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February 04, 2015

Notes on This War of Mine

As with any post here, there may be spoilers for games under discussion. Caveat lector. Also, CW: this game is a game about war in an urban environment, and can feature suicide and rape as part of its procedural events, and I will touch on that briefly.

This semester I'm co-teaching a course at Wabash College with my friend and now colleague, Michael Abbott (aka Brainy Gamer). We are both designing and playing games, and so once we've had an opportunity to discuss games in class, I'm going to try and come back here and jot out some notes about what came of that.

If you're unfamiliar with it, This War of Mine¹ takes place in what seems to be an eastern European country, torn by civil war. It presents as a sort of sim game -- you are looking at a cross-section of a burned out house, and you can direct three characters within to perform tasks over the course of the day. Initially, this is simply scrounging for materials within the house, clearing away space, and maybe trying to make a bed so that you can get a bit of rest at night. Once night falls, however, you have the opportunity to send a character out of the house to scavenge at locations marked on an overhead map. The game takes place over about a month of time, and various thematic events can occur.

We had a really great in-class discussion about this game, starting off listing the emotions you feel when playing a blockbuster war shooter (e.g. Call of Duty) and then the mechanics that are characteristic of those games. We did the same for This War of Mine. And then we went and drew lines between the emotions and the mechanics which tended to engender them.

It's encouraging to play a game like This War of Mine, because the emotions that turned up on that side of the blackboard stood in stark contrast to those for the empowering first-person fantasy, despite being ostensibly about the same subject. Fear and anxiety vs. adrenaline. Drudgery vs immediacy. Regret rather than empowerment. But also ingenuity and hope on the This War of Mine side, and really nothing similar or comparable over on the warshooter side.

Mechanically speaking, we spent a lot of time talking about the procedural nature of This War of Mine vs the linear nature of the blockbusters, and that brought about a good discussion of various player stories. Students asked whether I thought that the game explicitly set up situations as a result of earlier encounters -- for example, if you chose to raid for food, that humanitarian aid might come the next day, making you feel guilty and wish that you had waited². We talked about some of the events that students saw in their play: one lost a member of his little band of survivors to suicide via depression, and another witnessed a rape that he tried to interrupt (leading to the character's death, as the rapist was a heavily armed soldier).

All of this brought us over to talk a little bit about complicity in games, how mechanics and thematic elements can teach us to do things of which we may not be proud in retrospect, even in a safe space like this. In the example above, the risk of intervention was brought home in a mechanical way that might lead to a player making a very different choice on a subsequent playthrough. It's also fair to reflect, though, that This War of Mine doesn't explicitly set goals, not even of survival -- a reasonable approach to play would be to maintain a moral stance even in the face of the horror of war, and to prefer death to a degradation of one's moral principles. The goal of survival is one the player implicitly brings to the game, but it's not necessarily required of you.

On the whole, a very interesting game and one I'm very glad I played, as disturbing as the subject matter can be. War is a failure, but This War of Mine is most definitely not.

¹Developed by Polish developer 11 Bit Studios. I played it via Steam, it's also available on the Mac App Store and other venues.

²For what it's worth, I suspect that it's random. I feel like we maybe should have explored this part of it a little bit more -- would one feel differently about the game if one knew one was being explicitly manipulated in this way rather than such outcomes happening as a result of systems?

Posted by Brett Douville at February 4, 2015 09:45 AM