This War of Mine was developed with a specific goal in mind: show war through a civilian’s perspective. Most modern war games have a “guts and glory” vibe. You’re out to wreak havoc, you’ll respawn quick, and killing with style is highly encouraged. This War of Mine feels nothing like those games. Survival is its primary focus, which means picking your fights, caring for people, and budgeting resources while a war rages not too far away. The experience is so gritty and uncomfortable that I didn’t really want to play the game, and that’s exactly how I know it’s doing its job. Here’s how this game excels at making the player understand a civilian’s experience in war.
The game is classified as a survival game, which makes sense, but it plays like a roguelike. Its use of permadeath and randomly generated resource mechanics simulates what civilians face in wartime. Nothing can be predicted and every decision is permanent. Adding to this is the game’s strict save system. Any significant event auto-saves, so you can’t reload to correct a mistake. You’ll have to live with the fact that you let someone under your care die, even when you didn’t know that could be an outcome of a decision. Afterall, being a civilian in war is about making hard decisions with little time and information.
Along with your own survival, the game gives you civilians in your direct care. The game encourages you to bond with them, by giving them distinctive identities. It’s human nature to become more attached to things if they have names, and these lank, young adults have common names that could belong to anyone. You, however, are not limited to only worrying about them. You’ll visit other areas and find other people who are just trying to survive. You want the same specific resources as them but nothing makes you feel you deserve it any more than they do. Over the course of the game, you’ll even meet people offering trades for specific supplies as you had in the past. You can empathize with their situation, but you still might have to turn them down. You understand the pains of the community, which makes all of your interactions with the NPCs more genuine.
An instance of trading is a practical choice, but it is also a moral one. Most actions in this game double as moral choices and these build within both the player and the cared-for civilians as time goes on. Making the hard moral choices do not necessarily equal good outcomes for your people. Murdering an old man for his medicine could keep one your people alive for one more day, but it’s entirely possible the medicine doesn’t even work. Now you have two deaths on your hands and nothing to show for it. Even if this doesn’t affect you the player, it will depress your civilians, which has negative consequences on their performance.
It isn’t possible to avoid making these tough judgment calls, either. People constantly knock on your door, asking for spare supplies. You know they’re desperate because you occasionally send your people to do this - and sometimes they don’t come back. If you turn the visitors away, they have to visit at least one more house, which could be their death. Or maybe they visit many more houses and never find the supplies, dying from neglect. I expand out all of these thoughts because this is what runs through a player’s head when presented with the common problem of, “how do I interact with this person?” Every single time somebody asks for help, a number of hypotheticals run through the player’s mind, and this wears it down very quickly. The guilt from a bad moral choice in this game is just as damning as it would in a real situation.
The game’s aesthetic also adds to this. Every explorable area is washed in dull, muted colors, offering no optimism. This is exactly how it should be, though. It wouldn’t make sense to have a rest area. Even your home base, which is traditionally associated with safety, has no visual distinction from hostile territory because safety is never guaranteed. Something as simple as sleeping is plagued with discomfort since there is a chance your people will be looted and killed. You can assign somebody to stay awake and guard, but there is still a chance that the guard gets killed. Even if the guard isn’t killed, you have to deal with their fatigue the next day, which causes problems if he normally had any sort of function during the day. The player, as well, will feel this fatigue. The situations never give up and you the player have to constantly juggle problems because life is complex.
This War of Mine does more to help me sympathize with civilians in war than any documentary could. This game sits in my library, installed and ready to play, and I can’t bring myself to open it. I am not qualified to take care of three people, and the game lets me know that. It doesn’t even take long to get the full experience from the game. I have less than two hours put into gameplay, and I am still very passionate about what a success it is. If the game can deliver its message to me that quickly, it’s done its job.