This War of Nobody’s
Not loving a game like This War of Mine is a critical bear trap. It’s a little bit like feeling cantankerous toward Saving Private Ryan in the summer of 1998. Maybe you can appreciate some of its better moments. Maybe you empathize with what it’s trying to express. Maybe you find yourself tempted to just say the hell with it, what’s the big deal, why do you have to be like this anyway? If everybody else is into it, what’s your problem?
Then again, maybe the characters are approached just a little too worshipfully, so sparkly-clean they wouldn’t feel out of place gold-leafed among the pages of an illuminated manuscript. Maybe its version of history is a little too sanitized in places, a little too grungy in others. Maybe, just maybe, this isn’t how it was, dammit, and there’s value to keeping good history.
But enough about Saving Private Ryan.
This War of Mine never says outright that it’s set during the Siege of Sarajevo, that 1,425-day hell that cut off the Winter Olympics City of ’84 and struck the world with images of modern high-rises aflame and smoking. The designers of the board game’s digital predecessor claimed that the game drew inspiration from Sarajevo without ever fully embracing it. Instead, they included far more disastrous examples in the mix, like the Warsaw Uprisings, and admitted that they were going for a “worst case scenario” rather than historical authenticity.
More’s the pity. So many of the stories from that four-year siege are tales of pulling together, setting up schools, the relief efforts of the city’s government, and people growing closer, warmer, and more willing to assist one another as their situation grew bleaker and longer. By contrast, This War of Mine has its fingers on the cold pulse of a zombie survival game. Its setting is one of anarchic collapse, not a military siege. It features equipment crafting and nocturnal raids — both you raiding others and others raiding you — rather than communities struggling as one, sharing food and other resources, and trying to inject some light into the day-to-day terror of their lives.
At its absolute best, This War of Mine provides similar glimmers of light, though generally only before strangling them. In one instance, two of my beleaguered survivors were conducting a midnight raid on a warehouse. The process, like many of the processes in this game, was as repetitive as it was lucid, with multiple exploration cards — all of which I’d seen before and would see again soon — stacked and resolved one at a time. We gathered resources, spied through keyholes, and occasionally made more noise than we would have preferred. Eventually, that noise attracted attention.
There were three of them, soldiers, presumably on our “side,” though of course sides don’t matter in This War of Mine even though they would in any conceivable reality. At gunpoint they shook us down of everything we’d gathered: coffee, some herbal remedies, a bag of sugar. Rather than fight, we permitted them take their share. When we attempted conversation, they bemoaned the cruel necessity that forced them to take our stuff. For all their melodrama, it was a pleasantly human moment.
Then, rather than share a cigarette or that uncooked vegetable they’d swiped from us, they sent us on our way to do more scavenging.
So it goes in This War of Mine, over and over. You stare evil right in the face, it bellyaches about its misplaced morality, then doesn’t bother to do anything to reclaim it.
Those are the high points. Another time, I came face to face with an officer everybody called “Sergeant Death.” Why? Because he plays his games of chance for human lives, don’t you know. The less said about those periodic about-faces into Joseph Conrad territory, the better.
The same goes for This War of Mine’s herky-jerky gameplay sensibilities. Just as scavenging is cast as a bunch of samey exploration cards that will just as easily see you raid a pantry for raw potatoes as be shot dead (as is fitting for scavenging in a war zone, it ought to be said), your daily behavior is a dizzying mixture of the compelling and the preposterous. Your survivors are cast as near-literal Old Testament Jobs, suffering fatigue, illness, injury, hunger, and misery, all of which diminish the actions they can perform during daylight hours. You can, of course, become so tired that you cannot even spend an afternoon in bed to cure your tiredness, which is simultaneously laughable and profound. Food and water are consumed faster than they can be found, grown, or collected from rainfall. Objects, like tinkerer’s workshops, moonshine stills, stoves, radios, and more, must be constructed and then worked to produce any effect. Books are tossed into the fireplace as readily as dry cordwood, though this calls to mind those souls who took it upon themselves to rescue Sarajevo’s literature from destruction. Once again, This War of Mine manages to be even bleaker than life.
To be clear, it’s not that bleakness does not become This War of Mine. It’s that the game does bleakness so ham-handedly that the whole thing’s profundity often gets lost in the clumsiness.
Even the rules are handled with fingers of ham. There’s something noble about wanting a game to be playable immediately, with a brisk step-by-step tutorial easing a first-time player’s passage into the game’s more complicated moments. Unfortunately, the way the rules are enfolded directly into the Book of Scripts, This War of Mine’s po-faced storybook, is woefully inadequate, especially when it leads you on little tangents that gleefully announce, “You have just discovered three hidden advanced rules!”, as though the goal of a rulebook were to obscure a game’s inner workings rather than enshrine them. Oh dear.
All that said, This War of Mine deserves some measure of leniency. For one thing, its creators’ unwillingness to repeat history has necessarily shot it out of a cannon and straight into foreign territory. Much the same way games like …and then we held hands… and The Grizzled used deep abstraction to communicate important truths — or to pointedly not communicate them, as was the central thesis of both of those titles — This War of Mine employs a backdrop of the familiar (crafting, raids, scarce resources) against a foreground of acute suffering to communicate the desperation of the inescapable.
This, and so many other things, makes it no fun to play, at least not the way we usually classify “fun.” Your band of survivors will starve, or die of their injuries or illnesses or both, or go rigid in the cold of the coming winter, or blow their brains out. Not often, or even most of the time, but nearly always.
Far worse, even the game’s more serious narrative efforts will often fall short. There’s only so many times you can be beaten and robbed in the middle of the night before the whole thing becomes a sick joke rather than a commentary on man’s cruelty to man. Even in Les Misérables, Javert only caught up to Jean Valjean a couple times, not every Tuesday.
The essence of the whole exercise, though, is found in the very same things that makes This War of Mine such a pain in the ass to wrestle with. Whether it accurately communicates anything about war becomes almost beside the point. Or at least I hope it does, since it’s utterly terrible at doing so. Instead, it compresses many of humanity’s worst miseries into the span of a few very glum hours, then provides a breath of fresh air by letting you stop playing it. Breaking the surface of the game’s frigid lake provides the gift of perspective. Compared to those who have suffered in war, we have it good. More so compared to the poor sots endlessly stealing from one another in This War of Mine.
The result is a complex beast, equal parts compelling, broken, profound, infuriating, and overreaching. It’s a game that’s no fun at all.
But hey, maybe that’s good for us. We observe suffering because it places our own into stark contrast. A dose of perspective — even from something as overwrought as This War of Mine — is generally not such a bad thing.