This War of Mine is a tough game to review, or at least, a tough game to rate. How do you rate a game that isn’t fun? And I don’t mean that as some kind of vexed gamer who approached this piece with the notion that any part of the experience would be joyous. Rather, my dilemma stems from playing something that lacks any of the usual rewards for accomplishments. Here, the dubious reward is inarguably the message: war sucks and people suffer from it. I doubt there’ll be much riotous applause about that.
The fact is that between our fearless leader, Nick, and I, we have provided three good previews, which tell you all that you need to know about the gameplay. At risk of being redundant, here is a quick summation. The player controls three (or more) people who hole up in a large building for safety in a blockaded city during wartime. Every day must be spent foraging for materials, keeping residents fed and care for, building furniture and appliances to aid goals, and defending them against those that would wish them harm. As expected, it’s much like The Sims, but you never laugh, and the music never, ever lifts.
This brand of survival runs counter to single-protagonist gems like Don’t Starve or DayZ. When you make a mistake leading to the death of one survivor, you don’t just groan and start over. There are presumably two or more other survivors who are left to clean up after the mess. Not only are they forced to re-think strategies for scavenging and guarding the home, but they become palpably upset. When these emotions compound in response to all the other crappy events that happen as days go by, survivors can become despondent or even catatonic.
One oddity I did not pick up on in my preview experience was that the survivors don’t talk amongst themselves. Not that there’s a Social need bar to fill, but you’d imagine that people trying to survive would try to be uplifting and engaging, given that they are all they have to trust against the madness. Instead, they occasionally utter thoughts out loud but to themselves.
When one of my survivors did become depressed, the others were given the option of talking to her. Snapping a resident out of his/her funk apparently takes hours of reassurance, which could be spent doing anything else related to survival. However, if you don’t do it, that person won’t suddenly become more helpful in the future and may even commit suicide. So just like deciding what to construct or eat will likely have adverse consequences, keeping spirits up is another one of those actions that must be budgeted against others of ostensibly clearer benefit.
You, the player, are not permitted to feel happy during any moment of your play-through. There are only two moments of satisfaction to be experienced. The first is when the radio is playing classical music, assuming one survivor has constructed a radio at some point. The environmental music, though reasonably composed, is dour, yet somber orchestral music through a crackling radio feels like an upgrade somehow. The other moment is when a survivor comes home from a night of scavenging, seemingly happy about his/her haul.
These moments are brief and still demoralizing, though. The music only pleases you since the survivors exhibit no response to it. The radio is really used to get an update on the state of affairs outside and learn about the weather, not for your personal enjoyment. As for bringing home a full backpack, well, the elation is tied to the quantity, not the quality. Someone could bring home nothing but wood, which doesn’t directly feed anyone, but they need wood. So… yay? Eventually, your spoils skew towards random availability with objects like food and weapons buried in unsafe reaches. Appreciate those first few days of diversity while you’ve got them.
To ensure complete moral ambiguity, this emotionally taxing game also has achievements. These are tied to such accomplishments as getting everyone to eat a hot meal, convincing someone not to kill themselves in the middle of the night, and not dying when someone points a gun at you. These provide the same feeling as achievements given for reaching story checkpoints in other games. I mean, you had to get there eventually, so it’s unclear why you need a reward for it. Yet there it is. Congratulations.
Believe it or not, none of this is a complaint. I’ve played depressing games, such as Papo & Yo and The Last of Us, but even those provide something This War of Mine has zero interest in entertaining: respite. The player receives no joy from a fantasy setting, puzzles to solve, engaging and diverse characters, or beautiful screenshot-worthy vistas. There is no leveling up or becoming stronger; even if you’re more prepared to deal with danger, you probably made yourself so at the expense of something else you needed to last.
If you kill or beat someone down, it just sucks. Like any other violent game, you don’t know their story, but you can feel that they are no different than you. Seeing a woman carted off by a soldier to be abused is not leveraged to enhance some male war machine’s character, nor is it a nothing event to your characters, evidenced by the immediate sadness that overtakes the whole home. Oh, and when all your survivors die—because let’s be honest, they will—if any of them committed suicide, you’ll be confronted with a directly haunting image related to that. (On that note, if you are easily triggered by these things, approach with extreme caution.)
But for all of this, I wholehearted recommend This War of Mine. It is a video game that makes you perform familiar video game actions at the expense of all the reasons most people play video games, even going so far as to be ironic at times. Frankly, for all the artistic encounters I’ve had and valued as a gamer, this crosses a major threshold, delivering a valuable experience that doesn’t seek to coddle a player’s fragile conceptions of purpose and fun. If the lasting impression you receive is unquestionably bleak, you’re doing it right. Nobody’s going to reward you for even doing that.