This War of Mine Review: Are You a Sociopath?
In this latest game from 11 Bit Studios, the story of war is writ small - through the eyes of a small band of civilians simply trying to survive in a besieged city. In this dreary, wartorn landscape, the snipers outside prevent you from leaving your shelter during the day, and at night you are forced out into the streets and other people's homes to scavenge for items that will help you stay alive.
"What's mine is mine. ...And what's yours is also mine."
-- A friend
Presented in a manner not unlike the jaded lens of Papers, Please, This War of Mine hits you with a series of life-and-death decisions driven by your own conscience. Do you protect everyone in your shelter to your utmost or do you sacrifice some of them for the good of others in order to endure?
This game helps to underline the blurring of ethical lines that happens when civilization is pulled into war. As per 11 Bit Studios:
"There are no good or bad decisions; there is only survival. The sooner you realize that, the better."
"Not gonna lie, I would probably kill everyone else too."
-- Another friend
As far as This War of Mine is concerned, winning means staying alive to see the dawn of the last day, whereupon you're faced with a recap of all the highlights of your journey - when you killed someone for the first time (often brutally, with makeshift weapons), or when you first helped someone who comes to your door.
How you do this is up to your own conscience.
I did my best to keep my people healthy - although on the outset I didn't realize how difficult that would be, and how many ways it meant looking out for them. A few bad choices on my part in one playthrough made all of my characters horribly depressed and lose all hope in living - they killed themselves. In another, I lost one to sickness and hunger. And in another my characters became ravaging animals - silently creeping into other shelters and murdering the homeowners in their sleep for the few things they'd managed to scrounge together and which my little family desperately needed.
These decisions had an effect on me - and they were meant to. In much the same way Spec Ops: The Line made me question my position as The Good Guy, This War of Mine made me question just how far off the reservation I was willing to go to preserve life.
Nuts and Bolts
Presented as a side-scrolling point-and-click adventure, the background story is only nominally fleshed out - a war may be happening, but you are not a part of it. Your world is shrunk down to the subsistent life of a scavenger, and that's all you need to know. In the context of this game, the lack of information works well, because it mimics the limited knowledge that a real civilian would have.
It's probable that the advent of Telltale's The Walking Dead and its take on morality ("Clementine will remember that.") influenced the making of this game. When you make a decision, it cannot be changed. Devoid of quicksave options, an auto-save function is built into the day-night cycle. The upshot of this is that there is no going back - if your scavenger dies while foraging at night, that's for keeps.
(Unless you Alt+F4 and try again, but that'd be pixying out of the spirit of the game. And I would never do that. Honest.)
Furthermore, the game doesn't make the choices easy for you. In order to make a point, and to effect any real playability, it couldn't possibly do so. This game was made to be hard. You may not finish it, but you certainly won't forget it.
In accordance with its may-the-consequences-be-upon-thy-head approach to play, very little is spelled out in the tutorial. You learn by doing, and it can be frustrating to learn that some of the actions you make on the first day while still figuring everything out will grossly affect you in the future (e.g. the placement of appliances and upgrades). The point-and-click system fails somewhat, but only during combat against other bandits - where clicking a tiny circle over an opponent's head can feel clumsy and inaccurate.
What ultimately ties the game together, however, is a positively wonderful soundtrack that follows you through the tense moments of fire, blood, nighttime violence, and the cold, hopeless nothingness that pervades your days. You listen and you feel.
(Authored by Piotr Musial, you can buy the soundtrack exclusively on Games Republic for $2.99.)
This is an experience that requires a certain state of mind - that is, mindfulness of a slow start, openness to a bit of self-reliance, and willingness to be immersed in something depressing and thought-provoking all at once. There is very little to find wrong with this game - combat is not a star feature of this survival game, nor does it feel like it should be - and the lackluster story is more than made up for by the fact that its minimal narrative puts all the power of decision-making into your own, often incompetent, hands.
People have been throwing around the words "Game of the Year" in association with this game. I am hard-pressed to find anything to prove they're wrong. A definite staple for my recommendations list, it can be found on Steam for 10% off right now ($17.99 USD).