Nov. 30th, 2014

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The exploration of civilian life in the midst of war (rather than its aftermath) is not something I've seen from a video game before. Hell, I'm not sure I've ever even seen a film focus explicitly on the subject. The Devil's Backbone (2001) and Of Gods and Men (2010) both take place during a war that influences their drama, but it is still a distant war. This is of course a failing on my part - there is likely a masterpiece somewhere I should really have seen - but the end result is that the subject matter of This War of Mine feels quite novel to me. That's good in a simulation game - after all, if the experience offered was an ordinary one, why on earth would I play it? But novelty is not enough; I need veracity too. The game knows this - but I'm not sure that we're on the same page about what reality is.

That said, the visual design, which attempts to make a game limited to just 2 dimensions feel like life, succeeds beautifully. Every setting has a sense of depth and distance to it, communicated by far-off buildings or the ever-present sounds of fighting, that makes the world feel far larger than the space you can interact with. It is 'realness' without 'realism', as is This War of Mine's visualisation of the air as fine white shading that moves and ripples about the characters. As the temperature drops, the movement even brings on a sympathetic chill. Together depth and motion work to make This War of Mine a sometimes strikingly beautiful game: that is, if you can spare focus enough to savour the sights.

This War of Mine takes place under a constant ticking clock. During the Day-turns your characters need to cook food, bandage their wounds and upgrade their living quarters. Then, at Night, you need to send a character out to scavenge up more raw resources, for the next Day's meals, wounds and furnishings. No scavenging trip provides enough to generate much more than a day's worth of resources, meaning your characters are always just a few unlucky trips away from starving even before the weather goes bad. This constant pressure combined with short turns that start and end automatically, gives the game a rhythm akin to a Netflix binge. Continuing is the default action, and there is always a problem one turn that needs to be solved in the next. This is a game it is very easy to keep playing.

However, while This War of Mine does the pressures of survival very well, that is all it's doing. In part that's because the business of keeping my characters alive left little headspace for anything else, but it's also the result of having nothing to do that might be as compelling. The humans I controlled were more calorie-burning bio-machines than characters to me. I know their skills, I can see their faces, but I have no information about their pasts or dreams and their emotional reactions are a unified, generic 'be sad at sad thing, be happy about nice thing'. As such, whenever the game threw moral choices my way, I tended to just respond with whatever option seemed like it would best promote survival - human nature be-damned. My characters were not individuals, and as such, ensuring their survival felt less like safeguarding my people than maintaining lifelike automata.

What I wish is that this game had some means of simulating relationships. Having people turn up at the door of my house and ask for favours doesn't count - relationships are an active process, mutually reinforced from both sides. Most of all however, I miss the chance to talk to people. This War of Mine is explicitly designed to convey a particularly brutal form of 'war', one where the political divisions run between neighbourhoods, sowing distrust throughout the community, and rebels do not have the ability to keep order [1]. Between that and the fact that the people you play are a loose-knit band of individuals unlinked to any sort of broader social group, This War of Mine starts to feel more like an an apocalypse than a war. To be specific, it feels quite a lot like Telltale's The Walking Dead...with no talking.

On the surface, the games do not mirror each other. They have no mechanical similarities, but despite that the situations they have the player explore feel very alike and that disappoints me. Maybe they just weren't trying to provide the type of war I wanted to experience (ie. one like the protracted insurgencies I'm most familiar with), but the situation is clearly one of civil war and that means that it should be occurring, not just amongst civilians, but amongst a society. Civil wars are not the ends of worlds - they are violent continuities, and though the evolution of society in war is rapid it is evolution not rebirth. This War of Mine is fantastic at having the player feel the stress of survival, but it lacks the tools to convey the stresses of humanity.

[1]http://www.reddit.com/r/pcgaming/comments/2n33l4/a_survivor_of_the_siege_of_sarajevo_responded_to/

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