There is a moment in the beginning of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men where the main character, Theo, is witness, and almost victim to, a bombing. In the morning, on the way to his job, Theo stops by a local coffee shop for a cup of the good stuff. When he enters the shop, he wades his way through a dense crowd of listless civilians staring at a small TV screen showing increasingly grim news. As he exits the shop, the camera slowly pans across the street to show a semi-futuristic London plagued by pollution, over-population, and disturbingly prescient anti-immigration propaganda. Theo stops by a nearby trashcan so he can spike his coffee, but he doesn’t get far — the shop he just left a matter of seconds prior explodes in a cloud of smoke and debris. The audio cuts out and the camera zooms in on the smoke as a victim of the bombing stumbles out ashen, bloody, and missing an arm.
This, in essence, is what it feels like when playing 11 bit studio’s survival game, This War of Mine.
As redundant as it may sound, This War of Mine is not a typical war game. Rather than focus on the soldiers, players control a group of civilians as they attempt to survive their fictional, war-torn country of Pogoren, Graznavia. When it was released in 2014, critics praised this shift in perspective. It allowed players to understand the often forgotten toll civil unrest and war have on the general population. While the fighting rages on, those stuck in the middle struggle to stay alive. They didn’t decide to start fighting; they didn’t choose to have their loved ones ripped away from them or their home utterly destroyed. The politics of This War of Mine are simple: Survive not because you have to, but because you were forced into this position by powers up high.
What works so well — and what I think largely falls flat for me in other survival games — is the survival mechanics have purpose. In other games, like DayZ or Rust, players are plopped into a sandbox with little context as to why they need to survive. They are told that the world is harsh, resources are scarce, and there are plenty of things that want to kill them — but why? There is a disconnect between the mechanic and my motivation to actually engage in the world that has always prevented me from enjoying survival games. In This War of Mine, each civilian you control has a backstory, personality traits, and an explanation to how they met the other survivors. They, just like everyone else living in Pogoren, are trying to endure extraordinary circumstances, and the game made me feel that by making me care enough to want to keep these folks alive, or, as I found all too frequently, why I should be sad if I let them die.
The game takes place in two phases, day and night. The daytime is a good opportunity to check in on your survivors, craft items and additional structures to your base, and rest up for the night. At night, one survivor risks their lives by venturing to different locales to scrounge for resources while the others rest until they get home. As you scavenge your way through derelict airports and shelled-out schools (there was literally a location in my playthrough called “Shelled-out School”), it is important to keep an eye on hunger, exhaustion, health, injuries, and general mood. Allow any one level to get too low, and things will quickly become dire for your survivors. Too little food and your team will move sluggishly. Too tired, and you run the risk of passing out. Too sick, and your character will stop doing what you tell them because they don’t see the point. I was rarely in a position when I didn’t feel crippling stress about the number of goods I had in my base or the state of mind of my team.
Finding supplies for your base and keeping a well-managed squad is not easy. Though there were times when I found more than one piece of meat or a handgun on a given supply run, I always had to leave something behind or could not get to an additional area because I did not have a required tool like a hacksaw. Any place on the map that carried a huge amount of resources was usually swarming with enemies, and combat was something I always tried to avoid lest my character get injured or I kill another person, which makes the survivor depressed. Every morning when I returned, I ran the risk of seeing the “You’ve Been Raided” alert on my screen, meaning some of my most valuable items had been stolen and my survivors were injured from warding off the burglars. More often than not, This War of Mine feels like a game of tug-of-war in which you’re usually on the losing side — and that’s the point. Finding food shouldn’t be easy because it wouldn’t be for a civilian in an actual conflict. If you actually had to scavenge through a heavily fortified building filled with well-trained soldiers, the odds would not be in your favor. This War of Mine‘s survival mechanics are officious in their realism, never allowing the player any sense of comfort. Anything else would be a disservice to what civilians actually go through in times of war.
On a brighter note, the Switch version plays smoothly, which is a sigh of relief given how tricky it can be porting strategy games to consoles. Gameplay is snappy and plays well with a controller, framerate was never an issue, and base management was as intuitive as it could be without a mouse and keyboard. Unfortunately, though, the same issues that I found with the PlayStation 4 version are present on the Switch. Moving characters around the screen is simple enough, but since the game is 2D, getting characters to go up or down a level can become a pain with a joystick. There were several times when I went up and down the same flight of steps because I could not maneuver the character past them, which can be frustrating if you need to be stealthy in an area, or you need to run away from an enemy. Combat as well, while serviceable, is cumbersome, and consistently created more problems than it solved, so I ended up avoiding it all together.
This War of Mine is almost unbearably dark, and that seems entirely intentional. It is a beautiful, disturbing, bleak game that comments gracefully on the civilians that are abandoned in times of hostilities, similar to the strife and oppression depicted in Children of Men before it. While it may not be easy, it’s an important title that I think everyone should at least try.
This review is based on the Nintendo Switch version of the game. A copy was provided by 11 bit studios.
Save for a few issues with controls, This War of Mine feels right at home on the Nintendo Switch.