8 years ago, one remarkable indie changed war video games forever
Strong aesthetics and thoughtful soul-searching make this game timeless.
War never changes … but art does. Our grim fascination with the dramatics of war has inspired artists for generations. The themes remain the same: Valor. Sacrifice. Sorrow. Politics. How we experience each has evolved alongside our capacity for storytelling. Today’s Iliad is tomorrow’s Hearts of Iron IV. When we think of war games, we rarely think beyond the billion-dollar shooters. But are there more thoughtful games out there? Do any of them have something new to say?
Yes and yes. This War of Mine from 11 bit studios was released in 2014 to rave reviews for its stark portrayal of civilian life inside a warzone. It eschews action and adventure for a more grounded genre: survival.
The aesthetics are likely the first thing you’ll notice about the game. A dour washed-out palette serves as a visual metaphor for the narrative throughline of the game, which explores the various shades of gray morally and visually. In order to survive a chaotic warzone, ordinary people are faced with tough choices. This War of Mine doesn’t shy away from them, either. Moral dilemmas are front and center with visceral and lasting consequences on display.
Your band of survivors needs a lot of things to maintain some semblance of comfort and safety in their ramshackle shelter. Building materials like wood and machine parts for crafting things like cooking stoves and workbenches. Food and water, obviously. There’s also a need for things like books, cigarettes, and coffee to help your survivors deal with the mental strain and stress of making the best of a bad situation.
So where does morality come in?
Well, all this stuff has to come from somewhere. And rather than populating its world with black and white villainy, This War of Mine tasks you with the choice between scavenging and stealing. Both involve risks. Scavenging involves going to abandoned locations and finding what you can. But be warned, you may not be alone. And just because a site was empty one day doesn’t mean it will be if you go back.
Combat isn’t pretty in This War of Mine. Your survivors are just average people who are growing increasingly desperate. You can fight with your fists or crude homemade weapons or, if you’re lucky, you can find a gun. There’s plenty of stealth involved and the odds are rarely in your favor. Violence is a last resort, at first, but as time moves forward the stakes get higher and the old adage of “only the strong survive” plays out. What this game shows you though is that it's often circumstance more than disposition that drives people to cruelty.
This is where stealing comes in. While scavenging abandoned sites is presented as a more-or-less open playing field, stealing is not. Even the UI reflects this, with scavenging opportunities marked with an open hand icon and stealing with a set of pinched fingers. You need to know when you’re stealing because it affects your characters' morale and mental health, but when weighed against starvation there isn’t much choice, is there?
These aren’t victimless crimes. Far from it. The people you steal from are often there to witness, protest and, occasionally, fight back. Other times they’re truly helpless. An early location has ample supplies, but they belong to a frail elderly couple. Your survivors won’t feel good about taking from them, and neither will you. It's a testament to the game design that moments like these weigh on your conscience. Consider how many NPCs you’ve harmed across all the games you played. You don’t feel anything plowing over crowds on the sidewalk in GTA, but here you will. And sometimes doing the “right” thing carries big consequences.
All of this plays out within a well-crafted survival game system. However you manage to acquire your resources, you’ll put them to use crafting upgrades to your shelter alongside useful tools and items to trade with other survivors. You must manage who gets to sleep, who goes out to scavenge, and who stays behind to guard what’s left. A radio can offer clues about the weather and criminal activity, and also drives the story. Will the war end? Is help on the way? Only time will tell.
This War of Mine is available on PC, Switch, PlayStation, and Xbox. An updated version, This War of Mine: Final Cut, was recently released on Xbox Series X and PS5. It’s also available on Xbox Game Pass.