There are plenty of games available where you play as a soldier of war. Points are given for killing and the more spectacular the kill, the better. There’s an entire genre of games, first person shooters, dedicated to slaughtering NPCs and other players. So how would you feel about a game where you play the casualties of war instead?

Parts of the world are pretty shitty at the moment. Just have a look at Wikipedia’s long list of ongoing armed conflicts. On the top of the list, with more than 10,0001 deaths per year, we find these four: The war in Afghanistan, the Boko Haram insurgency, the Syrian civil war and the Iraqi civil war. You don’t hear too much about these conflicts in the news, with the exception of Boko Haram, which is a really hot media potato right now. In that case, you also hear quite a bit about how the conflict affects the civilian population.

For those of us who have never experienced war – and that is most of us – it’s hard to even try to imagine what it’s like being a civilian in any of these conflicts. But now it might be possible to get a very remote idea. This War of Mine is the title of a self-published survival game by 11 bit studios, who tries to show you what being stuck in the middle of a war zone might be like. Do they succeed?

In This Was of Mine you start out with three playable characters in a fairly spacious shelter located in a war-torn city, supposedly inspired by Sarajevo during the 1992-96 siege of the city. Snipers are preventing you from going outside during the day, which you will use to craft tools from gathered materials, trade with a traveling salesman, upgrade the shelter, cook food and heal the survivors. You’re desperately low on supplies and there are only two ways of getting them: Either search your shelter or go out at night to find what you need. The first option is the easiest one, but what you’ll find is very limited, so you soon have to venture into the city to find supplies. You’ll do what you feel is necessary to survive: Steal medication from an old couple? Smash a guy’s brains in with a shovel for his food? Or perhaps some friendly trading is more your style? It’s up to you, but the goal of the game is simple: Survive the war.

I started out with Bruno, a good cook, Katia, who had bargaining skills, and Pavle, a fast runner. Pavle was great for scavenging, since his running skills could get him quickly out of trouble. Unfortunately for Pavle, it turned out he was unable to outrun bullets and his scavenging days ended too early after being shot by rebels while trying to get away with their food. This left the scavenging to Katia, who did quite well, bringing back enough supplies to keep both her and Bruno the cook happy.

After a while, there was a knock on the door. Outside stood poor Emilia who begged Bruno for permission to come inside. He let her inside without checking her skills, which turned out to be a bad move. Emilia was a good accountant, and who needs that during war time? No one, that’s who2. So I sent Emilia out to scavenge semi-detached house the next night. She was promptly shot and killed, and Katia once again became head of the shelter’s Scavenging Dept. After a few days, Marin knocked on the door. This time, Bruno actually checked if the person in need of sanctuary could be useful. Marin was a handyman, and he was welcomed with open arms.

Life in the shelter was good. There was plenty of food, the coffee was hot, there was firewood in the heater and Bruno had his precious cigarettes. But it would not stay this good forever, as Katia had almost cleared the entire city of supplies. How long would the war last? I was sure I’d read somewhere that the war would end after 31 days, so on the last night I took a chance with Katia during her nightly adventures. Sadly, this got her killed.

It turned out the war doesn’t end after 31 days. When it ends is a bit random and people are reporting as early as day 26 and as late as day 45. Katia’s death hit both Marin and Bruno pretty hard and none of them had much luck scavenging. And from there on, everything went downhill quickly. After a few days they got into a fight that severely injured Bruno. Without any bandages to tend his wounds, Bruno slowly bled to death over the course of a couple of days. A guy named Anton was for some reason welcomed into the shelter. He was an old, pretty beat up mathematician, who only leeched food without contributing anything useful. A few days after Bruno’s death, Marin – now sad and broken – left the shelter with all the useful supplies. This left Anton to slowly wither by himself until he finally died on day 35.

Fuck the war. And fuck you, Marin!

Even though you might have more luck than I did on my first play-through and beat This War of Mine, there’s no reason to delete the game. Each play-through will give you a slightly different experience: You can start with different characters, the time of year you start might differ and the locations you can scavenge will be somewhat different. Don’t get me wrong, each play-through will also be very much the same, but there is enough variation to keep you going for a while.

So, is 11 bit studios able to accurately show the fortunate of us what it’s like being stuck in a city under siege? For me, it’s impossible to really tell since I have no real point of reference. What I take away from the game is that war is hell, I hope I never experience it, and to survive you have to be very, very cynical.

But I think I knew all that before I started playing.

Update, 2015-04-29: Since I wrote this review, developer 11 bit studios has updated the game with a scenario editor, a character editor, two new locations and two new music tracks. And all that for free, not as a paid DLC, expansion pack or something similar. Great effort, but I’ve not been able to test the new features, so these new additions have not been considered in this review.

Footnotes

  1. FTFA: Fatality figures include battle-related deaths (military and civilian) as well as civilians intentionally targeted by the parties to an armed conflict. Only direct deaths resulting from violence are included for the current and past year; excess deaths indirectly resulting from famine, disease and disruption of services are included along with violent deaths only in the cumulative fatalities count, when available.
  2. This makes me ponder about my own usefulness in a world that This War of Mine portray. Who needs a computer engineer during war time? No one, that’s who…