I wasn’t sure about This War of Mine when I first heard about it last year. On the one hand, it seemed to be exactly the sort of game I should approve of, a game that focused not on glorified fantasies of shouty gruff white good guys with guns but instead on the far more intense drama of the mundane and personal. On the other hand, it was a semi-roguelike set in a very grim, literally colourless backdrop of a civil war.
It was a YouTube Let’s Play that tipped me into buying it. Why? Because it convinced me that, rather than just being a grim march into the darkness of a vicarious experience of the horror of war (hi, Spec Ops), it could be a fun game.
I’ve finished my first playthrough and I can confirm that, yes, it is a fun game.
This is very interesting. It works as a game on many levels, with many satisfying interlocking systems and rules to engage the parts of my brain that respond well to strategy and planning and figuring stuff out, and enough – uh – I guess the word might be action to satisfy the part of my brain that takes joy in the deftness of wrist, timing and instinct which can enable a vulnerable character to successfully navigate – even master – a dangerous setting.
The story is also very satisfying and very well-delivered, with a ‘less is more’ approach that allows the game’s mechanics to contribute a vast amount of the narrative’s essence and punch. When a kid shows up at your shelter asking for medicine, you don’t need to be told why they need it, or why it’s such a hard request to acede to. You know exactly how hard it was to get that medicine, exactly what the consequences were for failing to get it, exactly what the risk is if you give it away, and exactly how much it’s worth to you in barter. That single jar of pills could be the difference between your survivors being able to eat tomorrow, or sliding another cruel step towards the starvation and despair you’re never more than a bad day or two away from (and in TWOM there are lots of bad days). It could be the difference between a sudden, unpredictable illness ending in slow recovery, or ending in death. You know what it means because the whole game informs you without having to make it explicit.
The game makes you care about the survivors, care about their situation and care about what’s going on around them. It makes you interested in their stories, how they got there and how things will end for them. Right at the start, it reminds you that you could die ‘for no good reason’, then the first time you struggle to figure out the controls for combat and escape hammers that home to you with the meaningless death of one of your survivors – meaningless because you as a player, and they as a character, simply were not prepared for what just happened. Or made a simple mistake. Or just had circumstances go against you – yet knowing that you’re still fundamentally to blame for the choices that led up to that loss of control.
That’s the dilemma for me in TWOM. The story is good and powerful and meaningful, but it’s enmeshed in such a good game and personalised so entirely into your experience as a player that it’s confusing. There’s something about knowing that I can care about my virtual survivors in a way which is necessarily more personal than I can care about any random group of people I don’t know in any of the world’s many real and disgusting present conflicts. There’s something about the detachment of that care, being on the one hand experienced as real emotions but on the other hand protected and moderated by the ultimate inconsequence of simulation. And something about the fact that, no matter what twists and turns the story takes, it’s part of a fun game that I am playing because I enjoy it and want to win.
I did win. I quit the first few times my inexperience with the controls and mechanics of hostile encounters caused me to die like a dog for no good reason, reloaded the game from the previous morning, protected my survivors well. I learned to be cautious and not to have to use save-reloads. I learned the pain and relief of having a wounded scavenger sprint home with almost nothing in her bag, and nothing to go home to but hunger and sickness and rapidly diminishing stocks of fuel. I learned the triumph of killing a bandit and stealing his weapons – so incredibly valuable for trade that my survivors would be guaranteed a few nights of comfort and safety – and the niggling feeling of ‘..but I killed a guy for this’ as my fellow survivors tried to comfort the murderer in their midst.
And so I won. We survived to the end of the war. My group had swelled from 3 to 5, and the game presented me their personal epilogues for my satisfaction. All their endings were happy. It even replayed some of the crucial events of our struggle – the times we did things selflessly, the times we didn’t. The times we decided that the guys with guns who preyed on others were fair targets, but the neighbours with children were worth sacrificing for.
And each time I felt the joy of the game, the systems, the decisions, the experience. And each time there was this uncomfortable feeling underneath – should I be enjoying this?
It’s hard to reach a conclusion for something like that. For myself, I think I can definitely say TWOM is a fun game, and that it’s educational and precious in a way which is both authentic and artistic. But I can also say that, for me, its essential nature as a game – and a winnable one at that – inherently distances itself from its source material. It ultimately left me feeling more powerful than helpless, more skilled than overwhelmed.
But it also left me questioning the cost of that power. After all, I took a young woman with a difficult past and made her repeatedly stab a kitchen knife into the backs of guys twice her size so she could bring their loots home and savour the praise of her adoptive family, make living another day just a little bit easier.
And so this post ends here, because I haven’t got any further than this in my head.