Indie Wonderland: This War Of Mine

Near the tail end of 2014, quite some hubbub was raised by the unexpected appearance of This War Of Mine. Made by 11 Bit Studios, a development house previously best-known for the Anomaly: Warzone Earth game series — one of my favourite-ever games that I almost never actually play, incidentally — This War Of Mine was repeatedly praised for providing an interesting, alternative civilian-centered look on the horrors of modern warfare. As well as slammed, I’ve been told, by actual modern war survivors, for turning the experience into an exaggerated Hollywood-style Man Is The Real Monster story. Either way, it made an impact.

I didn’t cover This War Of Mine at time of launch, even though I kinda wanted to, because I was still caught in the Visual Novel hell of my own making at that time. And directly afterward, the timing didn’t feel right: what good would throwing new opinions on the still relatively fresh pile do? But I kept wanting to play This War Of Mine, sometime. Sometime. And given that we’re already half a year away from initial launch, a belated This War Of Mine ‘fresh look’ to lead in the summer of 2015 felt like as good an excuse as any.

(Spoiler levels: Narrative, medium-high. Mechanical, medium.)

(Game source: Bought it myself.)

Opening

This War Of Mine looks gorgeous.

And I suddenly realize that’s not something I’m comfortable saying about a realistic-horror war game.

This War Of Mine is gorgeous, and also affiliated with War Child. Did you know this? I didn’t know this. Anyway: it doesn’t really translate to static screenshots well, but This War Of Mine’s background art is drawn in a sort of rushed-pencil-drawn style that softly flickers in time. Not a lot of colour to go around, as you can see; the pervasive grey blackness combines well with the slow, low-frequency background music, an almost mournful tone, to create a gloomy and oppressive atmosphere. And I haven’t even started the game proper yet.

This War Of Mine has only one settings screen. No controls, two numeric audio settings, and highly limited visual options. The only two options that really leap out are the Pencil Effect one, which you can set to either ‘soft’ or ‘sketchy’ — preliminary trials show that I have no idea what this changes — and the Temperature Scale one, which is presumably in place to allow Americans to play this game without getting tripped up by the magical wonderful world of Celsius conversions.

Replace ‘Celsius’ with ‘Fahrenheit’ and ‘Americans’ with ‘the rest of the world’ if you are, in fact, an American reader yourself.

There’s nothing much else to do on this title screen. Credits, and a link to the War Child web page. So while the prospect doesn’t exactly thrill me, I might as well dive into the actual war zone.

‘Survive’, the one button I haven’t clicked yet glumly reads. Let’s hope I do, game. Let’s hope I do.

I click.

Initial impressions

I click, and the menu disappears from view. Buttons, options, war figure silhouettes, all gone. The pencil-sketch background remains in place, however, and actually comes into sharped view.

The camera starts panning to the right. Further, further… It comes to rest on a side view of a large three-story housing complex. The place looks pretty busted up, to be honest: holes in the wall, light coming in from the broken windows and the ceiling, piles of rubble strewn about. But at least it’s intact. The three people currently standing inside it are happy to have a roof over their heads, I’m pretty sure.

For as long as it may last.

Suddenly, exposition.

And now I know the plot.

I’m briefly introduced to the three people currently living in this ruined house. Bruno, Pavle, and Katia. My three people. Each of them has a short bio I can read, too.

It saddens me that I never saw ‘Bruno’s Cuisine’.

After clicking the introduction splash and the bios back to the background from whence they came, I notice that the house cut-out has changed. It’s got all kinds of UI all over the place, for one.

Gah! Where did all of *that* come from?

Well. That’s a lot of things. Game, are you gonna tell me what all of this means? And how to interact with any of it, in any meaningful way?

…No?

No, I guess you won’t. That’s fine, then. I’ll try to figure shit out for myself.

The three layered portraits on the bottom right of the screen represent my three characters, that one is pretty obvious. Bruno, Katia, and Pavle. I can select any character by clicking on their portrait, or by clicking on them directly.

The icons scattered all around the house represent interaction possibilities. If I click on a door, my currently selected character will open or close it. If I click on a pile, my character will go and start cleaning up the pile. If I click on a hand, my character will… I guess hands are general-purpose ‘interact’ icons. The hand over the chair signals a character to go sit in that chair. A hand over the table signals them to search the table for usable items.

There’s quite a bunch of those, it turns out.

Slowly, the shape of my starting conundrum becomes clear. The house Bruno, Pavle and Katia are in is technically habitable, but in nothing like a decent shape. Rubble piles block access to certain rooms, several doors are boarded up, and the closets and cupboards of the house hide a wealth of food, water, materials, and ‘herbs’. I send my three survivors here and there and everywhere, stripping their new domicile of everything that looks even remotely valuable.

They talk a lot, while doing so. Pavle mentions that rubble-clearing takes a long time ‘without a shovel’. Katia reflects on that it’s at least warm right now, a sentiment I see reflected in the thermometer in the top left. And Bruno complains about ‘shivers’, and ‘not feeling well’: further inspection of his profile card shows his marked as being ‘slightly sick’.

So what I’m saying is, these character vocalizations are slowly providing me with the gameplay hints that This War Of Mine was unwilling to just give outright.

I can’t get everywhere yet. Certain doors are containers are locked, and I only have one single-use lock pick. But beyond that, it takes the three of my dudes about six hours to clean up the entire house.

What else can I do?

In first basement level, I find what looks like a workshop table with two icons. Clicking on the house-wrench icon opens up a crafting menu.

If you’ve played resource management survival games before, this’ll be nothing new to you.

What to make, what to make… I opt to use my current crop of ‘components’, ‘mechanical components’, and ‘wood’ to build a rainwater collector, a stove, and a bed. Each time, I’m asked to drag an outline of my new construction to somewhere inside the house. I can choose for myself where to place everything, then? That’s pretty neat.

War is no excuse to slack on interior design.

I place the bed in the sub-basement: all throughout the day, I’ve heard noises of gunfire and shelling in the distance, and I reason that a basement bed is both safer and quieter. The stove goes in the kitchen, next to the magically-still-running refrigerator. The rainwater collector, I set up under the big hole in the wall right next to the door. I’d have figured rainwater collectors would need to be outside to work, but I guess this vaguely Eastern European weather works in mysterious ways.

And with that, the day ends. 8 PM is bed-time for even the hardiest war survivor. And no dinner before bed for any of you! I know I just built the stove, but we just don’t have any food.

Night, however, is also a prime time for scavenging. Going out in the day is tantamount to painting a sniper target on your torso, but at night, a resourceful survivor could go out in the city to actually find food. Or construction materials, or medicine, or even weapons.

This bird’s-eye view of the city is just *brimming* with opportunity.

For reasons that are unclear to me, I can only designate one person to scavenge. Wouldn’t sending multiple people out improve our chances of survival? But no. Chef Bruno is sick and physically weaker than Katia and Pavle, so I let him sleep in our one bed tonight. Pavle, my athlete, is our fastest runner, so I send him out into the city. Katia can sleep as well… on the floor, I guess?

Three options lay before me. Close to our house, a Shelled Cottage promises many valuable resources for little risk. A Semi-Detached House across the street seems similarly rich, but that one may or may not be occupied by armed people. And halfway across the street, homeless squatters occupy a Decrepit Squat, a good source of construction material and nothing much else.

I pick the Shelled Cottage, because obviously. Pavel has one last chance to bring items from our shelter into the cottage with him, and then…

…we’re there.

Gods, but this game is beautiful.

Pavle slowly approaches the cottage. The ever-present sounds of gunfire and explosions in the background set me on edge a little, but it appears that this house is really as abandoned as I was hoping. Piles of wood and components lie outside, a promising immediate haul for an enterprising scavenger, but I take care not to fill up Pavle’s entire backpack with the stuff. I’m here with a different goal in mind.

The same basic interaction UI from my own house is in place here as well. Hands to interact, doors to open doors. I can also peek through the door, if I want: while I had limitless vision inside my own house, this house is apparently subject to line-of-sight rules. I can see about what’s inside every room, but I won’t know what’s actually inside until I check.

Luckily, all doors everywhere have easy-peek keyholes.

Luck — or good game design — is with me this night, though, and the first room I enter is the house’s fully-stocked kitchen! I raid the fridge for food, water, sugar, and medicine. Yes!

Sugar!

I make my way through the rest of the house. Wow, there is so much stuff to get here! Piles upon piles of components and wood, for one. And tobacco, cigarettes, ‘weapon parts’… I maybe to come back to this place a second time. Maybe even a third time. And bring some tools, too. Maybe I can get some sort of cart go-

Noise on the lower floor. I freeze. Red circles indicate the location of the sound. Did someone else get in?

The sound moves across the lower floor. Reaches the stairwell. Moves up the stairwell…

Oh shit oh shit oh shit oh shit

…oh. It’s just a rat. False alarm, everyone!

Pavle spends the rest of the night exploring the house, clearing rubble and removing obstructions. Certain doors are locked, so I make a mental note to try and figure out how to open these later. Then, as the sun slowly starts rising from its Easterly bed, he leaves.

I’m making a note here: ‘huge success’.

The second day proceeds calmly. Bruno feels better today, having slept off his illness, but now Pavle and Katia are various degrees of tired. And everyone’s hungry. Luckily, I can deal with this now: using the food and water I brought back, Bruno cooks some decent war-time meals for everyone.

Just like mom used to make.

I build a second bed and a metal workshop, and craft a few water filters for the rainwater collector. And so, the second day rushes by.

At night, I send Katia to the Shelled Cottage. I still don’t have the tools required to open the locked doors, but Katia returns with another massive haul of food, components, and parts. And cigarettes for Bruno, too!

I don’t know if the cigarettes will really *help* with his ailing health. But then again, do I really care?

On the third day, I use my dwindling supply of components to craft a crowbar. That crowbar helps to open all locked doors in the house, revealing several actual treasure troves hidden right underneath our noses.

Jewels! These shiny little rocks are notoriously useful in wartime survival situations.

All in all, we’re not doing so poorly.

Could be better, could be worse. Could be *lots* worse.

The third night, I send Pavle to the Shelled Cottage one final time. Crowbar in hand, he manages to drag the last hidden treasures out of that house: bullets, ammunition components, and a bottle of quality moonshine. Then, stuff in hand, he returns…

…only to find that our shelter had been hit with bandits during the night.

How dare they come raid while I’m out raiding!

I was lucky, this time: the attack was light, and Bruno and Katia woke up in time to fight them off. Katia took some injuries during the battle, but otherwise, nothing of value was lost. It could easily have been different, though. I guess that’s why I could opt to let someone ‘guard’ the whole night, instead of just letting them sleep.

This also seems like a decent idea.

I feel I’ve been off to a decent enough start. But my treasure-trove Shelled Cottage is now well and truly spent. And with raiders on the rise and food ever-scarce, I may have to start venturing forth into riskier territory. Maybe the Semi-Detached House will be a good next step? It’s not like we have so much food that we can afford to be complacent. I know we heard gunfire from that direction… but gunfire means guns. Guns that I might be able to… borrow. Or trade for, possibly? Maybe the people in that house are just trying to eke out a reasonable living, like we are. Maybe I can convince them to share their defensive power with us. For the greater good!

Onto page 2. >>

2 comments

  1. I find myself attracted to that game. I am particularly intrigued by the notion of trying to make decisions and prioritize when feeling ill-informed about how best to go about survival. I like it because I feel like this is how it would go in real life as well, and the best you can do is use common sense, while being aware that survival sometimes requires counter-intuitive choices. I think this is a game that is meant to be replayed as well: you want to figure out survival strategies by trial and error.

    I like also the feeling of trying to delay a lose state rather than reach a win state. Not an appealing prospect for most games, but thematically suited to this one.

    I notice that you didn’t say anything about the time management aspect. The clock is always ticking, so activities have to be decided quickly during the day, and leaving your scavenging place too late leaves you open to sniper fire. It looks like it can force you into some interesting split-second agonizing over decisions.

    1. This is true! I didn’t mention it because I hardly ran into it: I usually had enough time to do what I wanted during the day, with the only time management issue of any note being ‘trying to replace the water filters optimally so I could fit three of them in a day’. And I was only ever caught out during scavenging twice, with no negative repercussions either time beyond ‘my character came home a little later’.

      This War Of Mine does actually have a win state. Playing it doesn’t feel like such, but I’ve been told you can actually live to see ‘the end of the war’.

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