Grown Up Gaming: This War of Mine / 28th of January 2015
It's interesting that gaming has become a mainstream activity in recent years, computer games used to be a thing for perennial nerds like our Associate Editor, James, or children like famous child actor Macaulay Culkin, but gaming is popular now, my mum's always bothering me to put another piece of hidden object puzzle toss on her laptop, even she's in on it. But this popularisation isn't because gaming's grown up, it's simply because it's accessible, even to your Nan.
Let's look at some games that have grown up, that have made the format compete with art forms like film, from the likes of Mel Croucher’s Deus Ex Machina to Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, or Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake (though let's face is, have games ever really attempted to compete with such “artworks” as American Pie or Vague Genre Movie 6-a series of shoddy, mind numbing videos that were popular on YouTube until the last few years or so). However, I’m going to take a look at a new release though, a game that I have absolutely no idea as to what it really entails, I've only been told that it made some people cry. It's This War of Mine from Polish developer, 11-bit Studios.
The grim, slow, music reminds me of Metro 2033 (now there's another grim game about scratching out a living) and it's narrative loading screens, when they kick in upon starting the game, requires the player to click a button called “survive”....It turns out that's actually harder than it sounds, and it can be a bit taxing on the emotions to boot.
This game would certainly be beautiful if it had a bit more colour, it's charcoal scratches would be painterly coloured pencils if only it weren't so grey...instead it's a fine piece of mechanics as metaphor, yet it makes me exhausted just to look at, the colour is drained from the world, and from the faces of the people I'm here to direct. My ragtag group of two best friends from the world before the war, along with a footballer that they met after the shelling started stand there, awaiting a saviour. It's almost like The Sims, but viewed side on and bearing a character that is as brutal as The Sims is homely and welcoming, instead of hearing “if I can't find the toilet, I'll piss myself”, it's more like “If I can't get this water filter set up soon enough, I'm probably going to dehydrate and die”. But I digress, you get the point.
Opening the group's inventory presented me with a laundry list of complaints; these people are desperate, they have no food, though they do have the materials to make beds, but it's an exhausting effort to get them all built. By the end of the day, one of us has the facility for a good night's rest at least. It's irrelevant anyway, Marko can sleep on the floor for tonight and Pavle is going to go see what's out in the world.
On my first night of scavenging I was privy to one of the game’s little vignettes that helped to further the narrative of this desolate world, this is fast becoming a popular means of setting the scene, showing players the manic, terrified messages left behind by a society that has torn itself apart. In the majority of games though, this really is just background material, inconsequential, but not here. There were statements that described what others had done to survive or even just to escape, but there were also words forewarning me of the monster that I'll become if I am to survive long enough in this forsaken place.
After putting the stark admonition aside, we built a stove to burn wood, everyone is toasty warm, meaning that “its cold” will surely be scratched from the perpetual complaints list! And yet, it feels like very much like each and every time you manage to scratch one item off of the list, another one appears. Maybe I'm just crap at this, or maybe this is just hard, maybe it's meant to be hard, after all, life is hard, right? A couple of days later, I was also robbed.
What little food we had was now gone, so I went forth and robbed someone, tensely sneaking in through the lower floors of their house as they slept upstairs, and instead of the triumph of finding the group some useful items that I expected, I instead found only guilt and shame. I simply found that I couldn't do unto others as what had been done unto me. My whole crew is hungry, they're relying solely on me to remedy this, they're starving and tired and at least one of them is sick, and I can’t do what needs to be done to help them. If this is the harsh reality of war, and developer 11-bit Studios did base the game upon the four year long Siege of Sarajevo from the Bosnian War, then perhaps I do live in a wonderful time where the UK is not at war.
As you progress, you can click your crew's biography buttons, they'll keep a little diary, what felt good yesterday (typically nothing), how they're cold, and hungry and miserable and hate this war. And that's not the worst of it.
On day four, we got a crowbar and we raided the locked pantries and cupboards in our home base, finding FREE STUFF, there was even some canned food. I praised the Lord that day, I had been beginning to seriously doubt if my guys actually believed in me at this point, but we had beds, we had a stove, and we even had a cooker with which to cook all of these lovely new supplies. With a definite spring in his step, Marko went out to scavenge at the supermarket, and he even got to be the big hero that night when he stepped in to defend a young girl from a soldier....and was shot dead.
On day five, Bruno's mood was: sad, tired, hungry. Pavle's mood: sad, tired, hungry, slightly sick. Me: This war has become mine, I needed Marko, he seemed like a nice chap, it's pretty rough to lose him, I think I'll just have a beer to calm me down.
We’d been stretched dangerously thin, since the robbery I have had to place someone on guard now, and Bruno's mood drops if he goes out to scavenge, he's scared after what happened to Marko, which is understandable. We’ve got just two guys, one who can cook and one who runs fast, taking turns to go rob from other people and stop ourselves being robbed, it's like a sitcom set in Slough. We even found a nice lady who joined us for a while, and all was not lost....she soon joined Marko though when got shot after venturing a bit too deep into an area because there was no food on the outskirts.
We're oh so tired by this point, we sleep most of the day because the night is spent scavenging or guarding, progress has ground to a halt as we use our remaining materials to just scrape by, rather than advance. It's hopeless, it's hopeless, we can't make it, we’re surely doomed and we should probably just give up now. God…I'd hate to be a civilian in a war zone. Every shred of hope that we have ever had has been crushed. I have discovered only despair at my inability to not be the big, awesome hero that most videogames present us as. We have no food, and we must eat.
And here I am now….they’ve all starved to death, leaving me here alone. Along the way, I had to rob an old couple and kill a man who was simply protecting his girlfriend; I have done all of this because we needed food and medicine, and yet we all starve anyway. Pavle and Bruno sit motionless in their slump, we stood upon the precipice of evil together, and having dived straight in, having embraced the necessity of our actions, it still wasn’t enough to save us, but then, perhaps we deserve this as punishment for our sins?
Time to start again….and it is only through repeated play that perhaps the worst aspect of the experience finally emerges, for, after five or six attempts, after twenty hours or so of play….I beat the game, we survived till the war was over, we actually did it. I mean, Pavle and Marko didn’t, it’s just Bruno and Anton with me now, eating some vile, rat meat soup, because here, in war, there are no such things as happy endings. When this one had finished, the epilogue rolled, and nobody had anything nice to say.