This War of Mine is a unique survival game that is both enjoyable and incredibly depressing at the same time. Set during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, you control a group of stranded civilians who must scavenge, steal, and barter in order to survive military occupation. The game isn’t action heavy, but instead relies on strategic decision and planning as a means of progression. With a gritty feel and the strong impact of tough decisions, I couldn’t help but compare my feelings playing the game to those I experienced reading J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun.
At its core, This War of Mine plays like a simulation game – requiring that you manage all your survivor’s requirements while preparing for the unexpected. Where it excels is that it focuses on decisions and their impact more than on the micro management of survivors. During the course of your game, survivors become hungry, sad, tired, wounded, or sick, and the way you respond to these requirements greatly affects both their individual performance and the outcome of the game. A busy team may be more productive, but without proper rest and fulfilment of basic needs, they quickly become depressed. Leave a survivor depressed for too long and they break, leading to drastic events such as infighting, suicide, or betrayal.
The goal of This War of Mine is very simple: survive the war. How long this takes varies between games, as the length, events, and starting characters are all procedurally generated. My first game lasted 47 days, and my second just three weeks. My third was considerably shorter, as no one survived to see the end of the war. Unlike other survival games, your characters don’t learn new skills or evolve meaning, they must see out the conflict using only their base skills and any items they can salvage.
Each day is divided into two timed phases – day and night. During the day, sniper fire forces you to remain indoors resting, crafting, relaxing, and eating. This phase is extremely important, as it gives you time to address any concerns your survivors may have and prepare for the night ahead. The simplistic point-and-click interface makes it incredibly easy to assign tasks to your survivors, thus allowing you to concentrate on strategy and not detract from the experience. Survivor moods aren’t monitored by bars or meters, but dictated by worded status updates and character appearance. This works well and helps you ascertain what requirements need addressing the most. If you’ve only got food for two people, maybe you should feed the “very hungry” people before the “hungry” ones, for example. Then again, if you have someone who is depressed, tired, and hungry you might opt to give them the food instead.
This level of depression (note I didn’t say happiness) is a key component of This War of Mine, and where the back-end mechanics really shine. Over the course of the game, various events will occur; sometimes survivors will die, other times you’ll need to steal from or kill someone, occasionally you’ll get raided or just come back from a scavenge with little to show. All events have an emotional impact on your survivors, which depends on their particular personalities and/or preferences. For example, one day you might receive a request from a neighbour for help. If you accept this request, kind-hearted survivors will be happy with the choice, while the more pragmatic people will view it as weakness and grow more discontent. Furthermore, if you have a chivalrous character, they will be happier with the choice if you use them to make the decision.
It’s hard to describe just how cleverly this is implemented without devolving to a detailed document on that topic alone. Needless to say, this mechanic is applied universally across the game and affects every decision you make, small or large.
Once your daytime activities are concluded, sniper fire dies down and you are able to send your survivors out scavenging for supplies. Scavenging is an essential part of surviving, as without food, medical supplies, or crafting components, you will be ill prepared to deal with the potentially dangerous circumstances later in the war. Whilst there are initially many locations for you to explore, it’s not long before supplies start drying up and you have to make some tough decisions. Do you steal medical supplies from the hospital to save your own wounded? Trade to get items you need right now? Or do you craft a bunch of weapons and go on the offensive against other, well stocked scavengers who are also trying to survive? No matter what you choose, you must keep your eye on the time and conclude your business before sunrise, when the snipers get back in position!
Scavenging uses the same interface as controlling survivors during the day, but adds combat and stealth due to the increased potential of conflict. Restricted vision, stealth attacks, and cover really add to the atmosphere and tension of night time scavenging. Throw in your inability to take much damage and the scarcity of medical supplies, and you quickly learn that a cautious approach is often best. Danger isn’t restricted to just scavengers, though. Every now and again, your shelter will be subjected to raids from other survivors, so leaving people behind is paramount to ensuring your stored salvage is protected. Once more, This War of Mine forces a tenuous balance of risk versus reward that is difficult, but enjoyable to maintain.
Each character has their own story, which acts as a basis for how they behave and why they are there. These are presented via diary entries based on true accounts from survivors of the Bosnian War. Whilst not essential to the gameplay, they are a nice addition and provide a good framework for the game. Interestingly, there’s one night time area that follows a significantly different path to the rest. The first time I visited Sniper Junction, I was horrified to hear a baby crying in a locked room. Without lockpicks or a crowbar, I knew I wouldn’t be able to help and that the child would die. Luckily I located the father, injured by sniper fire. I was able to secure him a safe route back and the child was saved. Much like the first time I had to steal from innocents – I felt terrible. It’s rare that a game can evoke such an emotional response from me, but This War of Mine did an exceptional job of immersing me in its world. Sadly, that’s the only level with a sub-story like that and, whilst the game is fantastic as is, I would have liked more levels with this additional content.
This War of Mine is a truly amazing game. It depicts the often unsung heroism and bravery of regular people trying to survive a besieged city, whilst providing solid gameplay and a balanced experience. The in-game economy and trade variations are second-to-none. In short – the entire experience is both emotional and thought provoking. If you enjoy immersive, challenging, and strategic experiences, I can’t recommend this game enough.