By Patrick Dane
Every once in a while, a game will come and plant you on your ass. Something truly unexpected is dropped on your doorstep and it ends up hitting you much harder than you ever expected. A couple times a year, a smaller game seems to come from out of no where to become a part of the hallowed 'Game of the Year' discussion. In previous years, that has been games like Gone Home, The Walking Dead and Journey. They are always a delight to stumble upon and they get me excited about where video games are headed. This has happened a few times already this year and those games will no doubt get their credit in due time. This War of Mine is not one of those games. Or at least, it isn't a delight. That doesn't mean it's bad. In fact, it absolutely deserves to be spoken in the previous breath of those games I already highlighted.
Let me explain. A week or two ago, I got a press release sent to me with a bold claim. This isn't out of the ordinary at all. In fact, I've probably gotten three of four since I started writing this, but what caught my eye was an email simply entitled, matter-of-factly, 'a life-changing game'. That was new. I had to take a look at the contents, because it was such a bold claim. I'd heard of the game prior and was already interested, so I went ahead and secured a copy for myself. Now that I have spent several hours with the game, while life changing might be a little strong, the game successfully showed me a new perspective on a challenging issue.
War is so often a prominent feature of video games and that makes sense. If you are going for spectacle, it's hard to top thousands of people putting their lives on their line for a bigger cause. Add the imagery of guns, tanks, explosion and blood shed, it is not hard to see why so many video games turn to the literal embodiment of large scale conflict. Too often though, video games focus on the glory and heroism of war. Not the pain and hardship that they bring. In This War of Mine's case, that is all it focuses on.
At its core, This War of Mine is a side scrolling survival game. You play as multiple civilians in a war torn landscape who have bonded together under one roof in order to survive. Gathering supplies, medicine, water and food is at the core as you try to ensure everyone's needs are catered for. From sickness to hunger, injury to depression, surviving is a rotten and tough business in this world. These would all be powerful mechanics in a survival game about war time civilians, but what makes This War of Mine something special is what it makes you face on a morale level.
The game is full of dilemmas that players have to face and it all comes down to surviving. You might find a house loaded with supplies, but as you enter, you could find an elderly couple who cower in fear as you raid their supplies. You will get the medicine you need to save your friend at home who is dying of a severe infection, but you may well have just sentenced this couple to death without the supplies they need. Or perhaps two children come to your door saying their mother is going to die without medicine, but instead of sharing, you keep the supplies you need because there is no reward for being a good person. In another instance, you could try and break into someone's lockbox before they catch you, and in the enusing scuffle, you end up killing them. You've gotten the supplies you needed to make sure everyone survives, but it was at the cost of a human life.
This is where your sadness and depression come into play and it's a really ingenious counter mechanic. You could turn off your emotions while playing and just be the worst person, stealing and killing for everything you need. That would be if the game didn't treat your characters like human beings. While you make decisions and control these characters, their conscience is not yours. If you repeatedly act like a monster, you will come back to find that one of your characters has killed themselves. Plus, these choices you make begin to prey on your mind. "Wait, why did that old couple still have so much food?" Then it dawns on you, maybe I was the only one willing to be so heartless. Perhaps the need to survive has twisted my morales and I really am the monster. As you make these decisions, you begin to understand the affects of war on a more personal level. This is a human reality that turns good people bad. You won't know at what point you've become an awful person, but you will quickly learn, trying to be a good person will get you killed.
In many ways, this ties the game closely to last year's hit Papers, Please. It is a perversion of mechanics that demonstrate the real questions someone in war time has to justify to themselves. It's a powerful storytelling device in a game. The mechanics are just a case of finding supplies and surviving, but it leads to powerful narrative potential. When done right, this brings a level of emotional involvement to games, showcasing how narrative and play don't have to be separate entities. In fact, they make incredibly strong bedfellows when they work in tandem.
While This War of Mine does have its troubles, such as feeling deceitfully nihilistic at times, it's a powerful exploration of people that too often get lost in the shuffle of war. Exploring these stories through such strong mechanically and narrative harmony makes it one of the most affecting games I've gotten my hands on this year. With the overused term 'ludonarrative dissonance' being thrown around so often, it is always exciting to see a game that shows mechanics and narrative aren't mutually exclusive. While This War of Mine probably hasn't changed my life, it actively affected my perception of a very real issue hundreds of thousands face daily. That may well be a first for a video game for me.
Patrick Dane, once a would be filmmaker, has somewhat accidentally found himself as an entertainment journalist over the past two years. You may recognize him from around these parts, or you may not. Who's counting? From E3 to SDCC to the Top Gear track, Patrick has explored the world of entertainment wherever it has taken him. He is always happy to talk words at you. Hopefully the ones above will suffice your needs.