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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.

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Episode 10 of Paranoia Agent was tough. It is the story of how a lazy, incompetent Production Coordinator for an anime show fails again and again at his job, making mistake after mistake, which of course all fall to his colleagues to fix. He never seeks to be better, and never apologises. Instead he makes excuses, blames others and takes out his frustration on boxes in a supply closet. He knows he's done wrong but will never admit it, and as the failures mount up and he becomes hated and insulted for them, his resistance to the very notion that he did wrong swells until his reason snaps. For me, this was the toughest watch of the season because the Coordinator is a remarkable facsimile of my self-image, when most disgusted with myself. We share the same fear of failure and we share the same impulse to avoid taking responsibility for failures. He does that which most horrifies me - the inconveniencing and hurting of people - and does so for reasons I can understand. He reminds of the times I've done that myself, triggering memories like cramps, bringing tension I cannot end, only weather until it recedes. It didn't help that I was watching the episode to procrastinate, which is my most common means of postponing failure. By rights I should have finished watching, closed down Chrome, and started work. I of course didn't. Simply being aware of what I'm doing does not remove the desire to do it.

That desire to avoid torment and wish it away is a constant in Paranoia Agent, a show without many such constants. Though there is a central cast of characters they do not turn up in every episode, and though the plotline is consistent enough that the whole thing wraps up about as satisfactorily as I've ever seen in an anime, each episode still has its own individual character. This is a series where one episode is a critique-through-juxtaposition of how anime/manga tends to portray masculinity, while another is a comedy about three people who want to commit suicide. There's even evil black goo and an opening song that might be the best anime opening I've ever watched. I mean, I'd be a sucker for any song that started with musical yelling, but this opening seals the deal with visuals designed to achieve dissonance both of place (an old homeless woman standing on a table) and tone (laughing people standing against images of warzones; a cheery song about rising mushroom clouds). This is not a show where you should ever be sure of the ground under your feet, and the opening is a statement of this.

Paranoia Agent is fantastic. Indeed, it's so fantastic that I was able to maintain my desire to watch it, while every episode thematically screamed at me to stop and do some work. Though honestly, that could speak more to my nature than that of this, incredible anime.


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January 2016



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