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24 November 2014updated 25 Nov 2014 8:56am

This War of Mine: an unflinching game of civilian life and death in a city under siege

Acclaimed survival game This War of Mine gives players the chance to experience the wretched conditions of civilian life in a major city under siege.

By Phil Hartup

Video games are in love with war. It is a love that runs deep, from the battlefields of the big budget mainstream games to those weird little phone efforts where you build armies and invade people, and everywhere in between. Soldiers, weapons, combat, orders, victory – these are the foundations of thousands of games going back decades.

In the world of video games wars make the man. You go to war in a video game, you’re going to see cool stuff, you’re going to kill bad people, you’re going to forge the bestest friendships ever with the most based bros in the world, and when you get back there’ll be flags and orchestral music – because war was hell, but now you are a super warrior man immortalised in history.

Well, usually. There have been some exceptions, some frosty nights in the relationship. The classic Cannon Fodder from 1993 was a sly satire on war and soldiering, and watching your little squad of characters going from a line of eager volunteers to soldiers to graves up on the side of a hill was remarkably poignant for its time. Defcon: Everybody Dies upped the satirical ante by taking aim at the breathtaking stupidity of nuclear warfare. Games start gradually as combatants probe defences, then the missiles exchanges start and, ultimately, all you can really do once the orders have been given is sit back, watch the cities burn and count the millions of dead.

This War of Mine, however, takes a different tack and takes it very effectively. While Defcon and Cannon Fodder are anti-war satires, This War of Mine takes a much more direct route.

The premise is that you control a group of civilians in a war-torn city, the location of which is not stated (though the game is inspired by experiences of those whoe lived through the Seige of Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996). Society in the city has broken down; there are few supplies getting in and your group has to work together to survive for as long as the city remains under siege.

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The game is played in two phases: days and nights. During the day you work on your home – you can build things like beds, stoves, weapons and so on using salvaged materials. You can also cook, rest in order to try to recover from illness or wounds, and sometimes deal with visits from other people in the area who might want to trade, for example. The days are a time for rest and respite in many ways, though the fatigue, hunger and even depression your characters feel lend even these times a bleak quality. There is little in the way of comfort for your group, and even on those rare days when you’ve got everybody fed and healthy and with a bit of time to rest there’s no shaking the feeling that even this modest contentment is only going to be fleeting.

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If your people are to be comfortable during the day, then it is during the night you will have to pay your dues. At night you pick a member of the group to send out to scavenge for supplies and a place for them to go. Those who remain behind can opt to sleep or stand guard. You’re going to want to have somebody stand guard.

Scavenging out in the darkened city is where you will encounter most of the direct dangers the game has to offer. Bands of looters, rebels, soldiers, other survivors trying to protect themselves, these are all potential threats, or sometime allies. You can try to do right by people but this may only work for a while before you find yourself having to harden your heart just to be able to keep your own group alive. You cannot set aside morality completely though. It might be tempting to just take a deep breath and embrace the scavenging as being like a stealth game, kill everybody in your path and take their meagre possessions, but none of the characters  at least that I played the game as – had the sangfroid for that, nor did I. Too much killing, especially when not in self-defence, will upset a character and as a player I can’t say I enjoyed it either.

The game is sparse with its visuals and sound design but effective and this light touch is echoed in the simply yet eloquently written characters. They and their lives feel like they have weight, and by virtue of their ordinariness they feel familiar and believable. At times the problems of incidental characters resonate as strongly as those of the group you control, even if you are only catching a snapshot of them.

What differentiates This War of Mine from the more standard gaming takes on war is that war is not the driving force for individual progress that it is in most games. That is to say your characters don’t gain in experience or skill over time, and the war does not make them better or stronger people. It damages and degrades them, physically and mentally. You don’t want to be a hero – what you want to be is whatever you were before the war.

All this makes This War of Mine a singularly painful experience to play. Playing it can be likened to watching Threads or Come and See, which is to say that it is a very powerful work, easily one of the most emotionally affecting games that I have ever played. But was I entertained? Do I ever want to play it again? No. Not for a long time anyway.

This War of Mine is painful on two levels. The first is that it is, in and of itself, a game full of misery and sadness and suffering. It also serves up this grim stew with an extremely deft touch that you very seldom see in games. For example, when your characters die there is no grand dramatic decision that leads to it, no heroic last stand. Maybe they kill themselves because they lose all hope. Maybe they die of hypothermia. Maybe they are shot down like a dog by another looter over a tin of beans. It is painful and you see it resonate with the other characters and that makes it even worse. By playing death as low key the game again strikes a chilling note of truth.

The second level is that while we can look at a game like Defcon or a film like Threads and say, “well it’s okay because we’re not going to have a nuclear war,” you can’t say that of This War of Mine. Rather than offering the player escapism from their humdrum lives, the game taps loudly on the screen and reminds you curtly that people are suffering right now, while you are sitting playing a video game. It is a game where the humdrum life is the goal. Let’s not kid ourselves the game is a simulation or is realistic – it’s not, nor is it trying to be – but it’s showing us something about the world that we shouldn’t forget.

While I can’t honestly say I enjoyed This War of Mine very much, I have seldom admired a game more. This, right here, this is what a video game as a work of art looks like. Slap a frame on it and stick it in the Tate.