This War of Mine

Developed by 11bit Studios. Published by 11bit Studios. Releases Late 2014. Available on PC, OS X. Demo version provided by 11bit Studios.

When I first saw the trailer for This War of Mine, I found myself particularly interested in this indie game being created by Anomaly developer 11bit Studios, especially since it felt very much like it could be the first game in recent memory to approach the issues surrounding war from a different perspective. Anyone who’s paid attention to world news and the unfortunate situations in the Middle East knows that war is complex, with many repercussions for those directly or indirectly involved. Unfortunately, most games that touch on the topic of warfare have a tendency to sanitize the whole experience, in part because they limit you to a single viewpoint (typically that of a soldier). I was excited to see that someone was attempting to look at armed conflict from a different angle than what we’ve now seen ad nauseum.

For those of you who may be hearing about this for the first time, This War of Mine is a survival game that takes place in a fictional city, caught in the middle of a civil war between government forces and separatists. The ideology of either side isn’t an important part of the game (at least in the demo I played), as your primary focus is on keeping a small group of civilians alive until the conflict ends – something that, even in the real world, won’t happen quickly or easily. Your band of survivors comes from various walks of life – some with special skills that may come in handy – but they’re all regular people, rather than soldiers. They’re more interested in staying healthy and getting a good night’s sleep somewhere safe versus calling in an airstrike on an enemy bunker.

We’ve done a few preview pieces on the game before, but recently, 11bit gave us a chance to check out a limited press build of the game to see how it’s evolved over the past few months. I jumped at the opportunity to check it out and see firsthand how exactly the game would treat the complex matter of being a neutral party in a war-torn city, and kept track of my choices in a notebook.

Day 1

Pavle, one of my civilians.

I start the game briefly introduced to the three civilians I’d be trying to keep alive for the next fortnight; Bruno, Marko and Pavle, each featuring a trait such as “Good Cook” or “Fast Runner.” I skim through their biographies (some are still placeholders), but in regards to Pavle, I get a glimpse into who he was before this war broke out – a professional football player and a local celebrity, although now he’s separated from his family and just hoping to make it day to day. I chalk it up to his good health as to why Pavle starts off the game in good shape; Bruno apparently got himself injured before arriving at this shelter and Marko is starting to feel sick – a dangerous sign, given the lack of any semblance of actual medical care in a city full of snipers and homeless refugees.

The house these three have moved into is in rough shape, and the first order of the day is to clear out the rubble and see if there’s anything useful stashed away. Searching through some cabinets and lockers, I managed to scrounged up a good starting pile of food, medicines, and building materials that I’ll undoubtedly need in the days ahead. Unfortunately, some of the rooms in this house are locked, and since I don’t have the means yet to open them (lock picks and crowbars are items you can build later on), I’ll have to hope I won’t need whatever’s hidden away in them for a while.

When night comes around, it’s time for what is probably the important task in This War of Mine – sending out someone to scavenge for supplies. A map comes up showing the local area around your shelter, along with a handful of places that are open to explore and some basic details on what kind of supplies are likely to be there. There’s also info on whether there may be other people around, for good or for ill; it’s a war torn city, after all, and not everyone is likely to be friendly. You’re limited to sending a single person out to scavenge at a time, and the civilians that stay behind either sleep or take up guard duty in the hopes of warding off anyone that might come poking around.

Although he’s a little sick, I send out Marko as his main trait is that he’s a skilled scavenger, and can carry more items in his pack than either Bruno or Pavle. I pick a nearby cottage as my first stop, only to find that is actually partially on fire when Marko arrives. I briefly wonder if this might not have been a good choice – I know from earlier experience with this game that encounters with other people can be troublesome, but I’m not sure if environmental hazards are something you’d have to worry about. Luckily, the place stays together as I guide Marko around and look through the place for goodies. I prioritize food and medicine, but grab some building materials like wood and components just to make the most of my visit. If the place shows up again, I’ll make another supply run to grab what I had to leave behind, but I’m happy with what I’ve managed to grab so far.

Day 2

With a good haul from scavenging and some supplies to spare, I give Marko some medication in the hopes it’ll help take care of his minor illness before it becomes a problem. I have enough food to feed everyone at least one meal for the next few days, but since I’ve just about gathered up everything of use in my shelter (at least, everything that’s not locked up), there’s not much else for my civilians to do other than wait for the sun to go down.

Marko explores more of the burning cottage.

I am fortunate to have enough spare wood and components to build a bed, which Marko makes use of as soon as it’s ready. Fatigue is a major problem in This War of Mine, if your civilians sleep poorly or not enough, they move slower and take longer to work on projects (if they don’t outright refuse due to exhaustion). I’m not sure if it’ll also make them more susceptible to injury or getting sick, but I opt not to take the risk.

That night, I send Marko out to the cottage from earlier, still burning slowly but thankfully intact enough for him to grab another backpack full of wood, components and scrap metal. I do encounter someone else picking through the rubble for supplies, though – a small rat that first appeared as a pulsing red blip as it moved through a nearby room Noise levels are indicated as ripples that flow from its source, and paying close attention to where these ripples are can help you get an idea if you’re alone in a location or if you’re about to run into other people. If you’re not careful, though, you can alert others to your location as well. You can imagine the small relief I felt that Marko’s first encounter out exploring was with something relatively harmless.

Raided.

Day 3

The third day dawns with some bad news. While Marko was away, the shelter was raided. Thankfully, nothing was taken, but the unwelcome guests managed to wound Bruno and Pavle. In a spin of good fortune, though, a man named Franko, lugging a backpack full of gear and food, knocks on our front door offering to trade. I take the opportunity to get rid of some random jewelry I found while clearing out the shelter along with a huge supply of sugar (useful in making crude alcohol, but lacking a distillery it’s just taking up space) in exchange for some canned food and bandages. It’s a rough deal, I’m sure; Franko carried weapon parts, lock picks, and many more items I’m sure would be great to have down the road, but I had to focus on what my civilians needed right now – lots of band-aids and food – and since no one in my party had the chops for negotiation, I had to take whatever Franko offered.

With the day coming to a close, I construct another bed and send Pavle out to pick up the last few useful items left behind at the cottage.

Day 4

My crew is getting much more substantial rest now that I have multiple beds. With plenty of materials at hand, I construct a new stove for Bruno to use to cook up more nutritious meals for the group as well as a knife for self-defense. I’d rather have a pistol, but I lack the majority of the materials I’d need to upgrade my workbenches to that level.

Arica, a civilian seeking to join my group.

As the day goes by, we have another visitor – This time a young woman named Arica – asking for shelter in exchange for help with scavenging and maintaining the shelter. Judging by her bio she’s particularly streetwise and is a very stealthy individual. It’s a tough choice – it’d be another mouth to feed and a possible drain on resources if she moves in only to get sick or injured a day later.

But on the other hand, it’d be good to have someone skilled at sneaking around if I need to check out a more dangerous area or if Marko’s unavailable. I risk it and invite her to join the group, setting her up to make some fuel for our new stove.

When night comes around, I send Marko out to check a nearby garage. It’s chock full of building materials – scrap metal, wood, etc. – but it’s also guarded by a young man and his father. The young man yells out to Marko that if he has meds to trade, he’d be willing to talk – otherwise leave before things get ugly. I decide to leave with what few resources I’ve found and come back later.

Day 5

We were raided again in the night, but given that we had an actual weapon to wave around, the intruders backed off without much incident. Sadly, though, even if they didn’t make off with anything, our food and water supplies are drastically low. Using the last bits of construction materials I had the group build a rainwater collector and some filters for it. I also had Pavle build a radio – at first a seemingly unhelpful item that wouldn’t do much more than maybe keep up morale, but after fiddling around with it I came across a news station providing an update on the war, as well as a weather station that detailed info that a cold front was moving in – I’d have to soon start worrying about keeping my crew warm on top of well-rested and fed.

Franko the trader came back again, and I offered up some more jewelry and some “herbal” medication that I didn’t quite trust to keep my crew healthy. I picked up some more food, though not nearly as much as I’d like. I have maybe enough for one meal for each of my four civilians for the next day, but after that, they’ll have to tough it out until Marko finds some or I can trade for it later.

I sent Marko back to the garage to trade with the man living there, and picked up some canned food out of the deal, which, despite having to give up some valuable medical resources, at least will help keep my group fed for another day. After rummaging around for some more scrap, I sent Marko home.

Trading with Franko.

Day 6

With the weather potentially getting cold in the next few days, I constructed a heater in the basement of the house and turned some scavenged books into fuel. The radio says that an intervention to stop the fighting and bring relief to the city is likely, but didn’t say when. I’m not sure how’d that play out in-game, but I’d hope that if any supplies did come into the city, I’d be able to get some for my crew.

With food supplies very low, I sent Marko out to pick the abandoned parts of the garage clean. In exploring the area, I came across where the man and his father were hiding. Peeking through the door, I could see that the father limped around, still wounded, and it looked like they had more than a few cabinets that most likely had a ton of food. As hungry as my group would be in the next day or two, I’m not sure I was in so dire a strait to risk fighting this guy and his dad for an extra meal, so I chose to leave them alone.

Maybe I’d get lucky and could find something to trade with them again?

Arica tries to avoid being noticed.

Day 7

With a surplus of materials, I took the time to upgrade my workbench, hopefully to good effect. I now had the option of building a garden, traps, and makeshift barricades to place over the giant holes in the house that raiders were using to get in. I placed a trap in the basement to try and capture some small animals and crossed fingers that it’d solve my food problem now that the last of it was eaten up.

At night I took a gamble and sent Arica on her first foray into the city for supplies, setting my sights on a cluster of houses that potentially had tons of food hidden within – but may also contain hostile inhabitants. I hoped her quiet nature would keep Arica in one piece while she looked around. Scouting around, I came across several other civilians, talking in angered whispers about other scavengers they had to drive off – apparently fatally. Not wanting to join them, I kept Arica to the shadows, picking up a few vegetables hidden away on the ground floor. I was tempted to press on further and check out the other house but given that a man with a very imposing shotgun was standing guard over a balcony nearby I figured I’d better call it a night.

But as I tried to guide Arica out quietly, there was the loud “bang!” and she toppled to the ground. Out of the shadows, the man with the shotgun appeared, yelling something at Arica that I didn’t quite bother to read as I clicked frantically, trying to get Arica out of harm’s way. I managed to get the stunned but not seriously wounded Arica to climb up the side of the house to the roof, and thankfully her pursuer lost track of where she went fairly quickly. Taking a minute to wait until those dark red blips signifying the gunner’s footsteps disappeared to the other side of the house, I clicked the exit icon and made Arica dash for the home. I definitely wasn’t going to risk coming back here again.

Day 8

While Arica was out, we ended up getting raided again, but we didn’t lose anything to the bandits. However, both our guards, Pavle and Bruno, were seriously wounded in the melee. I didn’t have enough bandages for both, so I opted to patch up Bruno, our cook, since he could help make sure what little food we had left would last the longest. I didn’t have any resources to build anything, unfortunately, so my crew ended up resting and hanging out by the radio. Half-way through the day, a woman came to the front door, and at first I thought someone else wanted to try and join the shelter. But interestingly enough, this woman actually wanted our help – her husband had gone off to look for food days ago, and she needed someone to help guard her home and her daughter. I don’t know for sure what kind of reward could’ve come out of it other than good karma, so I sent Pavle over to help. Although in rough shape, chances are he’d probably get some food out of it for the day or two he was gone, and that’d help free up the few meals I had in storage for the rest of the crew.

Marko and the Old Woman.

Marko went out again to salvage, this time at another nearby house that was rumored to have plenty of food. Upon arriving, I quickly learned that there was an elderly couple living there, quietly, with the wife sitting in a chair with her husband next to a burning fire. I poked my head in and the husband immediately confronted me, asking me to leave him alone and asking why I was there. I didn’t have the ability to respond or the chance to initiate any trade, much to my chagrin, so I walked past the man and looked around to see the layout of the house. The old man followed me and kept asking my intentions, while in the background, the old woman kept asking where her husband was. Things quickly became even more uncomfortable when I poked around their kitchen and found a huge stash of food and goods, and realized it’d be particularly easy to just grab a bunch and leave – the old man probably wouldn’t put up a fight.

As I was weighing the options, the old man started begging me not to kill him. At that point I figured what I was doing probably wasn’t as mentally healthy an idea as I thought it was. I was pretty desperate for food, but it didn’t feel right taking anything from this elderly couple that was just trying to keep to themselves. I guided Marko to the exit, grabbing a few bits of wood from a pile of junk outside their front door.

Day 9

Despite not robbing the elderly couple blind, my food problems ended up getting solved, if only for a little while. The trap I placed yielded some chunks of raw meat, which I tasked Bruno with cooking while the rest of the crew boarded up the house to ward off looters. I’m running low on building materials, but at least with the trap working I have a way to bring in some food on a daily basis, even if it’s only a meal or two for my civilians.

Marko returned to the streets again, this time checking out a “decrepit squat” that was loaded up with tons of building materials but not much else. There was a homeless man living there begging for food, but didn’t bother Marko any more than that. I wondered if he had anything he could offer in exchange for a meal, but since you only get to make one trip to scavenge per night, I couldn’t double back to my house for food and return later. I make a mental note to try later if I’m lucky enough to spare anything for this guy.

The trap in the basement.

Day 10

My hopes the trap would keep my crew fed fell short, as it’s simply not bringing in enough food per day to give everyone a good meal. I didn’t have the resources – or the bait – to build another trap, so when Franko came around to trade again, I gave up what little I could spare (scrap metal, random herbs and cigarettes, ammo for guns I didn’t have) for a few more meals as well as some medical supplies to patch up my crew as best as I could. Despite having enough water and a way to bring in some food automatically, my group of civilians is barely scraping by day to day.

In a gamble, I brought my last canned food item to the homeless man, who in exchange showed us a stash of moonshine (useful for trade and for making sterile bandages) and some more jewelry that Marko could freely take. Not all that useful at the moment, but as long as Franko showed up later, I could definitely trade them for some more food or medication.

Day 11

With the building materials salvaged from the decrepit house, I decided to upgrade my stove, making it more efficient at cooking up meals through using less fuel. The trap provided another small bounty of meals, which Bruno cooked up eagerly. I’m still awfully low on meds, which could be a major concern if anyone else on my team gets injured by looters.

Guard Tower/Trading Post.

Since Franko didn’t come by today and Pavle’s still out, I load up Marko with anything I think might be good to trade and sent him out to a military outpost that was also rumored to be a trading post at night when the shooting stopped. It felt like a really dangerous prospect – after all, the radio I built earlier had some warnings about civilians being killed when trying to approach military positions – but when I arrived, the location was little more than a guard tower and a hooded figure standing ominously by a door with a button underneath indicating he’d be the one to bargain with. I traded all the extra bits I had that I didn’t think I’d need – bullets, weapon parts, electronic parts – and managed to procure a ton of canned foods, but as soon as the transaction was over, the hooded man told me to leave. Given how heavily armed the soldier in the guard tower was, I took the advice and bailed. Maybe I could come back to trade later, but they certainly weren’t too friendly.

Day 12

Pavle came back, well fed but still wounded, and the radio warned of colder days ahead. I gathered up some more food from my trap in the basement, securing at least another day’s worth of meals for my group. I’m completely out of meds, but no one’s injured or sick for now. With nothing left to build or do for my team, I sped up time to the end of the day. At this point the press demo of This War of Mine abruptly ended and returned me to the title screen, leaving me with a bunch of scribbled notes and a few things to ponder with my short time playing the game.

The End For Now

My first thoughts were “Well, that wasn’t so bad”, but I had to remind myself that this was only the first week or so in a game about long-term survival in a horrible situation. Although I was keeping my people alive day to day and making progress in getting some sustainable ways of harvesting food going, I could definitely see the situations in which one wrong move could have sent things spiraling out of control. Keeping my group fed wasn’t as hard as I had expected, but I was giving away and trading items that could have been useful weeks down the line if the game went on longer. If raiders randomly showed up and actually managed to steal something important, like food or fuel, I’d be hard pressed to quickly replace those items. I also didn’t have the resources to heal up my group quickly if anyone became injured, and was lucky no one became really sick, given how rare medications were. There certainly were opportunities to fix those problems – I could have easily stolen everything that elderly couple had of value – but I wasn’t desperate enough just yet to do so.

When I ran into the elderly couple, I could definitely see a few instances where some of the gameplay’s features didn’t quite work in their current form – most notably how you interact with the people you meet. I would have very much liked to speak to the elderly couple and offer to trade with them like I had with the man in the garage, or even offer them shelter in my house in exchange for everything they had, but no options for dialogue were available. Like the house with the hostile man toting a shotgun; I would’ve appreciated the chance to try to talk my way out of that fight or even avoid it all together by speaking to him from a distance to see if it was okay to approach.

Fuck the war.

I also wasn’t sure how morale played a part in the overall game. As mentioned in Carly Smith’s preview from E3 earlier this year, characters can become depressed and refuse to help out if other survivors die, and it’s not too far of a stretch to assume other factors, like fatigue or suffering injury, would further add to your group’s emotional distress. In game, I did see that I could build chairs, guitars, and other luxury items that promised to keep my group in good spirits, but I also didn’t see the need to waste resources building them. Keeping my group fed and well rested seemed to be all they needed. It is true This War of Mine doesn’t exactly have an obvious endgame, though, so it may have been an area of concern as the days turn into weeks turn into possibly months (or even years).

This War of Mine is still a ways off from a full launch with no solid release date (other than a nebulous “TBA 2014”), so it’s possible that many of these issues will be addressed in the final version of the game, especially those of character interaction. As I said in the beginning, there have been so few games that have ever approached the subject of what war does to a society, let alone those that discuss what it’s like to live as a bystander in such trying times. I’ll have to hope that This War of Mine will offer something substantial to think about in that regard.

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