11 bit studios, most famous for the hoo-rah bombast of the Anomaly tower offence RTS series have come out of left field with This War of Mine, an emotional 2D game focusing on the horrors of war. A small group of desperate survivors hole up in a bombed out building in the middle of a warzone somewhere in Eastern Europe, venturing out at night to scavenge or steal whatever they can to make it through another day. It is certainly dark and depressing, but 11 bit studios have managed to make one of the more thought provoking and unique games of the year.
3 victims of conflict in the fictional town of Pogoren huddle together in the ruins of a large house. Depending on the playthrough, these characters may change, but I start with Pavle, Bruno and Katia. The characters all have detailed backgrounds and traits, which can provide subtle help in the game, providing they are used correctly. Pavel, for example, is an ex-football player, and as such is a faster runner than the rest. Bruno was a celebrity chef before the war, so uses slightly less resources when cooking and Katia can has more ability to barter. These skills don't drastically change the game, but can mean the difference between life and death in a desperate situation.
My weary group cannot leave the house during the day for fear of snipers, so they take advantage of their time to build small items, rummage through cupboards for supplies, sleep or cook. When night falls one volunteer will leave the house on a desperate hunt for supplies, while the rest can sleep or guard their shelter.
Playing out in 2D, in a beautiful and wonderfully detailed pencil art style, the simple objective of the game is to survive. In the beginning the resources available in the shelter and in the relatively safe nearby areas will allow for the construction of rudimentary items, such as a shovel, bed or radio. Food quickly becomes scarce, the temperature starts to drop and the nightly raids must move to ever more dangerous areas to keep everyone alive and well.
The idea of scarcity and opportunity cost make This War of Mine actually matter. Food is obviously the most important commodity, but with characters only able to carry between eight and twelve things on each raid, decisions weigh heavily. More wood means you can build a more effective or comfortable shelter, but certain other items have great value on the black market, and trading for food is sometimes of the utmost importance. This is further complicated by each character's wants: some are coffee drinkers, and others crave cigarettes or books to take the edge off the horror. The balance between necessity and comfort is difficult, and provokes a real feeling of anxiety as some of my group begin to go hungry or get sick.
Occasional visitors break up the grim reality of wartime survival, but each visitor can provide a moral choice, and accentuate the moods and suffering of the group. Turning away children in need or a scared neighbour makes people sad, but helping them is a drain on already scarce resources. Every choice is a balance and several are heartbreaking, leaving me feeling low in real life.
Death comes easily in Pogoren, and mistakes are harshly punished. After twenty days of survival, Pavle was murdered by an armed thug as greed got the better of me and I pushed further into an occupied house, despite already having stolen enough to feed my group for the next day. The next night Katia killed a pensioner in a life or death struggle after being caught raiding a kitchen. The resulting trauma left her unable to function, while the rest of my shattered group tried to rally her spirits.
This is the key to the success of This War of Mine. In no moment do choices feel forced, and the consequences are difficult to live with. Killing the pensioner not only emotionally destroyed Katia, but left me feeling nauseated as well. It hardly mattered that now I had enough food to live through the next three days, it just wasn't worth it. Each day is a hellish struggle to survive, and how you get through it is, I feel, a reflection on your own moral character. This is not to say the game goes for all out emotional low blows. Understatement is the operative word, and the story of the survivors plays out with dignity and real feeling.
I am currently twenty-one days into the campaign. I have lost Pavle, and Katia is broken but I have welcomed two more survivors into my sorry camp. We spend the days sleeping or listening to the radio, or checking the rat trap for morsels of food. The snow is coming, and we face another desperate raid to collect firewood. Will we survive to day twenty-two? I hope so, but it doesn't look good... The one thing I do know is that I've never played a game quite like This War of Mine, and I thank 11 bit studios for making it.