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Ben Plays: This War Of Mine
I'm gonna try and survive
There’s a Latvian joke that does the rounds on Reddit. It goes like this:
`Man is hungry. He steal bread to feed family. Get home, find all family have sent Siberia! “More bread for me,” man think. But bread have worm.`
It’s a pretty good approximation of life in This War of Mine, a real time civil-war themed survival game which plays like The Sims in 2D reimagined by Cormac McCarthy. As the player, you’re puppeteer for a band of stragglers sheltering from sniper fire and gangs of bandits in a bombed out, derelict building in the fictional but clearly Eastern European city of Pogoren, Graznavia. You’re in the godlike position of determining the survivors’ every waking moment, but like God, you seem unable to do anything to improve their circumstances. It seems like a quaint subject matter for entertainment, but Polish developers, 11 Bit Studios, have attempted to lay out a didactic, emotive and harrowingly forthright vision of the civilian experience of war (in case people’s imaginations aren’t good enough). In some ways it works - it was even added to the recommended reading list in Polish high schools, a world first for a video game - but in other, much more substantial ways, it is an abject failure.
Having read little to nothing about the game before playing, I was thrown almost immediately by the opening title screen. It’s divided in two, presenting what I assumed to be differing modes, perhaps based on subsequently released DLC: The Final Cut and The Anniversary Edition. Neither of these cliché proclamations gives any indication of its content, nor how it differs from the other, and nowhere else on the screen gives any clues either. I chose The Final Cut, but I was never clear if I was playing a randomly generated game or the main story campaign. It turns out this confusion wasn’t unique to me. (Footnote: I’m still not exactly crystal on what the precise differences are, but for anyone who cares, as far as I can discern, the Final Cut merges recently added content randomly within the original base game, whereas the Anniversary Edition forces the new content, so you’re guaranteed to experience it. I think. Or the other way around. Or I’m totally wrong. In any case, it’s not a great foot to get off on.)
Visually, in keeping with the theme, everything is barren and brown and generally morose, but the artwork is very cool: pencil drawing in the vein of Disco Elysium, featuring burnt out cars, flaming rubble and artillery struck buildings with more holes in them than holes in the ground in the film and the book, Holes. (Sorry, I couldn’t dig myself out once I started.) A very slight zoom function allows you to enjoy this morbid affair in marginally more detail, if say, starving, sickly, wounded people is something you want to see more of, but you’re never really ‘up close’. In fact, dishing out meagre meals and medications, checking the weather forecast on the radio, or putting your survivors to bed is all much easier to accomplish when zoomed out fully. Arguably this is to the game’s detriment, since your relationship with the characters always feels removed and distant, rather than personal.
This War of Mine is brutal in that it doesn't feature any kind of save function, so if a character dies, or you mess up a decision, or your plan goes slightly awry, there's no trying again on this playthrough. Instead, you are forced to live with the consequences. It's more realistic given the theme, and adds gravity to every decision you make, but it really inhibits any risk taking and exploration. Further, there's no tutorial, it's just trial and error. In theory, this is fine. In practice, every time you're doing well, it's all too easy to cock it up with a minor error that turns into a major catastrophe, an error that is nine times out of ten the result of ignorance of concealed game rules, rather than poor decision making. For example, the first time I met a trader I was suspicious of trading in case he robbed me. When two people came to the door claiming to be neighbours and offering freebies I thought it was too good to be true and didn't accept. When I thought I could discreetly nick a bit of food from some homeless people in a seedy basement (don’t you judge me!) and quickly flee with my 'fast runner' Pavle, it turned into a bloodbath, ending my run (both literally and figuratively). Since my refuge was left without a third of its manpower and the remaining two characters physically couldn't sleep, guard and scavenge for supplies, I was doomed and opted to restart, intending to learn from my mistakes. I avoided the Supermarket for more than ten days in a row because the description warned ‘locked doors’ and ‘caution’ and I didn't have any weapons or tools, but when I ended up punting there in an already ruinous playthrough I discovered the other looters to be passive and only one locked door. Sure, these are all learning experiences, and on subsequent runs I didn't make the same mistakes, but each time I had to reload I lost a little of the will and inclination to play at all.
That first time I played, my hovel housed (hovelled?) only 3 survivors. The second time I started with 4, and, pleasingly, only one character overlapped. (Good old Pavle, reincarnate!) The premise of This War of Mine is that survival is hard, time consuming and extremely resource intensive. As a result, the game literally starves you of food supplies, medical equipment, and pretty much every resource you need. On top of that, you can only scavenge for more materials at night, on the basis that avoiding snipers in daylight is too risky. You're limited to one scavenger, with a small backpack size of anywhere from 8-17 slots. The biggest among my first two playthroughs was 12 (...you’ll never guess whose backpack? Oh, Pavle, you really are the man). Despite this, confusingly, 11 Bit Studios have opted to present the backpack with 30 spaces and greyed out all of those which are unused, implying that extra space is unlockable with upgrades. It’s not, it’s just a bad design decision.
This tiny storage capacity means even when the opportunity arises to stock up on as a add more supplies, the amount you can carry is negligible. Saving to afford a basic upgrade to say, your stove or your herb garden, will require several nights of scavenging, during which period your characters may become ill, or you might run short on food, or a raid might leave some of your party members wounded and your supplies diminished even further. It's a constant balancing and rebalancing of priorities. Right now you want the stove upgrade, but two nights from now, when Zlata is sick, Anton is depressed, Bruno is hungry and you realise you've run out of food to actually cook on it, maybe the upgrade seems like a privilege you can't afford; maybe just some more canned food will have to tide you over for a few more days. If only you had some canned food…
The game’s progression is dependent on day-night cycles, setting all your actions against the clock. The idea is your characters can each only carry out a select few tasks in a day, making time management and ordering priorities a... well... a priority, but the mechanics seem contrived to make this as difficult as possible. You can’t queue actions and there’s no notification when a survivor has finished doing something, so if you don't notice immediately, they'll just stand around like a plonker, or sit down in a nearby chair. You’ll find yourself clicking around all over the place trying to run at maximum efficiency and keep them busy. There’s also no resource tracking, which means remembering both the ingredients list for any upgrades you want and the ingredients themselves. It’s not impossible, it just demands an irksome amount of inventory checking and double-checking - especially as once you’re out scavenging at night, there’s no way of recalling this information. It’d be much better if every time you picked up an item, the game would tell you how many you already had, or better still, if you need that item for any upgrades. While I’m detailing a wish list, the option to manually save would be a relief too, or if the devs want to maintain player stress levels by refusing that ability, at least more regular auto-saves. Once every day-night cycle isn't just frustrating from a survival perspective, but also from a practical one. It means you're committing to a minimum of 20-30 minutes game play between each save - annoying if you only have another quarter of an hour free. The way time passing is implemented is problematic when it comes to realism, too. While I didn’t expect it to scale 1:1 between real world and fiction, I watched the clock and it took Cveta - granted, a teacher not a sprinter - a full half an hour (!) to move from one floor of our shelter to another. She didn't even have to open any doors. You’d think she was living in the Burj Khalifa. Ain’t no Pavle, that’s for sure.
Waiting for characters to complete actions is how you’ll spend a good chunk of your gaming time. There's nothing you can do while Boris spends the day making 24 roll up cigarettes and Marko and Emilia are sleeping in their shared beds, weary from their guard shift the night before. Unlike in 11 Bit Studios’ subsequent title, Frostpunk, This War Of Mine doesn't include a fast forward feature except to end the day entirely, so all too often the player is left twiddling their thumbs while a character carries out some mundane task like clearing rubble without a shovel. You just sit there, watching their little spinning wheels rotate away, and wondering if Franko will show up so you can barter your excess bandages for a veritable log basket or those elusive weapon parts you need for that saw blade… Speaking of bloody Franko, he’ll grumble, 'I haven't got all day', if you aren't actively interacting with him, but he literally has got all day. He will stand at your door until you trade with him or the day ends. It’s an example of the false urgency that is littered throughout the game, another being the alarming radio bulletins that seem imminent (Crime spree! Cigarette shortage! Drought, famine and disease!) but only update once in a blue moon.
Your band of citizens are occasionally infuriatingly disobedient as well. You ask them to sleep in a bed, and they're 'too drunk'. Who has ever been too drunk to sleep? Why do they think I'm sending them to bed?! Or they've killed a family in a brutal stabbing attack and now they're 'broken' and require consoling before they can be functional again. It's a slog. Can't they find God or something? It’s inconvenient. Eventually, the perpetual state of misery the survivors wallow in starts to rub off on the player. Maybe the flaw with a game about living through civil war was always going to be making it an experience players enjoy and want to come back to. When your wards are constantly complaining of grievances, or questioning their existence, literally asking 'what is the point?' and 'why bother?', you start asking yourself the same questions. When the only satisfaction spikes are upgrading or manufacturing a new item, or getting a visit from your weirdly benevolent neighbours, each of which only happens once every few days, it begins to feel like your time might be better invested elsewhere.
This War of Mine is a novel concept though, and as with Frostpunk, kudos to 11 Bit Studios for pursuing this avenue of emotive gaming. Unfortunately, they're currently treading either side of the fine line rather than walking it, and where Frostpunk was immensely addictive and playable but not particularly emotionally involving, this is marginally more affecting, but a hell of a lot less rewarding to play. I'm optimistic they'll eventually find a careful balance, and I'll be excited to play when they do, but until then, I survived to the cease fire once, and that’ll have to do, bombs or no bombs, because I'm washing my hands of this responsibility.