Surviving this war of theirs

February 1, 2017

Brian Sullivan reviews a video game that turns the tables on traditional war games.

WAR IS one of the video game industry's favorite subjects. Whether they have you taking control of giant robots bristling with high-tech weaponry, or charging around the battlefields of the First World War, game developers have demonstrated an unparalleled ingenuity in turning armed conflict into breathless, heart-pounding excitement.

Far less common is a game that takes a sober look at the harsher realities of modern war. In This War of Mine, 11 bit studios seeks to do just that.

Released in 2014, the game is based loosely on the siege of Sarajevo, which was part of the Balkans war, and lasted from April 1992 through February 1996. The developers also took inspiration from the more recent battle of Aleppo in Syria.

This War of Mine is a survival game, meaning that the goal of the game is to survive in a bleak environment by scavenging for resources and crafting them into basic necessities. Instead of placing the player in control of the soldiers fighting the war, it puts you in the shoes of non-combatants, and tasks you with keeping them alive in the besieged fictional city of Pogoren.

Besieged civilians fight for survival in the video game This War of Mine
Besieged civilians fight for survival in the video game This War of Mine

This War of Mine undertakes the ambitious task of using the video game medium to depict the grinding desperation and sadness of life in a besieged city. The player must scavenge for food, medicine and materials. If you don't find the right resources, your characters become sick, hungry, depressed and will eventually die.

The game drops you in to this grim situation with limited context. The player is told that government and rebel forces are at war, and that Pogoren has been surrounded. It never becomes clear exactly why these forces are at war, but some in-game dialogue and backstory suggest that it is an ethnic conflict similar to the one that gripped the Balkans in the 1990s.

The siege of Sarajevo started when the Army of the Republic of Serpska, led by Ratko Mladic, encircled the city, first shelling it and then blockading it so that essential goods could not enter. The war ended after the U.S. and NATO's so-called "humanitarian intervention" on behalf of the Croat and Muslim forces, an intervention that supported and gave cover for the ethnic cleansing of Serbian people from the region.

The intervention resulted in the deaths of thousands of Serb civilians and soldiers, most notoriously during Operation Storm in August 1995, including an incident in which NATO planes destroyed a bridge filled with fleeing refugees.

THIS WAR of Mine ignores most of this political context and opts for a narrower focus on the fight for survival in a besieged city. You start the game in a shelled house or apartment building, which serves as your base of operations.

After scouring your new home for necessities, the player can set up basic facilities, like a makeshift bed or stove. Each night someone from your party goes out into the city to search for resources. You control the characters while they scour half-destroyed homes, abandoned stores and public places looking for necessities or people to trade with.

These forays into the ruined city are frequently tense. Your characters' survival depends on finding the right resources, and you are not alone in your search for necessities. In one play-through, with my characters hungry and sick, I had no choice but to rob another group of survivors holed up in an abandoned house. Although I walked away with the food and medicine my characters needed, the robbery left them depressed and hopeless.

In another incident, I set off to scavenge at an abandoned supermarket. There, I witnessed a soldier trying to rape a woman looking for food. When I tried to intervene, I was shot and killed.

All of the violence in This War of Mine is intimate and brutal, unlike the triumphant battles in most games. You cannot gun down 30 enemies and get a kill streak trophy. Instead, your characters become sad when they hurt someone, or lose someone they love. Their sadness can become so consuming that they cannot complete basic tasks, and can even end up committing suicide.

Even if you beat the game, there is a short epilogue in which you're likely to learn that the events of the war scarred your character for life. The game mechanics around violence are unforgiving, putting the player into impossible situations in which any choice has negative consequences.

FORTUNATELY, NOT all encounters in This War of Mine end poorly. Fellow survivors will sometimes come to your shelter seeking medicine, assistance or a place to live. Acts of solidarity feel risky, but provide genuine rewards to your characters.

When soldiers came by the shelter asking me to snitch on a neighbor that I knew had stolen military supplies, I refused to cooperate, and my characters were happy for days afterwards.

For all its originality and ingenuity, the game does suffer some flaws. Loose controls are a staple of survival games, but the controls in This War of Mine can be infuriatingly imprecise. When I tried to save the woman from sexual assault in the encounter described above, I kept running past the solider and swinging my fists at the air instead of hitting him. And while the game is rewarding in multiple play-throughs, it becomes repetitive before too long.

Beyond these mechanical issues, the game is frustratingly short on political context. War and ethnic conflict do not exist in a vacuum. Yet none of the characters express any opinion about the war other than that it is terrible. This absence feels untrue to the source material. For example, some of the opening shots of the siege of Sarajevo were fired on a peaceful demonstration of 100,000 people, comprised of all ethnic groups.

In Aleppo, political demands and the fight for democracy were a crucial part of people's day-to-day lives. Before the free neighborhoods were overrun, Syrian revolutionaries in the city maintained an active democracy in which popular power flourished.

According to one report, a "group of women set up the first women-owned independent radio station, Radio Naseem, which discusse[d] human rights issues, women's role in the revolution, and the dangers pose by extremism." While many were no doubt isolated in both Aleppo and Sarajevo, a vibrant political life flourished despite the difficult conditions in both cities.

In Syria, the Free Syrian Army represented the fighting force of a people's uprising, and was in no way equivalent to the murderous Assad regime or its imperial backers. 11 bit studios was perhaps trying to make their game more universal, a work of art depicting conflict in any place around the globe, but the specter of imperial global power haunts virtually every major conflict. In both Sarajevo and Aleppo, imperial powers intervened on behalf of their own interests, often committing war crimes of their own.

The game's creators miss many opportunities to take up these larger political dynamics. Neighbors are often coming to the door, offering or seeking assistance. One of those neighbors could have been organizing a rally, and the player would have to decide whether attendance is worth the risk. With the right materials, your characters can build a radio, and news of NATO bombings would have been a natural place to insert this context.

Ultimately, This War of Mine is a challenging and successful game. It does not provide the sort of weightless thrills of Titanfall 2, or twitch-reflex-rewarding precision of Call of Duty. But the game is deeply engaging.

Working the grim material of survival in a besieged city into an enjoyable gaming experience is an impressive feat. Video games have a unique power to engage players in the stories they tell, and the need for this type of storytelling has never been greater.

Further Reading

From the archives