This War of Mine – a game about the traumas of war
02 January, 2018
Here at Gaming the Mind we particularly appreciate originality in games, both in form and content. A firm favourite is Life is Strange, with its rewind mechanic that allows experimentation with social communication within a world that is admittedly 'strange', but also in many ways familiar and ordinary.
Some games, however, provoke emotions and reflections that allow us to empathise with people experiencing lives that are very different from our own. If this sounds a bit far-fetched, try out the decision-making mechanic in Papers, Please, where your family's life and the lives of refugees are hanging on the choices you make. Or try surviving the long days of This War of Mine, a game about staying alive in a war zone as a civilian.
This War of Mine is about choices, prioritisation and risk taking. It's about luck, discipline and planning, and it's about not giving up. Now, if this sounds serious and not particularly fun, well that's just how it's supposed to be. The game is bleak; it fills you with hopelessness and is deeply depressing.
Not the hero
In this game about war, you're not the omnipotent hero; you're the little person getting rained down upon. I'm not going to say it's realistic, because thankfully I've never experienced war, but it's a simulation of an experience that many civilians in war zones endure. And it gets you in ways that a film couldn't, because you're actively involved in creating the story and the outcome.
11 bit studios, who made the game, drew influence from the 1992 Siege of Sarajevo, which lasted 1,425 days and led to 5,434 civilian deaths. They used first-person accounts from the FAMA Collection, a media project that collected oral histories from people caught up in the conflict in former Yugoslavia, to create a realistic game world with real-life challenges.
This attention to authenticity, both within the narrative and the gameplay itself, avoids what has become known as 'ludonarrative dissonance' – a critique particularly aimed at war games that attempt to portray a moralistic view of the horrors of war whilst ironically rewarding senseless violence.
As the player, you look into the cross-section of a bombed-out house, with its dark basement, bare kitchen, rubble-strewn upper floors and broken roof. You direct three characters by clicking on objects to interact with, such as a cooker, a fridge or a bed.
After scavenging for resources, you can build things that help your characters survive: a water filter; a radio; a weapon. In this game, you can kill and be killed, and there are no extra lives. This is no obscene undead pre-oedipal fantasy, as Slavoj Žižek likes to call the immortality mechanic in video games. When your character, who has a name, a face and a personality, dies, she's not coming back. This game is about loss.
War is hell; hell is other people. You'll find that you need the help of others to survive this game. You'll need to learn to barter with the random strangers who come to your door unannounced and you'll need to learn to exploit your team members' strengths and keep them strong, through cooking and sleeping and guile.
The game offers you the chance to play with a total of 12 different groups of characters, with each group having different stories, starting environments and resources. This leads to interesting variations in tactics and choices. Each night, you get the opportunity to assign your team members roles such as being a lookout for raiders, a scavenger in the local area or the person who gets some precious sleep.
The scavenger missions involve directing your character around unfamiliar buildings filled with dark spaces, bounty, and strangers who are often homicidally unpleased to see you. You might assign the most physically strong or fast character to venture into the night, but even they require regular food, rest, and, if injured, medical assistance.
Constant threat and fear
Mental health themes run throughout this game, as you would expect from a game about war trauma. Loss is certainly a feature, as are constant threat and fear.
The game is clearly trying to give the player the experience of living in an extreme environment where bad things can happen on a daily basis and where you have very little control over your life. A lot seems down to luck and the game is often deeply unfair and mean. Some characters show incredible levels of resilience whereas others don't.
Characters have moods which respond to various factors; for example, their mood will deteriorate as they become involved in, or are exposed to, traumatic events, witness suffering and death, or endure hardships such as hunger, illness or injury.
Eventually a character can become depressed, and unable to engage in daily activities; even those that aid self-preservation. It is possible that characters may end their own lives if they remain in a severely depressed state.
However, their mood can recover through actions such as engaging in good deeds, eating well, sleeping well, and having access to entertainment. Importantly, characters can console each other to help improve mood, which highlights the importance of reaching out to others when in need. A custom psychologist character is especially skilled at consoling others, sending a clear message about the importance of seeking the attention of mental health services when unwell.
Of course, this presents a basic view of depression and recovery. Consoling is depicted as simple conversations between characters, with phrases such as 'I'm here for you, if you need me'. It seems logical that in this crisis scenario, things such as food and sleep could reduce stress, but depression and post-traumatic stress can often present with sleep difficulty and loss of appetite, so presenting these activities as generalisable solutions to low mood or trauma in all contexts would be overly simplistic and narrow.
However, if taken as encouragement for players to engage in self-care, and to seek help when needed, the game's message rings true for our daily lives. If the game teaches us one thing, it's that to survive we depend on mutual aid and cooperation.
As I write this, a number of cities and towns remain under siege and at war. This game is important because it makes it that bit harder to forget what war does to people.
This War of Mine is available for Windows, OS X, Linux, Android, iOS, PS4 and Xbox One .
Authored by Stephen Kaar