This War of Mine is winnable. As is usual in games, there’s a few tricks to it; some of specific objectives, some of general approach. After a few more false starts, I worked out how to get through Sniper Junction, how to scavenge without getting cornered and killed (mostly), how to keep my people warm and fed. Katia, Arica, Emilia and Marin weathered the worst the war could throw at them, largely avoiding injury, sickness and depression along the way. Nobody died, nobody had to kill.
I won’t spoil how, though, because the key experience in this game is not victory: it’s how you fail the first playthrough. This should be experienced alone, with headphones, in a slightly-underheated room in the first week of December.
Trigger-warning for the rest of the post: PTSD, sexual assault.
An awful lot of games make a point of their brutality, but this is typically undercut. One way this happens is a sort of brutality inflation: games have been using horrific corpse mutilation as casual scene-dressing for so damn long that it barely even registers any more – or, if it does, it registers mostly as a tool of adolescent posturing, in much the same way that the kids in school who had seen Reservoir Dogs considered themselves more grown-up and serious than those who hadn’t, or who couldn’t stomach it.
Of equal importance: the player is not subject to brutality. The player is the baddest motherfucker in the goddamn valley: strapped with gear and hit-points, and able to go back to a save if by some chance they fail to destroy all in their path. Horrific fates are something that happens to other people. You don’t look at room full of torture-corpses and think, shit, I could end up like that. You likely don’t even register them as meant to be something that was a person once. Brutality tends to end up distancing the player from the fears and ethics of the game, because it highlights just how much they’re exterior to them.
This War of Mine is able to treat brutality with vastly more success because it takes it more seriously than as a prop in a power fantasy. It can use the realism excuse because it’s actually concerned with pertinent realism, and extends that realism to the player.
In This War, you spend much of the time armed – if at all – with shovels and butcher knives, praying you won’t have to use them. Later on you might get pretty well tooled-up, with an AK and body armour, but you never lose the sense of vulnerability, the sense that there are much, much scarier people than you around, that your life is fragile. A bandit lair is not a perfunctory threat, a thing to be cleared out; it’s a dark tower, a Golgotha, a thing beyond your power to overcome.
Single-save stealth. The thing about stealth games, in general, is that you get a lot of do-overs. Stealth is inherently kind of hard – fuck one thing up and it all goes to hell. Most stealth games offer generous autosave, or let you run away and try again at no great cost. This War of Mine‘s scavenging missions often become stealth missions that you can’t replay.
In This War running away costs you – if you execute a full-blown retreat, the night’s over. A scavenging run that turns up no loot is a blow both mechanically and rhetorically. But not running away can be much, much worse. Sneaking around an occupied house to loot it runs a major risk of getting cornered. Combat is messy and unpredictable – not least because you don’t get to practice at it. And there are some enemies who are just way too tough for you. Zlata got caught while robbing a militia-run warehouse. She’d taken along a handgun and a handful of precious bullets as insurance – this was one of the scarier locations – but opted to run for it. Halfway out, she ran into a gunman coming the other way, trapping her. Somehow I got the gun out and put three rounds in something approximating centre mass: it barely hurt him, there was a stutter of automatic fire, and Zlata was dead. I don’t know if he was wearing Kevlar or if I only grazed him, but it wasn’t an experiment I could very well repeat.
This is hard to get used to. A big part of the trouble with my first couple of playthroughs was that my scavengers were taking way too many risks, pushing their luck, and getting killed for it. I didn’t learn skill so much as I learned to be afraid.
The vital importance of scavenging means that the characters you rely on the most are also the most likely to die. When you’re scavenging, inventory slots matter. Generally you find more shit than you can carry; given how marginal your resources are, having a couple of extra slots makes a hell of a lot of difference. This means that you rapidly come to rely on a favourite scavenger – and when she dies, it sucks. And this isn’t just an asset, some faceless mook, randomly-generated composite, or player-defined avatar: they’re an author-crafted character with a name, a face, a history, unique skills. You don’t have too many of them. The number of characters in your group – three or four, most of the time – is pitched about perfectly to give you familiarity and investment in each, without investing so much that their death is an effective game-over.
I really want more games that do not have a single player-character – where player perspective and control are distributed between multiple characters, either in sequence or simultaeneously; games which ameliorate the immortal power of the PC by spreading it around, without splitting it up so much that the characters become faceless pawns. I want more games where the player-character’s internal states are conspicuously distinct from the player’s. (But I digress. A topic for another time.)
All this contributes to a tone which lets the game deal with stuff that, in most games, would be pretty eye-rolling. There’s a scene where you rescue a woman from sexual assault by a soldier. In most games, this would be a trivial decision, a matter of preference: off-handedly kill the soldier, receive gratitude. In this case, though, the principal difference between Zlata and the victim was that Zlata had a hatchet. Against the soldier’s body armour and assault rifle. If it didn’t go well, I’d lose my best scavenger and the rest of the group would go hungry. I had to take a deep breath before opening that door.
Secondly, it didn’t play out as a fight to the death. Zlata opened the door with hatchet drawn, which was enough to let the victim run away; Zlata promptly legged it also. (Most hostile encounters go like this: a gun is brandished, a threat or two shouted, a hasty retreat beaten.) And finally, the gratitude speech didn’t come from the victim, but later, indirectly from a friend of hers – which feels a good deal less contrived and creepy.
This isn’t to say that This War of Mine is note-perfect about everything; its indifferently-translated writing alone makes that unlikely. But it’s a strong example of how mechanics, writing and scenario-creation are deeply interlinked, how a particular mechanical context necessarily enables some subjects and makes others impossible to do well.
It is a game where you can kill people and take their stuff, but this is not a light matter. Most games that impose consequences on horrible behaviour do so in terms of reputation. This is an old method and one that players are used to. Again, badassery can render it moot: the wronged parties attack you on sight and send assassins after you, thus throwing more lootable bodies into the meat-grinder. Where reputation is contextual – by faction, or whatnot – players can be rampaging sadists in one town, then wander over to the neighbouring village, still splattered in gore, and be greeted as heroes. But far more insidious is that this approach treats ethics as a wholly external force: as in Glaucon’s challenge to Socrates, the most profitable position is to be bad but be seen as good. Ethics is bullshit imposed on the character by Other People.
This War of Mine exerts consequences mostly in terms of mental health. If you steal, or kill someone over a can of beans, it has some consequences. On my second failed playthrough I had a character, Roman, who had a militia background. I had in the back of my mind the idea that I might need to be more aggressive to survive this time around. Roman got cornered in a basement by the residents of a house he was looting, a man and a woman. They had a single knife between them, but they were going to protect what was theirs. Roman had a shovel and some paramilitary training. He lived. They didn’t.
(The game’s attitude is that it is more OK to steal from the strong than from the weak; I’m not sure if the same standard applies to killing, because I haven’t killed anybody strong yet.)
When Roman got home, he was not only badly injured but depressed, and everybody else was sad about it too. They knew what he’d done; they talked about it in horrified tones. Roman hunkered in bed, with injuries that wouldn’t heal. A couple of nights later, he got in a fight with Bruno and beat him up – only superficial injuries, but enough to plunge Bruno into depression too. Bruno’s sobbing kept everyone from sleeping. Roman had gone from a useful ally into someone whose mere presence was poison. The barricaded house felt newly claustrophobic. (Once he was well enough, I sent him out on the more dangerous scavenging runs, and was a little relieved when he got shot.)
I don’t know that mental health effects are an infallible tool – both The Sims and Dwarf Fortress use it as a primary tool of character influence, and in both you can overcome the pain of losing a loved one through sufficiently expensive décor. But here, oh my.