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VIDEO GAME REVIEW: “This War of Mine” deals with the horrors of war without the gore

Developed by 11 bit studios, "This War of Mine" is a 2014 war survival video game that you do not play as an elite soldier, rather a group of civilians trying to survive in a besieged city. (Video: Deep Silver)
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This War of Mine
Developer: 11 bit studios
Publisher: 11 bit studios
Available on: PC

I made the mistake of putting a kettle on the stove before sitting down to start “This War of Mine” – a game about civilian life during wartime. Imperceptibly, I was entranced by helping a trio of men eke out a menial existence in a fictional (though evocatively Eastern European) corner of the world. I didn’t hear the kettle’s whistle cover its octave range, and when at last I thought of the tea I’d planned to make, a spasm of panic sent me bolting from the chair. It goes without saying I had to refill the kettle since most of the water had evaporated, a luxury the game’s protagonists could only wish for.

A determinist might say that “This War of Mine” could only spring from a country as haunted by continental strife as Poland, which is where 11 bit studios is based. Just as European art films have often served as self-conscious counterweights to Hollywood’s output, “This War of Mine” is a shining alternative to the swamp of militaristic shooters out there that seldom engage with the effects of warfare outside of the radius of expended munitions. Therefore, it’s tempting to inflate the game’s symbolic value and to fancy it an act of contrition on the behalf of an industry that has reveled in too many bullets.

Apart from its thematic novelty, its gameplay is an elementary affair. If you can click on a mouse, you can play this game. To an inspired degree, these unintimidating point-and-click mechanics work in concert with its graphic-novel art style. Unlike this year’s “Valiant Hearts,” which tried to tell a humane story about ordinary people struggling through World War 1, “This War of Mine” avoids the frivolous video game elements — like driving a car and swerving to avoid bombs to the tune of Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance No. 5” — that hobbled Ubisoft’s title.

At the start of “This War of Mine,” you are introduced to a small number of people whose composition changes with subsequent playthroughs. Your first order of business is to explore the shelled building that houses your refugees and to gather resources that can be used for constructing basic household items like a bed, a stove, and a chair. Because time in the game runs swiftly and you only have until nightfall to complete yours tasks, it’s incumbent upon you to keep all of your people as productively occupied as possible. Thus you will find yourself constantly panning the screen to see what has been completed and what remains to be done. At night, you must decide who will sleep in a bed, or on the floor if none is available; who will stand guard in case of bandits; and who will venture forth to scavenge for food and supplies.

Each of your group’s members have their own attributes: e.g., one may be strong but slow rendering him ideal for clearing away obstacles like fortifications, whereas another might be stealthy, making her good at infiltrating heavily patrolled areas. Early in the game, you will probably rely upon those with the largest knapsacks so as to score the greatest number of items; however, your decisions will grow thornier as the days accumulate.

Fatigue, hunger, sickness, and depression are variables to contend with. What do you do if, for example, your star scavenger returns in the morning to find that bandits have raided the shelter and injured your guard(s)? Do you send her to bed so that she can be in optimal condition to forage come nightfall, or do you put her to work so as to allow whoever is ailing to recuperate?

Before you know it, these survival calculations take on a moral cast. The most impressive feature of the game is how it systematically makes you weigh tradeoffs. Food, for example, requires fuel and purified water to be cooked. Cooking two meals is more fuel efficient than one but requires additional ingredients. There were times when I chose to let my people starve so as to conserve fuel for other activities (such as the manufacturing of items that could be traded on the black market) and hoped that extra foodstuffs would turn up so I could prepare two meals instead of one. Then there were occasions where I sent my least healthy characters into the most dangerous situations because their ailments were too expensive to treat.

No one, however, is truly expendable since death can undercut group morale. There were moments when I couldn’t rouse a starving character to eat and when another committed suicide during the night.

Remarkably, “This War of Mine” manages to plumb such stark territory without sacrificing the kind of gameplay hooks that will make you yearn to want to give it another go should you fail to reach the end of the war. As you modify your strategies, your odds of survival ratchet up. If, for instance, food-stealing bandits are a constant nuisance, you might start sending your scavenger out at night with a partial supply of the group’s food to hedge your bets. While on another playthrough, you might rush to create a distillery in order to create bootleg items for trade. Sometimes however, the game will throw you a curve by forcing you to deal with inclement weather or a sick individual from the very beginning.

Though I certainly believe that video games are an art form, there are precious few games that I would hold up as works of art, which for me – in its narrative varieties at least – has something to do with extending one’s capacity for empathy or adding depth to one’s sense of the human condition.  On both counts “This War of Mine” succeeds. Indeed, one could easily imagine it being incorporated into the classroom to function as an interactive supplement alongside books like “All Quiet on the Western Front” or “Dispatches.”

Now pardon me while I feel bad about the circumstances that pushed me to steal from an old couple. (Please note: I tried to leave them with as much food as I could.)

Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been playing video games since the days of the Atari 2600. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The Barnes & Noble Review, Al Jazeera America, the Guardian, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.

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