In my work as a videogame reviewer, there’s a modifier I use when trying to explain why something is good: “for a game.” When writing about The Last of Us, specifically the Left Behind DLC, I’ll say it has great writing, “for a game.” When talking about Hotline Miami, or Spec Ops, or anything else that takes a nuanced approach to violence, I’ll say it’s sophisticated, mature and introspective, “for a game.”
This War of Mine doesn’t need that modifier. It simply is sophisticated, nuanced, mature – it simply is worth people’s time. “For a game” is a way of defending the typically shallow writing and backwards sensibilities in a lot of videogames, a way of ingratiating a title to non-gaming readers by explaining that while it isn’t truly fantastic, compared to its contemporaries, it’s pretty impressive – it’s what Stewart Lee would call “the tallest dwarf.” But This War of Mine doesn’t need that kind of backhanded defense. It doesn’t need to be modest. It is intelligent, compassionate and narrative. I wouldn’t be embarrassed to recommend it to someone who dislikes videogames, and spends most of their leisure time reading novels. Along with Actual Sunlight and Depression Quest, This War of Mine stands as one of the three examples, in my experience, of games that are legitimately worthwhile. Played in isolation from its peers, or even the other war games which it deftly undermines, This War of Mine is an incredible piece of work. This is not just an important game – it’s an important cultural artifact, something which should be experienced without shame, and studied in earnest.
This War of Mine has pretensions of documentation. Though it’s set in a fictional place, ravaged by a fictional war, the names of characters and the Cyrillic rock music echo the Yugoslav Wars, specifically the Siege of Sarajevo. There’s a sense of reality. Food items are not simply found and consumed – players must take time to prepare and cook them, using equipment which has likewise been built and maintained. Characters have to sleep, drink, smoke. Warmth is a factor also, especially when the seasons change, and you’re increasingly confronted with difficult, though never spectacular, decisions, such as deciding whether to burn your book collection to keep the stove alight.
These small dramas save This War of Mine from gratuitousness, and separate it from the overwrought, “survivesploitation” found in games like The Walking Dead and DayZ. The tough decisions you’re faced with are not “which of your friends will you kill to save the other?” or “can you chop off a person’s arm to save the rest of their body?” They’re much more human. Who gets to eat the one remaining hot meal? What are more important, cigarettes or coffee beans? Will you use the radio to listen to classical music or rock? If you have to steal, will you take what you need or all you can get? These are micro choices which ultimately don’t have a massive affect on your game. Everyone getting a hot meal is nice, but their “Hunger” stat can be equally satisfied with canned and raw food. Classical music makes your situation seem more melancholic, but has no adverse results on mechanics or characters.
The Walking Dead, by contrast, will tell when you’ve made a significant choice, firing pop-ups that say “John will remember you shared your food” or “Peter will remember you sided against him.” Systematising decision making like this, either overtly or discretely, turns the player’s humanity – his emotional engagement – into something calculated and dispassionate. His personality becomes less urgent, and more like a kind of input, which resolutely changes how the game works. That makes the decisions feel empty, and more like strategies than emotional responses. And that dynamic, combined with the presence of zombies, the gratuitous violence, and the strained fascination with every character’s suffering, makes The Walking Dead feel very pointed and on the nose. This War of Mine, by contrast, plays down the impact of your decision. A wrong call can foster bad results, but the game remains ambivalent – it never prompts you to consider or reflect upon your behaviour. In short, it lets you breathe. Feelings of pessimism or optimism in This War of Mine aren’t provoked by pop-ups or dialogue, or some marked effort on the behalf of the writers to make you FEEL. You either engage with it don’t. It doesn’t work for you, doesn’t tell you how to think, feel or act. Again, it’s immodest – it’s confident in its own material and respectful of its players.
The Walking Dead, along with basically every other “serious” or “mature” videogame, is like a sitcom with a laugh track. It might not go so far as to tell you what to feel, but it tells you when to feel – it’s boastful about its bigger dramatic moments. This War of Mine on the other hand doesn’t manufacture or gamify emotions. It doesn’t reduce the complexities of human emotional response into snipped mechanical feedback. The nicest parts of the game are when I get warm food for everyone, and after eating, they sit around in armchairs while one of them plays the guitar. Never does anything appear on-screen saying “you made the group happy” or “music makes this all seem a little better.” Moments stand alone, unremarked upon. They simply are Moments, uncalculated instances of expression and humanity. Just as This War of Mine doesn’t need to be contextualised with the “for a game” modifier, it also doesn’t need to quantify the results of your actions, doesn’t need to justify these small human moments with added gameplay benefits. And that draws you closer to your characters. These aren’t computational avatars, whom you are topping up and maintaining using various gameplay inputs. You want to see them happy because it makes you happy – you want them to sit and eat and play together because you understand that, in their situation, it’s what they want.
This War of Mine is an outlet for raw, unprompted emotion. It doesn’t feel the need to pander or patronise, or excuse either its uplifting or bleak moments. This isn’t a game where everything is quantified and qualified in relation to its benefit to the player and the reaching of a conclusion. It’s a game that you simply do, a story that you simply experience. It’s unbridled by petty notions of what a videogame should or shouldn’t be, and, despite its reputation as a response to Call of Duty, disinterested in other examples from the medium. It’s confident. It’s its own thing. It’s urgent and personal and uncompromising, in the same way as a truly great book. Forget videogames. The level of bravery and intelligence behind This War of Mine is staggering, for any work of art.