I would like to apologise for the delay in the publication of this review. See, with the various forms of PTSD that I developed subsequent to playing This War of Mine: The Little Ones, it took me some time to be able to actually speak about this game – at least without ‘flashbacks’.
Let me say, before you read too much into that sentence, that it’s not a criticism. For those who don’t know, This War of Mine focuses on war in a way that video games never have. You don’t play as the mass-murdering hero of the front lines, nor do you command and strategically manage battalions. In fact, short of its ramifications, you don’t see much of the war at all. See, This War of Mine places you in the shoes of a group of ordinary people, struggling to survive in the wartime conditions.
The game is dark and unforgiving, both in difficulty and psychology. The monochromes of the black and grey colour scheme should tell you all you need to know about the mood of the game. I was only half joking when I mentioned PTSD. I spent more than a few hours contemplating my decisions and their morality, wondering about certain characters and how my actions affected them.
When the game begins, it’s easy to make promises of altruistic survival. You’ll start out admirably, scavenging for supplies, determined not to steal or kill. But hope and happiness are in short supply, as are food and weapons. People are desperate, and more than that, people are cruel. And despite your best intentions, you will quickly learn that you are human as well.
The times are tough, and the game does an amazing job of conveying this. Sooner or later you’ll be out of of food, and short of supplies, which, in turn, will lead to you being short of happiness and short on luck. You’ll be desperate, and when you’re desperate, I promise, you’ll be surprised what you’ll do.
See, things quickly become uncomfortable, and when they do This War of Mine excels. I remember, in my first play through, stealing the food and medical supplies of a peaceful old man and his dying wife. All the old man could do was follow me while I pillaged his house, begging me not to take his food, telling me that he would die. He was telling me how he needed what I was taking. And still, I took it all.
I remember returning with the loot, feeding my party and bandaging my wounds. And as we got better, I couldn’t help thinking about how that old couple would only get worse. To my absolute horror the character who looted the house wondered this same thing. Her dialogue reminded me of what I’d done, and told me that the old couple would surely die. And feeling like a terrible person, I noticed a status effect under her name. This was one I hadn’t seen before, because up until now I had played the game as morally as I could. Katia wasn’t hungry, tired or wounded; she was sad.
At first this struck me fairly hard, and I was even more ashamed of myself than I previously was. But, these effects were quickly nullified, by the character repeating the same dialogue every five minutes and the ‘sad’ status effect bearing down on me like I was some alexithymic robot. See, if you scrape your elbow, your body will realise that it is in pain. If, once in a while, someone flicks the cut you’ll feel a sharp jab of profound pain, but if they persistently prod the wound your nerves will become damaged and your skin will become calloused. Sooner or later, you’ll lose sensitivity all together. Had the game included the ‘sad’ status without the perennial reminders, this would have been an evocative and undoubtedly effective ploy. As a consequence of the game treating me like Spock, I adopted the vulcan’s emotional range and the game’s more unsettling moments became slightly more palatable. You know how your applause is never truly genuine when you applaud for the prompt cards? Well…that.
Conversely, the game manages The Little Ones’ expansion pack infinitely more delicately.
Quite often I felt frustrated with my child’s juvenility, the begging to play when characters are tired or injured, or their initial inabilities to do certain tasks. Once that frustration had settled I was disgusted with myself for thinking so savagely, because I had grown, quite quickly, attached to the child. I enjoyed playing, for I was happy to distract them from the war. And, as I taught that child the basic duties of the shelter, I felt proud. I liked this part of the game because I could feel emotion – be it frustration, responsibility or even attachment – towards this child without the game telling me to. It felt genuine and therefore, was genuinely effective.
Overall I’d like to commend the game’s ability to rouse emotion, especially considering that the story is as simple as ‘survive’, and you’re not even sure how long you have to do that for. Of course, you do get a text based backstory to each character. But, considering you’re meant to feel attached to these survivors you’re given very little. So why then should you feel so responsible for the characters’ survival? Maybe it’s because you’re not cruel. But I think it’s more fitting to believe that you’ll attach yourself to these characters because they’re just like you: everyday people trying to survive.
Now, I haven’t referred to the characters by their names because the game can begin with a number of different loadouts. Of course, your party will expand as you progress through the game and you’ll learn each character’s specialty. As such, you’ll feel safer when Roman joins your party, and relieved when you have access to Boris’ increased inventory space. You can also ‘create your own story’, in a mode that allows you to begin the game in a certain season, with certain characters. Here is where you access The Little Ones’ campaigns, but short of that I’d advise players to avoid it. The game is influenced heavily by the developers own experiences and tampering with it seems to either cheapen the experience or provide an unrealistically aggressive challenge. I won’t criticise the game for including the feature because it is interesting – and the sole point of access for the child’s stories – but it’s one of the few areas where This War of Mine is lacking.
Maybe there is also something to be desired on the controls frontier. But I believe simplicity and ambience were the focus of 11-bit studios. Complicating gameplay, by providing too many options, would have contradicted the minimalism that makes the game so effective. However, games originally developed with a point and click system – the popular and effective method of controls for PC – don’t adapt perfectly to the Xbox’s controller. And in this department, This War of Mine doesn’t break tradition. On the whole, the controls were fine; they did exactly what they were supposed to do. However, I do believe that This War of Mine’s control system is much more suited to the PC. For instance, controlling movement with the analog stick often resulted in the character climbing a ladder, or descending stairs when you didn’t want them to. While this was frustrating, I quickly adapted to the system and it posed no more of a problem. Combat was also hindered by odd changes of target or direction, but, again, the system was simple and adaptable enough that I quickly adjusted. And the point does stand that overly complex combat mechanics may have distracted from the game’s primary goal, which is to avoid, for the most part, full-frontal fighting and proceed in a more conservative stealthy manner.
I haven’t really delved into the gameplay yet because discovering how things work is what makes the game fun. In short, you’ll spend the daytime crafting, sleeping and eating. At night you’ll send one survivor into a designated location where you can salvage, steal or seize the items your survivors need. Some locations are dangerous, filled with violent soldiers or raiders. Others are home to normal people, simply trying to survive. And some, of course are empty. You’ll explore these locations, bringing back supplies and building with them during the day. You’ll repeat this process until, if you’re lucky, there’s a ceasefire or, if you’re unlucky, your characters die. Of course, while you’re away scavenging people’s homes, people will also be scavenging yours. If you’re not properly armed then you can quickly lose the items you worked so hard to gather.
This War of Mine is a terrifying insight into an event that is typically glamorised by the gaming industry. And it’s nice to see things from another viewpoint, especially when it’s managed this well. Yes, I have been fairly hard in this review, but that’s because the game was equally hard on me. An emotional experience, This War of Mine explores the human spirit when it is most strained. It questions morality of the war, and of the player himself. While it would have profited from being slightly more subtle in certain areas, the game still does a phenomenal job of treading uncharted territory. This War of Mine: The Little Ones is one the freshest and most poignant gaming experience the industry has to offer. This is big praise. But frankly, this game deserves it. Make sure you play This War of Mine, though I won’t promise that you’ll ‘enjoy’ it. Now I’m going to go to sleep, but after writing this review I can’t promise that I’ll do that either.