming.

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