NB: This is the first installment of a developing post on This War of Mine. I will play it more and my opinion might change
As an expressive form, video games have long established themselves as a way to communicate serious topics, from HIV to oil sands exploitation. War is a new and important topic for games. No, not war as a soldier, as a party in the fighting – that certainly is old news. But war as experienced by non-combatants (in the day and age of asymmetrical opponents and civil wars, the word “civilian” does not seem to be a strong enough distinction anymore from those fighting) that try to survive alongside the hostilities, is a new topic.
I was excited when I heard about a game on non-combatants, as I envisioned a rich interactive narrative giving players a glimpse of the horrors of war, carrying an important message especially for those – like me – who have been so lucky to never have experienced it personally.
Unfortunately, so far I am underwhelmed and I start to get the feeling of a missed opportunity. Again, I still hope this feeling will pass as I engage more with the game. The beginning is promising enough – three characters have found refuge in a partly destroyed house and in order for them to survive, the player needs to satisfy their need for food, medication, a good rest, and entertainment. The characters can be sent on missions to find all kinds of material from wood to food and later can use the gathered goods to build things like beds, chairs, and tools, but also cook food and treat illnesses and wounds. In addition to basic needs, the characters display emotions like sadness and despair and express their desires for a book or a smoke. Much of this design already sounds like The Sims, with the addition of a strong survival narrative, which could be a powerful combination.
Yet the characters in This War of Mine are no sims. While sims certainly need attention at times, they can also go about their virtual lives on their own. Not so here – if you don’t assign tasks, the characters will just stand around and do nothing. As long as they are healthy that is. Sick and injured characters will find a bed and lay down on their own, which is a weird asymmetrical design decision. “Active tasks” need to be assigned, “passive tasks” like laying down not, which is confusing for the player. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of questionable design decisions.
The game is played in day segments, divided into day time and night time. Daytime activities cannot continue during the night and the player has to decide – once night falls – what each character should do during this period: go out and plunder, keep watch, or sleep. To get provisions, at least one of the characters should venture out and for this activity, a map offers a variety of targets. The number of targets grow every night, for no apparent reason. I feel good game design should establish causal connections and this is definitely missing here. How about sending a character on a scouting mission first and then showing more possible targets as a result? Traveling to and back from a location is another missed opportunity, as characters just “teleport” to the chosen location on the map. The way through a destroyed and dangerous city by itself would have conveyed a powerful message that is lost here.
Another problem is the lack of interaction between the characters – they just don’t. Individually they will express the need for entertainment or a smoke and actually worry about each other (“I hope Pavle will feel better”), but they do not talk to each other, hold a gathering or work together. This seems true for NPCs outside the house, too. It is emotionally disturbing to walk past a person in agony and about to die, but this event becomes just frustrating once you realize that the game does not provide any way to do something about it. At the same time, some NPCs actually interact with the player characters, for example a passerby will thank the player for opening a safe passage or catch her stealing. This arbitrariness is another violation of good interactive design that will result in reduced agency and immersion.
The lack of social engagement between the characters is a major omission. Psychological needs are as important in an emergency situation as physical needs and a good group dynamic with mutual support can be the deciding factor for survival. This War of Mine tries to model individual feelings, but fails at group dynamics. A character might have a bad conscience about food stolen from other survivors, but there is no discussion about this with fellow group members. Equally, one group member might give away medicine to a random visitor without any follow-up discussion. One might expect a major argument and a crisis as a result of such an action, but nothing happens.
Unfortunately, there are more frustrating and illogical design decisions – for example, it is impossible to visit several locations during a night-time outing, regardless how much time is still left. I also found that the “run to exit” function will not use the just discovered safe passage, and instead have my character run directly in front of the sharpshooter and die.
I was hoping that This War of Mine would create a strong narrative experience of a desolate situation. Instead my frustration was not about the situation I am in, but with illogical design decisions and the halfhearted realization of social interactions. At times, the game feels like a gray Dinner Dash in slow motion – a game about resource allocation, but without the frantic pace and rewarding level design of that game series.
This observation might actually expose the game’s biggest problem – narrative as character development, causal relation of events and social interactions – is taking second place behind resource management, but this topic requires strong narrative to function as a game. It is clear that such a game might not be about winning, but rather about the experience trying to survive. When I know I might not win, I need strong narrative to keep me interested. I want to experience how the group dynamic changes because I give away the medicine, I want to see what happens when I try to rescue a fellow human and bring her home. However, in This War of Mine I cannot.