“In modern war … you will die like a dog for no good reason.”
This truncated quote from Ernest Hemingway starts every game session in This War of Mine by Polish Developer 11 Bit Studios. It’s a war game that depicts life from the civilian perspective. You start off controlling three survivors in a previously abandoned house. The backstory is always that knew each other before the war and one who joined up with them after.
Each beginning randomizes your specific survivors from a selection of about nine or so and they all have a specific trait and a habit, some smoke, some drink coffee, and one abstains. One might be a good cook who uses less water to make food or moonshine (good barter item.) Some traits are more useful than others, Roman’s combat training sounds like it might be great, except in most situations you really want to avoid combat. Because your survivors simulate real human beings. It’s easy to upset them, make them sad, depressed, or even traumatized. Roman’s combat training also means he may also attack the other house members if he gets psychologically broken. More on this later.
During the day your survivors are mostly stuck inside the house. You will need to, if possible, keep them fed, rested, and attend to their physical and mental well being. You will start off with a small workshop that allows you to build items from the supplies you find in the locked cabinets in the house. Pro-tip / glitch: It’s useful, especially in the early game to leave an item in at least one of these locations, because they disappear after they’re emptied. This will allow you to stash items as evening approaches, safeguarding them from raiders.
One of the first things you want to build is a metal workshop, place it next to the original. This will allow you to build a crowbar, which you will need to pry open locked / barricaded doors and cabinets. Also a shovel will help you clear debris piles much faster, allowing you to access the rest of your house. A bit later you’ll need to find or make saws and an axe. The axe is super useful, allowing you to break up the empty wardrobes for wood and component, which you will never have enough of. The saw is pretty much a one use item but necessary to access certain scavenging locations at night.
At night you can send one of your survivors out on a mission to a nearby location to scavenge or barter for supplies. You pick the location based on iffy information, and never have enough slots in your backpack to bring back everything you need, and anything you take with you to help access areas, like the crowbar, saw or lockpicks eats up one of those precious inventory slots. So it’s often best to scout first, grab everything you can and be prepared to run away fast. Also, remember that the person you send out scavenging and anybody you set to guard won’t get any sleep that night, and you’ll probably need to let them sleep during the next day. Make at least two beds, sleeping on the floor is bad for your peeps.
The crowbar and axe have alternate uses as weapons, but a knife is probably best if you get desperate and really feel you have to engage in violence. Later you’ll find guns or repair broken guns, but it’s usually best to leave them at home with the other survivors who are guarding the house. Guns and ammo eat up separate inventory slots, bother are very scarce, and guns make a lot of noise. At home their use only drives off invaders without psychologically damaging your survivors, whereas out on scavenges a gun is rarely a good idea.
As mentioned earlier, your survivors are human beings. They generally don’t like stealing from other survivors, and violence tends to traumatize them except in the very few situations where you’re allowed to kill in order to rescue another person. There’s one situation where criminal psychopaths have a a prisoner cornered, and another where a soldier attempts to rape a woman in an abandoned supermarket. Otherwise even successful violence fucks your peeps up, bad. They get sad and depressed, harming other people harms their souls. You generally don’t want to do it unless the situation for your survivors is looking grim, even stealing from innocents often makes them sad. Booze is an iffy treatment for depression at best, if you’re going to try it do it later in the day when the consequences are minimized. If their mood turns too dark your survivors will stop responding at all, stop eating, stop looking after themselves. If you don’t do something to reverse this, they’ll break, leaving, stealing supplies, attack the others or commit suicide.
You can mitigate the sadness somewhat by building comfortable chairs, keeping the books you find and not burning them for fuel, keeping coffee and cigarettes around for their individual habits. Survivors in a better mood can sometimes talk to a depressed on, helping them. You might be able to find and repair a broken guitar, that helps lighten the mood, especially when Zlata plays it. The radio reportedly lights the mood somewhat when tuned to classical music, and is also useful for getting news, finding out which barter items are in high demand, and figuring out in advance when the weather will turn cold and you’ll need to build a furnace to heat the house. The furnace upgrade makes the fuel last longer. Your survivors will get sick if the house is kept too cold for too long, and it doesn’t help your attempts to keep their spirits high.
Other things you’ll need to build very early on are a rainwater collector, cook stove (make sure Bruno cooks if you have him your party) and a still to make moonshine from water, filters and sugar. Build two rainwater collectors if you can, choosing whether to make moonshine or food sucks. Later an herbal workshop can be built and upgraded that allows you to make cigarettes and medicines. If you make it into the late game you might be able to build a garden, don’t count on it.
You’ll also need to save up supplies to upgrade your workshops, to make more advanced items and to board up your house. Boarding up the house is important, you want to get on it after week two begins or the nighttime raids on your house will devastate your group, you’ll lose items and your survivors will get wounded. Wounded is bad, it’s terrible if you don’t have bandages. Wounds can get infected and bandages and medicine are in very short supply. They’re also fantastic barter items so using them up because you didn’t set enough guards, leave enough weapons for them at home, or board up the house will destroy your group.
This game is about constantly compromising and making hard choices, few of them obviously good. During the day you may have a visitor, if you’re lucky it’ll be someone looking to barter, and if you’re really lucky you’ll have stuff they want. Other visitors might are different survivors looking to join your group, some have useful traits. You can usually use more guards at night but they’re also more mouths to feed. Sometimes neighbors come by looking for help, if you say yes you’ll lose a member of your group for the rest of the day and that night, and they might not come back at all because of the war. Days later the neighbor you helped might bring you something, or they might not. Helping your neighbors boosts morale, unless the helper died in the attempt, then morale plummets. There are very few obviously easy decisions.
Lastly I’ll mention the games visual style. In short, it’s gorgeous. Here’s a look at the official trailer:
The hand sketched look matches the stark reality and bleakness of the subject matter perfectly. The environment feels dilapidated, like a real semi abandoned city after suffering through years of a siege. The tension as your scavenger explores new environments is palpable, you fear for your survivors , you worry about their safety and most often you feel bad for the other characters they have to interact with.
Is this a game you want to play? No. Is it a game anyone with a beating heart should play? Yes. A million times yes. It’s a longform exercise in empathy, a sobering piece of work that fills in the blanks left when all we see of war are the headshots. It’s a much-needed course correct in the current shoot-first-ask-questions-never gaming landscape that supposes war is won because one supreme badguy caught a bullet through his brainstem. No: It’s won when the people who lived under his boot get to go home.