Critical Intel

Critical Intel
This War of Mine: War As A Marathon

Robert Rath | 29 May 2014 16:00
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This War of Mine

"Here we are talking about mechanics," says Miechowski. "The real focus is on facing really heavy emotional decisions."

That's where the real-life survivors' stories come into play - while many games contain resource management in a shattered world, This War of Mine is about managing people and what - or who - you're willing to sacrifice for survival. And based on what Miechowski says, it goes beyond the "who gets the food," problem from The Walking Dead. Everything is a cost-benefit analysis. You might find a lone survivor who's seeking shelter, but decide that taking them in is too risky. A larger group can defend itself better than a small one, but will require more supplies and make itself a higher-profile target for gangs or the army. There will also be people in your shelter that consume, but give nothing in return, making you question whether they're worth feeding. And when the supplies run out, will you steal from your neighbor, making their children starve so yours can eat? If it comes to it, would you kill them? Miechowski promises that these are the problems players will face in This War of Mine, and each decision will have consequences.

It's an interesting prospect. Up until now, games about war have been about conquest, achieving objectives and winning. This War of Mine points out that victims of conflict fight as well, but to endure. It's war as a marathon, where the struggle is to keep going even though every step brings more pain and fatigue.

And a game like that can't have the traditional notions of winning and losing we associate with videogames. While death still retains its place as the ultimate failure state, players may outlive the war only to find themselves looking back on what it cost them.

"The feelings of the 'winner' may be bitter," says Miechowski. "Do you win if you lost your friends? Do you win if you had to sacrifice others just so you could [live]?" While survival is the goal, he stresses, "winning" may actually mean being able to stomach the choices you made. It's a lofty aim, and Miechowski admits that it'll take effort to attain. "We're aware that it's very difficult to create this emotional level."

If the game achieves what 11 Bit has set out to do, it will be something to see. Though I've personally yet to play the game, even discussing its mechanics raises questions about modern war and how games portray it. For example, in This War of Mine civilian survivors carry guns for self-defense. That inherently means the game will deal with one of the questions that's tortured militaries in the age of counterinsurgency - the blurring line between civilians and combatants. In modern warzones, an armed individual in civilian clothing could variously be an insurgent blending with the population, an ally from the local militia, a spy or an ordinary civilian trying to safeguard his home, and troops often don't know until they're fired on. There are also legal and ethical questions involved: if a civilian returns fire while being unlawfully targeted by soldiers, is he a combatant, or simply exercising his right of self-defense? Though there are laws that govern these situations, the morality of a given incident can include large grey areas, and This War of Mine seems poised to explore them.

That's a crucial message, especially in a time when urban warfare seems increasingly the norm in world conflict. Multiple U.S. Army think tanks recently started investigating how it will deal with conflicts of the future, focusing on fighting in densely populated megacities littered with drones, cyber-threats and civilians that are tweeting their every location.

And of course, world events keep making a game like this more and more relevant. The 11 Bit team has been monitoring reports about civilian conditions in Syria. And across the border from Poland, Ukraine's fate still hangs on the question of whether the country will descend into further internal conflict, escalated by the Russian intervention. Even as this article goes to press, Ukrainian troops are battling pro-Russian separatists at the Donetsk airport. 11 Bit Studios is watching with white knuckles, well aware of how civilians will suffer if the crisis develops into a full-scale civil war.

"I just wish it doesn't happen," says Miechowski. "Not because Poland is Ukraine's neighbor, but because war is the worst demon that people could see."

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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