Video games have a long history with war. We’re obsessed with the idea of war, the illusion of battle and the fantasy of heroism, and games are a perfect vehicle for this fiction. Call of Duty, Metal of Honor, Battlefield, and a seemingly endless line of other action games attempt to throw us into the fight, but there’s an incredibly disingenuous mentality to them.
As gamers, we see war as a grand delusion created by Michael Bay or, worse, some kind of absurdist commercial to join the military. We glorify and cheapen war by devolving it into some pop culture fireworks display, where death is irrelevant, and lowering your balls over the head of a fallen enemy is the height of glory.
To create a game where war is shown as something more (and less) than just an excuse for mindless violence is both daring and difficult. 11bit Studios’ This War of Mine is one of the best examples of taking the nightmare of living in a time of war and making it personal. 11bit understood a big part of relating to anything on an intimate level is to give it a name. Every character in This War of Mine was someone else before the war—doctors, students, teachers, whatever—and ended up as someone (and something) else afterwards. If they survived at all.
These are characters desperate to survive with a shred of humanity left. The structure of This War of Mine is a lot like a bleak version of the Sims. You have your virtual people, and they all have names, jobs, strengths, and weaknesses. As the overseer of their nightmarish new lives, you have the power to make them walk, scavenge, cook, help, and hurt.
Most of the game is about collecting anything at all that might be useful, then turning those raw materials into something necessary. This could be food, a bed, medicine, heat, and a myriad of other parts of daily life we—in our comfortable lives—take for granted everyday. These survivors have morale, feel emotions and illness, weakness and exhaustion, and it’s up to the player to take care of them through weeks of hell.
The somber, beautiful soundtrack and nearly black and white, pencil-drawing art sell the whole blisteringly oppressive atmosphere perfectly. To some, this is just a game about resource-gathering and crafting, and nothing more—a test of item management in a dull, dreary overcoat, but that’s missing the point. This War of Mine was expressly designed to convey bleakness to the player, to impart even just a sliver of the actual horror of living in a warzone.
And, if you let it, the game does a damn good job.
So when 11bit announced they were updating the game with a level creation tool, I couldn’t help but wonder about it. The developer was upfront about their understanding some would use it to mock the seriousness of the themes. They aren’t happy about it, but once you give players the power to mold your world, there are consequences.
The creation tool isn’t as expansive as I was expecting. You can create new survivors, then select the pre-made locations on the map you want to use. Each location gives you options about what’s there—will it be a trader, soldiers, or something worse holding up in the hospital? Up to you. I’d like more options for creating a personal war narrative though, but this is a great tool for adding endless new challenges.
There’s already a hefty number of user-made levels uploaded to the game’s Steam page. Some, like Civil War, hold on tightly to the tones and theme of the original game. Another takes the opposite stance, promoting a gross misogynist agenda by creating an absurdly violent scenario aimed at killing characters named after prominent female critics in the gaming industry. Again, that’s what happens when you give creation tools to players.
Most levels, however, are simply experiments to see what can be done with the tools. The majority are designed to be as hard as possible for players who want new challenges. Personally, I hope the tools evolve to let players create a complete scenario all their own, with new locations, new narratives, and anything else they can think of. It’s early yet, though, and things are still moving.
In the meantime, tools or not, This War of Mine remains a poignant, original, and challenging reminder that war is much more than simply running and gunning, respawning and tea bagging.
Jason D'Aprile has been covering games and entertainment for the last three decades across a variety of platforms, many of which are now extinct. In addition to covering gaming (both obscure and otherwise), he also writes a bit of the odd fiction and tries hard to avoid social media.
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