This War of Mine is somehow both extremely enjoyable and incredibly bleak. This juxtaposition extends to all its elements.
The art is surprisingly pretty, considering it depicts a shelled, crumbling city. Areas that you can’t see into are shaded over and focus up when you peer through a keyhole or force through the door with a crowbar. But on the other hand, it is entirely grey. Once, I went to a construction site and the red and white tape surprised me in its brightness, as did the collapsed supermarket sign, still glowing slightly pinkish in the haze.
There is very little sound, just the unmistakable background gunfire, but in the later game an extremely intense music begins to play when you venture out to collect what few supplies are left in the destroyed town of Graznavia, Pogoren (based on Sarajevo, Bosnia).
The crafting is harsh; collecting all the materials for a daily meal is difficult, but when you realise you can comfortably upgrade your workbench, or board up those windows that raiders keep coming through at night, or your trap finally catches something, there’s an unmistakable satisfaction. So much so that I didn’t really think about the fact that my survivors were existing mainly on rats.
But by far the greatest triumph of This War of Mine is the ethical choices it presents to you. I started my playthrough with Marko, a good scavenger, Bruno, a good cook, and Pavle, a fast runner. All of these provided benefits to playing the game, although, spoiler alert, NOT ENOUGH BENEFITS. And so my moral dilemmas began.
Just a couple of in-game days into my playthrough, a woman came to the door. She was scared, she said, because raiders came to their house, and she was afraid that one day they might rape her and her daughter. Would I go to help her board up her windows
Now. I almost don’t want to tell you this, because I may have some of you fooled into thinking that I am not very close to Slytherin on the Hogwarts house scale. But the truth is that I am (though Ravenclaw beats it out, for the record). But my first reaction was to turn her away. What if it was a trap? What if one of my men was attacked by raiders? I need my men here.
Then I mentally slapped myself because I run a blog called Feminist Game Reviews if I don’t go and help this woman I am a sham. So I did help her, and it wasn’t a trap and she was very grateful.
This experience definitely shaped the rest of my gameplay…but not enough that I wasn’t extremely morally questionable. To put it lightly. The rest of my shame is below the cut.
A few days later, my little group was running out of food. At night, you have the opportunity to scavenge from various areas, usually finding useful things in the rubble. However, this time, I had sent my scavenger, Marko, to a ‘Quiet House’. According to the information provided to me, it had ‘Huge Amounts of Food’ and there was no danger.
When I opened the door, an elderly man asked me to leave, and said that he wouldn’t hurt me. But I needed that food! The man followed me around the house, calling to his wife that everything would be okay, as I found no abandoned piles of rubble. Instead, I saw piles of food and other useful supplies marked ‘PRIVATE PROPERTY’.
What I’m trying to say here is that I stole food from an elderly couple. Even though the man repeatedly told me that his wife was sick. I left the medication (though this would have come in handy later, so in hindsight I find myself wondering whether I should have…).
Aright, I decided, time to redeem myself. There is a brothel in Graznavia. The information reads “If you want to get laid for a can of meat, this is the place. Mothers will do really kinky stuff to get food for their children.” It also states that there is danger. However, I had read that there were female prisoners inside and, my morality and my reputation in danger, I decided I had better rescue them.
Yeah, long story short, Marko got shot and killed, and I never even saw the prisoners.
By this point, another survivor, Anton, had asked to join my group, so I still had three men back at the base, but even as Marko was being murdered, raiders were attacking my home and wounded Bruno. I wasn’t sure what to do about this until I sent Pavle scavenging at the hospital, where I found actual doctors willing to help out. The next night I sent Bruno there and he was given bandages and medication.
On the way out, I stole some patients’ food and some extra medical supplies.
Things went pretty well from this point onwards, and Bruno was recovering until he was lethally wounded trying to pick up supplies. Pavle went on a scouting run to the hospital to pick up bandages but was caught stealing (this time it really was necessary, okay?!) and shot dead. Back at the base, Bruno died.
From here, I was left with only Anton and Cveta, both of whom had joined the group later in the game. Soon, another survivor, Roman joined us. It turned out to be a bad idea on his part. As winter approached, Anton became ‘terminally ill’, almost everyone was depressed at one point or another, and we were running out of food.
I decided not to feed the terminally ill Anton one day, thinking he would die overnight anyway, since I had no medicine for him. He lasted three days. I still didn’t feed him. Once, we traded for medication. I gave it to Cveta instead, as I thought she had better chances of surviving.
A littler later, Roman was killed collecting supplies, and Cveta spent six or seven days alone. We had enough food that she didn’t need to go scavenging, and could trade for extra parts to filter water and make fuel. But then a crime wave started and with only her to defend her things, she was killed and raiders made off with all of our things. It was probably karma considering all my morally poor choices during this game.
Yeah, so, tl;dr, I killed six survivors and probably others thanks to stealing from an elderly couple and a hospital. Bleak, right? However, one of the things that I really like about this game is that kindness is generally rewarded. One day I sent Cveta off (before there was no one else left to guard the house) to protect a young family, and in return they gave me a broken shotgun and a bunch of ammunition that I traded for all the food that would eventually have lasted Cveta until the ceasefire if only the raiders hadn’t come.
I have a few minor complaints, like that I wish actions could be queued when doing the daily grind of making food and crafting new items. Characters can interact, but only when one is depressed. Doing so gives the depressed character a morale boost, which I like, but oftentimes the conversation boils down to the other character telling them that they need them to buck up or they’re all going to die, which I’m not sure is the most useful pep talk in the world. I think having more interactions would enable me to get more attached to the characters, whom you only really learn about through their ‘Bios’ which are more like diaries. When something dramatic happens, the personalities of the characters becomes evident – Pavle, for example, had no problem stealing from the elderly because they needed the food, whereas Marko was pretty upset about it. I was slightly concerned when it came to female characters, as I only came across Cveta in my playthrough, but it appears that the numbers are 5:7 women to men, which is not terrible.
Overall, This War of Mine is a game about morals that somehow makes the game incredibly entertaining and addictive. I didn’t even think about some of the moral choices that I made until I was writing this (I stole from the hospital?! Really?!) and the game most hit me when, at 11pm last night, I finished my playthrough and looked out of the window and was really glad that I could go to bed instead of going out into the dark to pick through the rubbish for anything useful.
As a side note, the game is based on the siege of Sarajevo, which is very worth learning about, and reminded me of a great book I read a few years ago called the Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway. If you enjoyed This War of Mine, I’d recommend reading that, too.