To review This War of Mine I think it’s important to first establish the game’s central flaw: It isn't a game. This isn't a flaw with the experience mind you, but with the way that we let ourselves interpret it after the number of times we've turned war into games before. 11-bit Studios’ sombre societal collapse-sim can probably only be presented in the crucial depths that the videogame format allows, but it’s not at home among entertainment - it would belong in an educational environment, perhaps even a museum, if not for the unfortunate fact that it would certainly not receive the same size audience.
In secondary school, my form tutor was a much-appreciated rarity. The first person to arrive in the morning got to play games on the classroom computer, while everyone else took their seats and back-seat drove the experience. (Cheers, Mr Lewton!) Of course, ‘games’ meant educational games. And considering the small selection available this really meant The Oregon Trail. Perhaps you remember the school-bound glory days of this survival strategy settler-simulator too, with a hunting minigame akin to Duck Hunt for obtaining food. It was undeniably designed to educate, but it was still entertaining, and deliberately so. Its bright colours and varied modes of play recognised that the history involved, which offered no effect on modern living, became much more interesting for school kids in game form. This War of Mine is not so detached, and never suggests you should enjoy the experience.
It’s based on the 1992-6 Siege of Sarajevo in the Bosnian War, but international politics have no place in proceedings. Nor do the social politics that inevitably become a key concern for your polished minions in The Sims. Your time is spent choosing which actions to take of the prompts offered across the 2D platform landscape to variously acquire provisions, build with what you can find and defend yourselves. Many games in the apocalyptic trend help you you reap the benefits of ripping off competitors and NPCs, but your protagonists in This War of Mine, Katia, Pavle and Bruno, illustrate the toll such behaviour can take on humanity, both their own and the state of our whole species. While soldiers presumably duke out their latest call of duty somewhere north of the map, in constant danger but also with constant food, shelter and medical care, you have to find these yourself in the ruins of their wake, and the shops are closed. As such, staying alive depends on any other method you can think of, looting, bartering and stealing by night and making home improvements in the day. This way of life means comfort is basically never within reach and sorely missed, unless you’re happy to compromise your psychological comfort with dark deeds.
Altruism can be rewarded eventually, but is immediately punishing to supplies you've painstakingly gathered, whereas nefarious behaviour can save you but doom others, and (putting aside the fact that other non-player characters can behave both ways too and at at any point may betray or kill you) remorse is a perceptible and crucial mechanic. Katia, Pavle and Bruno are abundantly vocal about their feelings and needs - should you, for instance, have one of your desperate survivors turn over an innocent elderly couple with vital supplies and leave them to starve, they may eat another few days but they won’t forget what they've done and they won’t let you either. You’ll be kept well informed of their developing regret and sometimes even witness self-destructive behaviour. This is a ‘game’ where people you’re in charge of may take their own lives as a result of the choices you've made. And make no mistake, one way or another - death is on his way. I have to wonder if the three protagonist setup that smartly provides so many ways to examine how lawless living affects human interaction is also there, maybe even more so, to let the player experience the effect of various available deaths in the reactions of those left behind, instead of a Game Over screen.
The human consequences of war aren't a new premise for videogames, but the impact on people outside the combat has never been approached like this. Spec-Ops: The Line was remarkable not only in depicting the protagonist’s descent into madness and possibly Hell through exposure to war, but also for deliberately and increasingly breaking the fourth wall to berate the player about the consequences of their actions and be sardonic about the ease with which we commit humanitarian atrocities to pixels. After a while the loading screen stops offering hints and instead jabs at the player with comments like “Do you feel like a hero yet?” “The US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants. But this isn't real, so why should you care?” and “If you were a better person, you wouldn’t be here”. It’s been argued that the only real way to ‘win’ The Line is to stop playing and turn off the system. But Katia, Bruno and Pavle can’t just stop and go home - this is their home, or used to be. For them, whether or not to fight is frequently a choice of whether or not to survive. And your fourth wall was never built.
Of course, a great deal of impressive work went into the stylised visual of This War of Mine that might not have gone into something destined for a school computer or a museum plaque. Its pencil-shaded graphics touchingly evoke political cartoons and the dreary, dark colour palate of so much war art to sap life and hope from your course of events. Generally in games, the wonderful efforts put into visuals are to add to your enjoyment, but This War of Mine is instead making use of the medium of art to help put its message across - simultaneously establishing a valid place of its own within. This War of Mine blurs the boundaries of artistic and educational exhibition and in doing so demonstrates, significantly, how effortlessly the medium of videogames can lend itself to much more than entertainment, but if you’re looking for fun, you’ve come to the wrong place. The message here is how fragile humanity can be when the comforts of modern society disappear and a question: Do ‘good’ and ‘bad’ choices exist, or just survival of the most ruthless? It’s hard to score This War of Mine as a game, because you can’t win it. You can survive with enough selfish tact. You can also be more community spirited at your own expense, but then if you die will the community fail without you around anyway? This is a poignant and reflective experience, thought through with meticulous depth. The gameplay is very simple, and that’s probably deliberate too - the amount of thrill you get playing it will depend on what kind of beast you are.