Indie Wonderland: This War Of Mine

A few hours in

Yeah, I didn’t think that was gonna work out either.

This is about as bad as it looks.

And that day started out so well, too. A neighbour randomly showed up at my door to ask for help with saving people from a cave-in, so I sent Katia with them. That removed her from the equation from the rest of the day, but it cheered Pavle and Bruno up immensely. ‘We can still do good things for each other!’

And then I sent Pavle to the gunshot house. I was supposed to be able to have him sneak through the dangerous part to the ‘uninhabited’ part, but that intel was a total bust. And, long story short, that trip quickly devolved into him having a punch-up with a woman armed with a shotgun.

What’s particularly strange is that Pavle won that fight. His opponent never fired her weapon. Maybe the AI glitched out… or maybe, just maybe, she didn’t want to shoot to kill? Maybe she was threatening me with a shotgun, assuming I’d do the logical thing of running away instead of the game-berserker thing of going in fists flying? Whatever the case, that fight ended with her begging for her life as Pavle beat her to death with his bare hands.

But it’s what happened after that that really got to me. The sounds of the fight drew the attention of other people in the house. So I had Pavle hoof it, and hide in one of the designated hidey holes. I fully expected the others to come hunt for him, but no-one was forthcoming… all I heard in the distance was the occasional high-pitched noise, short, staccato, interrupting the otherwise unperturbed silence.

So I snuck over to see what that was all about. And I found the second woman, the one who came to check on the first. And then I found out that the intermittent high-pitched noise I heard was the sound of the second woman crying over the body of her dead friend.

You can probably guess what happened after that.

The long and the short of it is that I’m an amoral monster.

Pavle returned home incredibly depressed the next day. It turns out that murdering other survivors in cold blood and stealing their stuff has something of an effect on a man. And lest you think that that’s just flavour, you should know that Pavle spent most of that day sitting down, crying, and interrupting whatever he was doing to lament.

His friends eventually managed to cheer him up. But he would never again be as content as he was that third day.

No, but it was actually due to talking with Bruno and Katia that Pavle started feeling better. This is an actual mechanic in the game.

My survival journey kept going up-and-down from there on out. Some days I would have plenty of food and supplies, and I would help my neighbours or trade with other survivors. Other days, low on essentials and desperate for medicine and bandages, I would rob, steal, and fight my way to living another day.

I even made a fourth friend!

Over time, the city landscape gradually changed. New locations opened up quickly: a military hideout here, a communal market there, even a few houses relatively untouched by war. But just as suddenly, an increase in fighting intensity confined me to nearby locations. And when the heavy snow started falling…

At least the snow stopped the fighting.

All in all, I’ve managed to survive something like four weeks so far. But I don’t honestly know how much longer I’ll last: my ability to scavenge has been dwindling, I’m not particularly self-sustaining, and all four of my survivors are perpetually sick, tired, and heavily wounded. My group may honestly not last for very much longer.

I don’t know if I’ll try again after they die.

The wounds are still too fresh.

On the one hand, This War Of Mine is a decently-put-together resource-based survival game. The nighttime scavenging neatly complements the daytime base building, and the organic stories your own actions create bring across the envisioned ‘horrors of war-time survival’ much more effectively than any heavy-handed linear story would. On the other hand, heavy-handed linear story aspects do exist, what with the raiders and the crime wave and the set nature of each location you visit. And This War Of Mine suffers from several suboptimal design decisions: janky combat, almost built-in save-scumming, a long-term survival loop that almost necessitates either extensive planning or reading up on it on beforehand, punishing failure spirals that trigger on a single mistake, and a lack of clarity regarding whether or not everything you’re doing is actually going somewhere.

Let me explain.

At this point in time, I’m pretty sure you have the general gist of This War Of Mine’s basic gameplay loop. Daytime is base-building time: you feed and heal your survivors, build and upgrade base additions, and keep whatever self-sustaining wheels you have turning. Refresh a water filter, re-bait the rat trap, check the radio for news, that sort of thing. Traders or friendly neighbours will also occasionally show up, apparently immune to the threat of sniper fire that keeps you indoors at all times. Nighttime is scavenging time: you send up to one of your party out to a particular location while the others stay behind to sleep or guard. Some locations are abandoned, but most are inhabited; some inhabitants are friendly and willing to trade, but most of them…

Sometimes the game throws you a grade-A psychopath bone. Those are nice.

Scavenging trips are primarily an exercise in planning and decision making. There’s so much to get from every place you visit: food, materials, medicine, weapons, trade goods… and your scavengers always have limited carrying capacity. Even more so if you bring the tools necessary to clear obstructed areas. So what’ll it be? Do you grab meat, vegetables, water, herbs? Do you focus on getting materials and wood, to upgrade your shelter and to provide fuel for cooking? And are you sure you’re willing to leave that broken guitar behind? You may be able to back for it tomorrow… but you may not be.

There’s a bit of a puzzle element to how This War Of Mine plays out in these situations. Certain obstacles need certain tools. Locks can be picked or crowbar’d. Grates need to be sawed through. Rubble piles can be dug out by hand, or by bringing a shovel… the latter is technically free, but you don’t have that much time to scavenge. The sun is coming up, after all, and returning home in the daytime is putting yourself at the mercy of the snipers.

Scavenging trips around other friendly humans add an unscripted bit of morality to the mix. ‘Private property’ is always clearly marked as such, and your characters will clearly express regret and concern over stealing. Are you willing to sneak into the garage of that friendly man who traded with you not two minutes ago? And steal all the food in his poorly-guarded fridge? Knowing that he needs that food for his sick father?

I would. I even used the saw blade he traded me to gain access to his pantry unnoticed.

And in scavenging trips where unfriendly humans are involved, combat obviously becomes a factor. Characters can engage in fisticuffs, but most of the tools you bring for scavenging make for decent melee weapons as well. And if you’re lucky enough to bring a gun, and willing to expend some rare bullets… of course, firing a gun is sure to draw every other hostile to your location as well. The sound you make is always displayed as expanding bubbles, for each action you undertake. Maybe stealth is the better option, here?

In theory, This War Of Mine’s gameplay dichotomy present a series of interesting choices. Scavenging ‘safe’ locations is alluring, but if they have any food or medicine to begin with, they won’t last the war. Friendly locations are usually less dangerous and well-guarded, and civilians are as likely to run away from you as they are to engage in battle. But both you and your characters will have to live with the consequences. Robbing deserters and thugs, on the other hand, is much easier on the moral compass. But armed combat is fast, brutal, and unforgiving.

In practice…

For all the supposed inaccuracies about life in a warzone This War Of Mine is allegedly guilty of — I can’t really judge this, obvious — I’ll give it this: it managed to teach me about the value of extensive preparation like nothing else. It turns out that there is a Correct Way to play This War Of Mine: by building certain base structures at certain times and prioritizing particular behaviours, you can manage to turn your hideout into a relatively self-sustained sanctuary that produces food, heat and medicine at little risk. It turns out the obsessive war-preparers were on to something after all! But this series of moves requires extensive knowledge of every possible construction and an innate understanding of the (sometimes) counter-intuitive value of all items. Of course, you already know that characters only really need to eat once every other day. Of course you know this. It’d be silly to assume you made the clear rookie mistake of having characters eat every day, assuming — like a fool — that they’d grow weaker incredibly quickly otherwise.

If you don’t know this, if you don’t play the Correct Way, it’s more likely than not that your This War Of Mine experience will be a slow, inevitable death spiral. Food will run out, wounds and illnesses will stack up, and every outing and every homecoming seem to reduce your chances of long-term survival.

Wounds and illnesses are actually progressive states in This War Of Mine, did you know that? Wounded characters slowly bleed out, continually calling for bandages to be patched up with. The game indicates that letting people sleep during the day should ‘help’, in some vaguely-defined reason… but I could never figure out just how everything really worked. Sometimes, after getting home, a given character’s wounds would have gotten better. Sometimes, they’d have gotten worse! I’m sure there’s some hidden logic to how this works — maybe wounded characters can’t do anything but sleep in bed all day if they want to recover? There are mechanics for having other characters bring them bandages, medicine and meals.

And, again: wounds and illnesses are *dangerous*.

Likewise, it helps if you understand the intricacies of what to trade and who to trade it to. Books are worthless as a trading good, but medicine is incredibly valuable. As ar guns. For some reason, electrical components seem to do well… but be sure you don’t trade ‘too many’, because these things are needed for later upgrades, and they’re valuable! Moonshine and cigarettes are your best bet, really: you may think that your characters would resent you selling off their intoxicant escapes from reality, but they can just suck it up and read a worthless book.

And so on, and so forth. You get my point. Of all the ways to play, some ways are more valid than others. And trying to work these ways out through trial and error is going to lead to at least one game down the drain with no survivors.

And all this isn’t even mentioning combat. The combat system in This War Of Mine is…

I want to say it’s ‘janky’, but that’s not entirely fair. It is, it totally is, but I can see that as being the point. Your survivors are all ‘normal’ humans, after all. They shouldn’t be Close Quarters Combat experts by any stretch.

But what bothers me is that the combat feels so random. Once you get in a melee-range brawl, it feels as though combat devolves to you frantically clicking on your target until a ‘combat event’ happens, during which one party will somehow attack the other party. Then, more frantic clicking. Every swing, stab or shot will reduce the opponent’s health bit by bit… but there’s very little congruence in which attack will hit at which particular time. I’ve had multiple battles that I initiated with a knife backstab, only to then lose to an unarmed opponent because they kept hitting me and I kept missing. But on the other hand, my Pavle won an unarmed battle against a shotgun-wielder…

And then there’s the stealth system, which completely breaks the combat. If you’re hiding in one of the Convenient Clearly Stealthy Hidey Holes, any melee attack made against a passing opponent is and instant and complete silent kill. Knife, shovel, fists, whatever: they die and you don’t. And opponents never check these hidey holes unless they actively see you slip into them… and even then, not always. I’ve won at least one battle by way of the enemy AI just forgetting where I was. And then running past my murder-spot. And then getting shovel’d.

Come on, pass this way. Come on, pass this way.

I do like how the consequences of combat are nasty, brutish, and long-lasting. But I don’t like how little I can predict how any given combat will play out. Losing to a situation I ought have had in hand is as frustrating as winning a situation I have no right to survive, just differently so.

And this isn’t even touching on the ‘raider combat’, which isn’t combat as much as it is a random splash screen popping up at the end of the night. Sometimes, raiders come. These raiders have no names, no faces, no affiliations: they’re a tidal wave of Bad Guys in the night. Depending on your fortifications, your weapons, and whether or not you’ve set anyone to guard, these raiders may or may not injure your people, may or may not require bullets to chase off, and may or may not steal your hard-earned supplies. There’s almost no way to predict them coming and there is no way to deal with them swiping your valuable foods…

…and seriously messing up your hapless dudes while you’re at it…

…unless you save-scum.

This War Of Mine only does auto-saving, and it only auto-saves at the start of every new day. No matter where you are or when you quit, you’re always put back at the start of the last day-splash you saw, like an involuntary Majora’s Mask Link who spent one too many days ignoring the moon. And this game being what it is, it’s not entirely unlikely you’ll quickly discover that the precise results of random events and raider attacks are generated when the requisite splash screen appears, and not at the start of the day.

And from there, it’s a short step to save-scumming.

Raiders attacked, hurt Bruno badly, stole all my food. Reset. Raiders attacked, hurt Katia badly, stole some food and bullets. Reset. Raiders attacked, hurt Bruno lightly, stole one can of food, took two bullets to chase off. Hmm… okay, I can live with this.

You can’t out-scum the actual events happening: if raiders show up, raiders will always show up. If a trader visits, a trader will always visit. If your random-duration rat trap chooses this day to trigger, it will always trigger this day. But the damage of the raider attacks, the trader’s goods, the trap’s timing: these are all semi-random. And the temptation to Alt-F4 out of your game over and over to try for a better outcome is as present as it is overpowering.

Yeah, it’s cheesy and lame. Dude, trust me, I know. But here’s the thing: you can’t make mistakes in this game. If raiders steal most of your food and your fuel, or if your primary scavenger gets killed because the game decided that their hand axe was no match for an emaciated woman’s fists three times in a row, there’s a very real chance you’ve lost already. Particularly if you’re not playing perfectly, the loss of one character and an entire night’s worth of scavenged goods can be a setback that you just can’t overcome.

And, yes: this is some very real commentary on the horrors of war and the low likelihood of civilian survival. I get that, it’s all very powerful, war never changes. It’s also not very fun to play. Particularly because the first few days of any game mostly follow the same few beats — get water, get stove, get bed, get metal workshop, and rob the safest option you can find blind until you can’t rob it no more — and because there’s no way to accelerate the daytime short of skipping a day entirely, it can take a lot of time to get back into the part where you make interesting gameplay decisions.

Do you have any idea how long it took me to build this guitar?

It’s probably unfair to judge This War Of Mine by traditional gameplay fun standards. It’s no power fantasy, that’s for sure. And like I said, it on some level feels fair that those of us who didn’t spend our entire lives preparing for war survival end up sucking so much at it. But with so little guidance from the game itself, and with mistakes and wrong decisions being so long-term punishing as they are, there is almost no way to bounce back from a bad situation. I can’t even scavenge in my current game, did you know that? All three of my remaining characters are too wounded to go out anymore.

You can probably guess why this is a suboptimal result.

Oh, and to add a final cherry to this sundae of complaining, This War Of Mine glitched out on me on several occasions. Once, my water collector visually disappeared. It was still there, just… not. Another time, all my canned food frizzed out, and nobody could eat from it anymore. Across nights and saves, this persisted. I ended up having to trade it all for carrots and smokes. And let’s not forget the time lethally injured Katia stood in the hallway for eight hours, stubbornly refusing to move to an empty bed as she complained her pain and her need for sleep.

I’m trying to survive, still. I don’t know why. Or I don’t know why, more specifically: I have no idea if I’m building to something, if there is some end goal I need to reach or find, or if I’m just trying to see if I can last for as long as I can. If it’s the latter, I have bad hope for my party. If it’s the former… I hope the finish line finds us quickly. Before we all die of malnutrition, illness, and blood loss.

Final thoughts

Nope.

Didn’t make it.

One by one, Bruno, Emilia and Katia bled out in their beds. Pavle survived for a few days longer, subsiding on canned food and burning the books he’d promised to keep safe for the vaguest hint of warmth. But just as winter gave way to spring, he too went to sleep one night and never woke up.

I could play more This War Of Mine, if I wanted. After the first game, it turns out you can select from several sets of survivors, each with their own poorly-defined special skills. You can even make your own party, or your own civilians, and set them in a warscape of an intensity and a duration of your choosing.

So it has some replayability, is what I’m saying. You can make it as easy or hard as you want.

I don’t know. On the one hand, I did enjoy the survival aspect of This War Of Mine. And I’m curious to see if I can make it a second time, using what I know now to optimal effect. On the other hand… it’s an incredibly gloomy, oppressive game, punishing mistakes harshly and only rewarding success with the opportunity to do it all again. Plus, I can totally see what other critics were on about: This War Of Mine very much presents a warscape where your only interactions with other humans are either ‘unfair trade’ or ‘kill ’em all and loot their stuff’. It gives you the freedom to be a monster, if you want to, and rewards you for doing so. But it rarely gives you the opportunity to be a saint.

If you get access to the Quiet House early on, you can get handfuls of food, water, and medicine, at the expensive of having to punch two elderly people to death. What you can *not* do is *talk* to them, trade with them, or convince them to help you. It’s murder or nothing.

I enjoyed This War Of Mine of mine the most when it presented interesting point-to-point decisions about how to survive this war predicament, and when it subsumed its own ideas about human morality to allow me to stew in juices of my own design. I enjoyed it the least when glitches and required foreknowledge got in the way of me being able to survive in the first place, when other humans turned from fellow survivors to clearly-evil deserters and psychopaths, and when it turned out I died because I hadn’t put the necessary homework in. The latter elements are present more strongly than the former, but This War Of Mine does deliver both: whether or not you’ll enjoy it, in the end, boils down to just how willing you are to stare the bleak oppressiveness of Eastern European war-torn cities in the face.

This War Of Mine runs you twenty bucks at a variety of sources.

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Jarenth is a lover, not a fighter. Not that there’s room for either, in this way. Reminisce with him on Twitter or hang out with him on Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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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