It’s not all about killing bad guys and saving the princess anymore.
When you take a look at media as a whole – books, comics, movies, games – and take a step back to see how they’ve evolved over time, you’d see a pretty interesting evolution. Over the last few decades look at the changes that we’ve experienced – not only the ability to be immersed into graphically realistic depictions of different environments, but the type of ideas that they can convey to the reader, viewer and player. Take the graphic novel as an example – once upon a time it wasn’t considered a medium that could convey serious thoughts, then came works like Art Spiegelman’s holocaust survivor story Maus and Joe Sacco’s journalist comic Palestine. These are only two examples in a number of titles that are more than superheroes and traditional good versus evil.
Games have been a little bit slower to evolve on that front – there’s a field generally referred to as “serious games” out there but a lot of times that focuses on using the platform for interactive learning more than gaming in a traditional sense (… is there even a traditional sense of the word anymore?). What I’m talking about here though is a little bit different. I’m talking about games that through the very story and gameplay put the player in a position to wrestle with difficult decisions and make them think about more than just what’s on the graphical surface. Look at Papers Please, for example, a game where the player is an immigration official. Your job as said official is to decide who is allowed and denied entry past your checkpoint based on information your supervisor has given you. Simple enough right? What do you do when a elderly couple can’t come through together because one’s papers are right while the other’s aren’t? Do you let them both through and face a violation that prevents you from feeding your own family? How do you choose? There’s a whole other side to the traditional “war games” we see that is represented here in the moral quandaries regular people are put into during hardship.
And that other side, inspired by Papers Please, is where we find This War of Mine.
When you play a lot of big studio titles on the topic of war, you’re going to find a lot of common themes. First person shooters and real time strategy games are focused on peace through superior firepower. These games all tell stories from the viewpoints of the commanders, or the soldiers themselves. This War of Mine on the other hand focuses on everyone else that is still impacted by the conflict, exploring war with the focus shifted away from the soldiers and tanks, and onto the people suffering from the fallout, just trying to survive.
You begin in a besieged house with a group of survivors. Because of snipers outside, you’re trapped where you are. Immediately you have to salvage for anything in the house – spare parts, food, wood, medicine – anything that can be used to help your party survive. These materials can be put together to provide needs for the house – beds for sleeping, drinking water, wound dressings. At night you can leave the house to salvage at nearby locations to bring back more materials to use the next day.
In addition to salvaging you also decide who sleeps (on or off a bed) and who stands guard. The problem is that your backpack is extremely limited, and you have to prioritize what you bring back for the good of the party. Scavengers and guards don’t sleep. If you haven’t made a way to prepare food then they go hungry, making it easier to get sick and need medicine. All of the needs of the survivors must be juggled to survive.
Let me give you an example. During the first night I sent one survivor to scavenge and brought back materials for making beds for proper sleep. During the night, the house was attacked. My guard was hurt and the other survivor fell sick. I didn’t gather enough to be able to collect water for drinking or preparing food. OK, now what?
The next night I have the sick survivor sleep in bed while I send a scavenger out again. I pick up enough materials to construct a water collector – but that doesn’t leave me enough for picking up medicine. I made the decision to drop water filters for medicine. Now she had medicine, but no one got food or water. I now had 4 hungry and thirsty survivors. 1 was injured. 1 was sick and not getting better. None of them were rested. All of them hiding from snipers. The following morning, my sick survivor succumbed to illness ad died.
All because I had to make a choice between medicine and clean water.
It was a difficult and dark experience to have to go through those kinds of decisions, even if the characters were virtual people on a screen. And that was 3 days of virtual time (about 30 minutes real time) with me comfortable at a computer with a mouse and keyboard. I was forced to think about the hell someone in that situation must be in somewhere in the world at this very second.
I got to speak with 11bit’s Pawel Miechowski about the game, who said that while the game has gotten huge positive feedback there’s also been some negative backlash, complaining that games can’t handle serious topics and are for entertainment only. “I believe that games are perfect for talking about important things,” he says, “because they’re interactive.” And I totally agree. It’s the perfect vehicle for expressing thoughts and ideas, and this game forces the player to think. “Imagine yourself in a city under siege, and your mother is dying of sickness. How would you treat her? Would you be willing to kill someone to steal antibiotics to save her?”
To drive the point home Pawel decided not to name the city the game takes place in, to remind people that “it could be your city, your country – it could happen anywhere. And when it happens it doesn’t matter if you’re American, Indian, Polish, or Russian or whatever, because you’re a human being and you have the same needs.”
To those who say games are no place for tough topics, he says that as developers they feel that like movies, games have grown up. And the same way directors now make movies about love and hate and deep topics more now than years ago, so too can depth be found in games like This War of Mine. “It’s natural evolution.”
“Games are 30 years old, most of us have grew up with games and we treat them as a natural way of storytelling.”
Now for those with positive feedback about the game, Pawel did say that many survivors of conflict that are willing to help spread the word about the game, and are very supportive about it because it’s so important to talk about. He made sure to mention by name former Marine Corpsman John Keyser, who through what he saw during his time in Fallujah became anti-war, and is serving to help Pawel with this game.
“I’d like to send my greetings to John and thank him for his help.”
With the countless number of games glorifying war, in my opinion this is a very important game that through its story reminds us that in war there are no winners.
This War of Mine is being developed for Windows, Mac and Linux and 11bit will have something sometime this year, with a mobile experience coming too. As Pawel says though, “not a free to play ruined mobile experience with microtransactions.” It’ll be a pay-once, get it all from A to Z premium experience.