Should video games always be fun?
On the surface, that question sounds ridiculous. Historically, they’ve always been entertainment, diversions from the real world. Of course they’re intended to be fun.
The notion of games that could impact their players in different ways is a relatively recent one, and even now, the vast majority of them still opt for thrills over thoughtfulness. Even games that deal with the ugliest slices of human nature have been turned into lucrative amusements, a state of affairs that we rarely if ever question.
Warsaw-based 11 bit studios is ready to challenge that thinking with This War of Mine. Inspired by the real experiences of regular people who have survived during times of armed conflict, it’s about as far from the Call of Duty or Battlefield depiction of war as it’s possible to get – which is precisely the point.
“It’s a game about surviving war as a civilian, so we show the war from a different perspective than video games usually do.” managing director Grzegorz Miechowski said to Gamezebo at PAX East.” You usually play video games as a soldier. That’s entertainment, and I’m fine with that. But we have to remember that in real life, war is not fun.”
The impetus for this approach came from the diaries of a man who lived through the ethnic conflicts of the early 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. Those bloody battles were being waged just a few hours from Poland, where life went on in its familiar patterns.
Reading firsthand accounts of what people were going through just a few hundred miles away proved a sobering exercise for the 11 bit team, and a little digging found that the tales from war-torn Yugoslavia were hardly unique.
“In the 90s, at the same time when people were really dying and trying to survive, we were in Warsaw just working, going to school and playing video games,” Miechowski said. “So we were starting to think more about what civilians do to survive war, and we found out that it’s quite similar. It doesn’t matter what armies are fighting. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Europe, Asia or America. It’s quite a universal experience.”
That knowledge enables This War of Mine to fulfill its intended role without depicting any specific conflict. It’s not intended to be a war simulator, and the developers intentionally left out any references to real world locations or events.
The setting could be anywhere, a point driven home by the speed with which chaos has enveloped parts of Ukraine – which as Miechowski reminds me, is right next to Poland. The game’s title screen has just one option to begin play, which is “Survive.” Doing this is the game’s only goal, though its simplicity of purpose shouldn’t be confused with ease of execution.
Players control a group of civilians because banding together is a necessity when war is right outside the door.
“You cannot survive on your own as just a single guy,” Miechowski said. “This is the same as what people have said; you have to be within a team, or even better if you are family. If you try to survive on your own, you can’t do that, because other guys will come and kill you to grab all valuable items you have.”
A few of the most vital and immediate needs are food, fresh water and antibiotics. Some additional staples of daily life can be crafted by party members with the proper skills, while others will need to be acquired. That could mean bartering with other survivors or scavenging other nearby locations – but only at night, since that’s when it’s safe to go out.
“Usually in games, day is safe and night is dangerous,” Miechowski said. “Here it’s opposite because that’s what people say. During the day, you should not leave your home, you should not leave your shelter because soldiers are out and snipers are out. So usually people stay at home in the day and go out at night to scavenge, or for trading or stealing things.”
Stealing isn’t something most people would do without weighing the consequences, yet it’s just one of the moral dilemmas inherent in This War of Mine. Is a moral code still important when society has broken down, or is it a luxury that can’t be afforded when the stakes are life and death? The game doesn’t judge or provide any guidance, forcing players to decide for themselves.
Ethical waters become muddier when it comes to encounters with other survivors. Fellow civilians could be valuable sources of information or trading partners. Or they could simply be eyeing the player’s team and waiting to take their stuff.
Nighttime gameplay brings feelings of uncertainty to the forefront when party members can search other buildings for supplies. Even if something useful is located, there’s no guarantee its rightful owners aren’t nearby. Scavengers can try remaining undetected, but that road is tense: a sound from upstairs could be an inhabitant, a rat or simply the wind rattling through an open window.
Hands-on time with an early build of the game reveals a subtle sense of urgency to every task. Team members get hungry and irritable fast, and there’s only so much everyone can get done in one day. At night, even in relative safety, there are still important choices to be made, like making sure someone is guarding the shelter while others are out scavenging.
The developers promise that the anonymous war does end. Surviving for a month might bring word that hostilities have ceased, leaving people free to try to reassemble the pieces of their former lives. There’s still replay value because every new game randomizes the starting team composition and the time of year – and coping with the bitter cold during the winter can make everything more difficult.
And since the journey in this game is infinitely more significant than the destination, there’s also an uncomfortable truth waiting at the end.
“In this game, it’s really hard to say that you are a winner,” Miechowski said. “Even if you survive the war, it might mean that along the way, you lost some of your team members. Maybe you killed somebody, maybe you stole and were a thief many times. So it’s not to say that you are really a winner, you just experience trying to survive.”
This War of Mine isn’t finished yet, and 11 bit is attempting to add even more trying situations to the finished product. The developers still want more internal conflict, more emotion.
“That’s another layer we are working on, and I hope we’ll manage to put them in the game,” Miechowski said. “It’s not an easy thing, but I believe this language of video games has developed enough to do something like this.”
One can’t help but circle back around to something he said earlier: “In real life, war is not fun.” If video games have come as far as 11 bit thinks they have, the time is probably right for a game about war that isn’t fun either.