This War of Mine - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team plough through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best games will stand up to scrutiny today.
I’ve never been a fan of management sims. I play games to get away from office work, so anything that resembles the day-to-day drudgery of real life just never appealed. Still, as an objective journo it’s always best to experience something before, ahem, writing it off. So when 11 bit studios decided to make 2014's This War of Mine available on Steam for free for a limited time, I decided it was an ideal opportunity to give it a go...only to find that it was already in my library. Humble Bundle has a lot to answer for.
Ten Minutes In
I’m managing three people in a bombed out house in the fictional war-torn city of Pogoren. It’s mostly monochrome with the odd tinge of colour, everything has gone to hell, and a mournful electric guitar takes care of the background music, ramping the feels up to eleven. There is no tutorial. I literally had to click the different icons around the house to find out what they did, and to learn about the triad under my control. It seems one of them is sick, most are hungry, and all are tired. Bruno is a good cook, though, so that’s a win. Searching the house is quite satisfying, even though the parts and items of junk I’m collecting don’t really have a purpose as yet. I assume the idea is to keep everyone alive?
Forty Minutes In
The game is split into day and night sections. I have to forage around the house in the day, building tools, workbenches, and even beds. At night, I need to send one or more of my team out to scavenge for more parts and food. When I have them, it looks like I can create more comfortable living conditions for my three survivors. Pavle is a fast runner so may be better suited for scavenging, but Marko can carry more so I decide to use him for the time being. Bruno doesn’t really do much other than cook and smoke, so I use him and Pavle to guard the house in the night.
Fifty Minutes In
Marko has stumbled into the home of an old couple. The man is pleading with him not to take his wife’s medicine. This is pretty uncomfortable. Thankfully, I picked up meds earlier on so I didn’t think I needed them...but after searching the house, they have a ton of them. They don’t need all of them, right? I have more people, so our need is greater.
Fifty-Two Minutes In
Marko has made it home with the meds. Now he is moaning about how sad he is, and what a horrible thing that was to do. Screw you, Marko.
Fifty-Four Minutes In
Two kids just knocked at the door, asking for meds for their sick mother. I gave the pills I stole to them. See, if I hadn’t done that, the mother may have died. I definitely made the right call. Those kids need looking after, and the old people were living comfortably so they could afford to lose them. I’m feeling pretty smug right now.
One and a Half Hours In
I went back to the old folks, but they were dead. The kids haven’t given me anything in return for the meds. Instead, they came back demanding food so I sent them packing. I am no longer feeling smug.
Two Hours In
This game is relentlessly bleak, but I guess that’s the point. Somehow I’ve made it to Day 11 without losing anyone. The biggest issue is managing food. In the shelter I can upgrade the various tool benches to increase the different items I can make. However, until you upgrade one, there is no clue as to the extra options it will grant. The main bench allows you to grow herbs, for instance, while the metalwork bench increases the weapons and armour you can craft. If you run out of places to scavenge (which I haven’t yet), you need to create lockpicks and saw blades to break into less accessible areas in the locations you’ve already visited.
Each area provides an overview of what you may find when you go scavenging at night, be it food, weapons, parts, or so on. It also tells you how dangerous it is likely to be, or whether there may be opportunities to trade. However, there is an inconsistency between what the black market deems valuable and what the punters you meet actually want from you. According to the radio I built to keep me informed, coffee prices were through the roof but when I offered some to trade, it was considered “very common”. As such, I found myself more often than not coming home empty-handed and waiting until the next night to do the same thing again. If I was lucky, someone would knock on the door offering to trade in the day, which just about kept my companions’ rumbling stomachs quiet.
But this is the definition of hand-to-mouth management. The resources acquired need to be used sparingly, and efficiently. I can send more of the trio out scavenging, but at the risk of my own shelter being broken into and my valuables taken. I can keep people up all night to guard the place, but they will then be tired in the day.
That this game was based on the events of the three-year siege of Sarajevo rams home exactly how awful the human race can be during times of conflict. Over distant gunfire, the music is heart-wrenching. There is no let up in the grim circumstances; the civilian population are living in utterly impoverished circumstances, eating from cans, setting traps in the hope of catching rodents, and fashioning crude meds from unidentifiable tablets. A comfy chair and a good book can ward away the sadness for a brief moment, but there’s a reason that the main game mode is called “Survive”. That’s all you can do.
Four Hours In
This is an intensely difficult game. When you hit a downward spiral, it simply doesn’t stop. Night after night, people came to raid us and each time someone got wounded. The more they were wounded, the more depressed they became, the sicker they got, and the less likely it was that I could use them to scavenge. Eventually, Bruno was killed overnight on Day 15. I was then down to two very depressed individuals, who were both wounded. I had no choice but to send Pavle out to try and find meds and food, but he was spotted on his raid and killed on Day 18. On Day 20, after a raid went awry and he came back to find the shelter had been completely ransacked, Marko was broken and took his own life. There was literally nothing I could do.
It feels unfair, but then that’s what the game is portraying: war isn’t fair. This isn’t something you are going to want to play if you’re in a happy place and wish to remain there. To ram home the point, I was treated to a montage of all the decisions I made (good and bad) over those twenty days. My goodness, it was grim.
Twelve Hours In
I think I’m done with this. It’s not that it’s a bad game. It’s just not a particularly nice one. I completely understand the concept and the harsh reality of conflict is something that most of us in the western world are lucky enough not to have experienced, so a portrayal of something so resolutely miserable as this may be as close as we’ll get, unless our friends across the pond become even more reckless.
However — and this is a big caveat — for all of its worthiness, the actual gameplay must deliver. At its core, This War of Mine is a serviceable survival sim with a unique aesthetic. Peek behind the curtain though, and you begin to see the flaws which strip away the atmosphere it’s worked hard to build up. It’s the small things at first: the gauge fiddling during bartering to work out exactly what any item’s equivalent value is, the snippets of repeated text dialogue, the samey environments. Then it starts to build, and its gaminess becomes ever crucial, so much so that it detracts from the point the story is making.
After the first playthrough, I decided to go all out for my group - declining any pleas for help, stealing everything I could, and just being a selfish prick. I lasted far longer. But as winter set in and I didn’t have the food production I needed or enough heaters to stop us freezing to death, I realised that the lack of any proper guidance (such as how to use fertiliser to grow plants, or what an electronics component would be classed as when choosing my next scavenge location) began to get me down.
Things came to a head when I actually tried to engage in combat for the first time, after building a fairly comfortable and secure shelter but then needing to go into more dangerous territory. The simple act of shooting an enemy when a crosshair was on him just didn’t work — it wasn’t until after my guy had been killed (losing valuable weaponry, and my hope of surviving) that I realised I actually had to click on a button to change into combat mode. This was explained nowhere, and I failed — not because I was bad at the game, but because the game was bad at teaching its mechanics. Then there was the time I crossed a sniper location, only to get picked off on my way back. There was no logical reason for it; I followed the same pattern to cross no man’s land as I had previously (the game, predictably, told me nothing). But one way worked, and the other way didn’t, so I died. To say I was pissed off would be an understatement.
I am struggling to decide if I’d recommend This War of Mine. There were times that I was completely hooked, and desperate to keep my crew alive. But I grew more dejected the longer I played, whether it was because my healthy people developed wounds overnight despite not being attacked (random events like this pierce the bubble of believability), or because the oppressive nature of the setting simply lends itself to bringing people down. I feel it is possibly something many gamers should experience for a few hours, but would they enjoy any part of it? That’s a completely different question.