War games are usually about, well, warriors. Whether set on a modern battlefield, the far future, or fantasy kingdoms, you command armies or one soldier fighting his way through waves of enemies, using a veritable arsenal of weapons and abilities to kill, and achieving clear-cut tactical goals. This War of Mine flips that premise by putting you in charge of a small band of civilians who are trapped in a lawless war zone, just trying to survive from day to day.
I’d call This War of Mine a resource management game, but the resources are so unreliable that it’s really about managing the misery of your characters. Set during a civil war where there is no functioning government, and soldiers on both side shoot to kill, your band must work together to survive not just physically (by finding enough food) but mentally (by getting enough sleep, finding ways to relax, and responding to moral choices in the game).
Game play breaks down like this—during the day, you can move your characters around their bombed-out shelter to scavenge supplies and construction material, cook, or use the work bench to craft new items (provided you have enough resources to do so). Managing time and materials quickly becomes an issue; a water purifier is a permanent object, but you have to make a filter for each use, then prime the pump, then wait hours for the water to be drinkable. Having a book to read can help a character relax, but you may need to burn it for fuel to cook dinner.
Your characters cannot leave the house during the day because of snipers, but you will occasionally be visited by a trader or—more often—by characters who want help (medicine for a sick mother, or to carry a wounded relative to a hospital). If you help them, you lose resources or one of your characters for a day. If you don’t, it has a negative affect on your party’s mental health. Every once in a great while a new player character will show up, seeking shelter. The challenge with that is whether you add him or her to strengthen your group, while potentially straining your resources.
At night, the game swings into phase two—one (and only one) character may go out to scavenge while the others can sleep or stand guard to fight off other scavengers. The game gives you a list of locations you can scavenge, along with rumors of what you’ll find there and who might be inhabiting it. Empty locations can be picked over repeatedly with out problem, but if people are living there, you face a dilemma; some will want to trade, and others will want you out. If you’re sneaky (or fast) enough you can steal from them, but again, this has a negative mental effect on the characters. It’s one thing to take lumber from an abandoned building, but stealing food from an elderly couple’s refrigerator is another thing all together.
Certain areas are initially inaccessible because of locks or rubble, but these can be cleared with the proper tools. If you survive long enough you can eventually build items to supplement your scavenging: a vodka distillery for trade or relaxation, an herb garden for food and medicine, and rat traps for…well…food.
But while managing the materials is the surface of the game, the more vital, but hidden resource are your characters. If they don’t eat one meal every day, they get hungry. Then very hungry. Then starving. If they stay up to fight off scavengers, or go off scavenging themselves, they get tired. Then exhausted. They can get sick and wounded, requiring medicine and bandages. And the hell of it is that you have to start thinking of these problems in terms of who will have to endure what. Your best scavenger may not have eaten, but he ate two days ago and the cook is barely hanging on. If everybody sleeps at night, raiders will take your stuff.
And there’s no guarantee that you will survive because of how the resources are distributed. If you make vodka to trade for food, what happens if the trader doesn’t show up, or doesn’t have food when he does? Lumber is easy to come by (initially) but takes up a lot of space in a scavenger’s backpack, meaning he can’t carry back those cigarettes (useful for trade and relaxing) he found. And when winter comes, you have to worry about the heat—burn the lumber or use it to reinforce your defenses?
Laid out in dingy grays, This War of Mine looks like the inside of depressive mind. The only splashes of color come from uncontrolled fires, and, worse, from the warning sound of footsteps your scavengers can hear in the building. The characters are rendered as realistic-looking figures, only underlining the fragile humanity you’re trying to protect.
And that’s very fragile. Despondent characters will abandoned the shelter, or potentially end their own life, which will affect the morale of the others. And even if you do make it to the arrival of international peacekeepers and a ceasefire agreement, those who do survive will have a variety of endings based on how they (you) behaved. But how much of their humanity can you spare? What will you do to survive?
Developer: 11 bit studios
System Requirements: OS X v10.6, 2.4 GHz Intel core 2 duo, 2 GB RAM, 512 MB graphics card
Availability: Now at Steam, Mac App Store
Official Website: www.11bitstudios.com