Platform: PC

For as long as there have been humans there's been conflict, and said conflict often leads to devastation and war. In both news coverage and in video games we're always aware of what it's like for the soldiers fighting the war, but what’s it like for those staying behind in the wreckage? That’s what This War of Mine wishes to answer; it’s a game that simulates the hardships—physical, mental, and emotional—of what war can do to the survivors of such catastrophes. 11bitstudios did an excellent job of balancing grim reality with simple mechanics, creating an interactive way to learn what it’s like to live in those troubled times.

Start of darkness

Inspired by true stories recounted by survivors of various battles, 11bitstudios created This War of Mine to be as realistic as it could be, and it definitely shows. The game has none of the typical game embellishments: there’s no “start” or even “play” icons, just the word “SURVIVE.” Set in an ambiguous European nation, war has already claimed many homes. Landscapes are illustrated in a grayscale 2D charcoal palette, indicative of the dark and dreary times taking place. At first you hear rumbling and flashes of light, which can be mistaken for a thunderstorm, but soon you realize that's just bombshells falling nearby.

You’re randomly assigned three or four survivors, all with their own histories and skillsets. Pavle, for example, is a once up-and-coming football star whose strength is running very fast, which can be key for enduring close encounters.

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There are no instructions in the game; it's a point-and-click and you learn as you go experience—which in itself is indicative of the level of realistic detail the game harbors, because that’s exactly how it is in a real war-torn dilemma. It's a side-scroller game that adheres to a day and night cycle, so you have until 8 PM to build beds to rest, construct stoves to prepare filling food, and reinforce barricades to better protect yourself from looters. From time to time other survivors stop by offering different tasks, which can range from bartering to children asking for medicine for their ailing parents.

Come nighttime you go out to try to find more supplies. Choosing who to send out to scavenge is crucial to your survival strategy: do you send out the good cook who’s tired and sad, therefore moving at a snail’s pace, or Marko, the expert scavenger who is well rested and has extra slots to carry more supplies? The game aims to test your morality habitually; you can scavenge an abandoned school, or invade an elderly couple’s home that has not been too affected by the war so far. As more locations become available more supplies become necessary, and the more danger there is at every turn.

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Stay Alive

Hiding is always the best strategy. While in the daytime you walk around freely in your shelter and take care of anything that needs to be done, while at night while scavenging you have to make sure to be silent if you suspect others are nearby. Your line of sight is limited so you're constantly on alert. You rummage through desks, boxes, and refrigerators to try to find items of importance. Sometimes you have to clear debris out of the way, which takes time if you forget to bring a shovel. It doesn't help that you also make a lot of noise either way, so you risk being heard if you're not careful. If you are caught, that's when items you've found or crafted for protection such as a knife or a gun come in handy.

But even if you have a weapon, that's not enough to guarantee survival. One of my people died on a run despite having protection, so the others at the shelter were left wanting for those supplies and lost the weapons my scavenger was carrying.

Keeping up the morale of your team is a significant challenge. At first I assumed hunger would be the biggest hurdle, but I learned that if the survivors are sad it makes them sluggish (therefore useless at tasks) and can even drive them to suicide.

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What Comes Next?

One of the more interesting parts of the game—which is also one of its shortcomings—is the unpredictability. On the one hand it's a perfect example of what real war is like: there's no proclaimed end date so you have to keep struggling to survive until it just ends, whenever that may be. Thus, the game can range from 25 to 45 days, or eight to forty hours of playing time (the latter stated by the developer), depending on what the game randomly decides. If you construct a radio you are able to have a better idea of the day-to-day happenings, but you still won't have a clear understanding of when the end will come. And with no actual narrative, it can be hard to find a motive to keep going. The gameplay can also become repetitive, though it is challenging enough learning how to balance needs, supplies, and survivors. You will likely fail at first as you get a better grasp on what to prioritize.

Oddly the game's biggest focus is also its drawback: the survivors. While 11bitstudios made sure not to use real names of survivors they spoke to or read about—in fact, some developers used their own faces for the game—the people you control are not people you necessarily feel strongly for. If you decide to read their bios and day-to-day diaries you can get more insight to what they're thinking about, but it’s not enough. There always seems to be this invisible barrier between the player and those he or she controls, and it reduces some of the sentiment the game wishes to evoke.

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“Think of these as real people,” the game says. “I'm trying to!” I proclaim. But often times, individuals don't understand these types of dire situations because they have no personal investment. If 11bitstudios had focused a bit more on the characters to give them more depth, it may have delivered a more personalized story.

When we remember to take a step back and admire all that video games have accomplished—so far—we're able to see the versatility of the experiences they've offered. Just like Papers, Please, This War of Mine gives us a look into a world many of us have not and hopefully will never experience, but need to learn about. Stripping away the politics to give us an unbiased look into the kinds of conditions war survivors actually experienced, 11bitstudios delivers a simple yet rich experience. This War of Mine may not be for everyone because of the uncertain game session lengths as well as its repetitive nature, but it is a game we all need to play.

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My View

Here are the criteria I consider most important for evaluating This War of Mine: 

Gameplay: 8/10

The user interface and game mechanics are basic yet very effective. This War of Mine delivers more with less; it’s easy to grasp and somehow reduces tough decisions to single mouse clicks. However, there is much left unspoken that the players have to find out on their own, which can sometimes be learned too late.

Production: 7/10

The randomized characters each have their own stories, but you'll only learn about them if you remember to read their bios. Otherwise they're blank face silhouettes you have to take care of, stripping away some of the emotional ties associated with these types of games. By foregoing cutscenes and a linear narrative to simplify the story This War of Mine is trying to present, it actually removes some of its humanity.

Story: 7/10

There is no story other than surviving the war. There are certain events that can occur that attempt to tug at your heartstrings, which are effective in their own right, but because the survivors are only used as vessels to carry out actions, it's hard to connect with what's going on.

Replay Value: 8/10

The game is built for replayability. You're likely to fail in your first session and that's okay. The randomizing of survivors and wartime span means you can try to make it through the days with different strategies you learned from previous mistakes.

Overall Score: 7.5/10

The goal of This War of Mine was to showcase what life is actually like for the people left behind while the battle rages on, and it provides a marvelous representation of that. The choices are difficult, it's not easy to help everyone, and sometimes you have to do awful things just to stay alive. The power of video games continues to amaze, and This War of Mine is a shining example of the endless learning possibilities games have in store.

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GameCrate reviews represent the opinions of the GameCrate writer who wrote them, and not necessarily those of Newegg. In most cases, GameCrate reviews are performed using products or samples provided by the manufacturer/producer of the product.