Video games typically provide us with one of two experiences of warfare. We get fast paced first person shooter games like Call of Duty, where you play as an individual combatant — a soldier — almost always divorced from any reality of horror, consequence, boredom, responsibility, and the threat of actual death.
And we get strategy games like Starcraft or Civilization, where we get to play as generals, grand strategists, even immortal god-like leaders who direct armies and civilizations across the battlefields of history and fantasy, free again from the effect of our actions.
At their core, these two game-types are not substantively different from playground tag or chess. Their narratives rarely stray into any real reckoning with the cost, psychology, or true experience of war, from any perspective, good guys or bad guys, military or civilian, one side or the other.
This week, the Polish game developer 11 bit studios released This War of Mine, a concerted attempt to broaden the ways in which a video game can take on war.
You play not as a super soldier or a resistance fighter or a general, but as a team of civilians struggling to survive in a besieged city. You scavenge for food, tools, heating fuel, and water. You do your best to manage the half-ruined building that is your hideout, boarding up gaping holes and building rainwater filters. You dodge sniper fire on the way to the only functional market.
At night, you go out and hunt for supplies in sites around the city, coming up against bandits, drunken soldiers, and most starkly, ordinary civilians just like you, frantically trying to live one more day. Where This War of Mine truly shines is in forcing you to confront heart-wrenching decisions. Do you steal from a sleeping family? Do you kill for food? Do you give away your last medication to the children who live next door? Do you burn your last books for the heat? Do you get drunk to numb your suffering away? Most brilliantly of all, these decisions are not null choices that simply manipulate a “morality” rating. You have to decide whether to hide in the shadows while a rebel soldier threatens a mother, or intervene and risk everything; whether to become a monster and kill fellow civilians to take their food, or slip further into starvation.
The game at all of these stages is brutally difficult. Keeping even one of your three characters alive more than a few weeks is a serious accomplishment. Your characters feel the effects of their actions. They feel the losses of their friends, comrades, and even strangers. They even commit suicide if they get too depressed.
It is hard to play and not think of the very real Sarajevo, Grozny, or Homms
This War of Mine is not perfect. Contrary to the dark fantasies of survivalists and most Hollywood disaster movie clichés, in real life, when awful large scale tragedies occur, normal citizens almost never degenerate into chaos and violence out of scarcity. In fact the opposite occurs, and “ordinary” people perpetrate incredible acts of self-sacrifice and altruism towards strangers. To quote from Rebecca Solint’s A Paradise Built In Hell, maybe the best book dedicated to the subject:
“The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behavior in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and storms across the content and around the world, have demonstrated this. But belief lags behind, and often the worst behavior in the wake of calamity is on the part of those who believe that others will behave savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism.”
But even in the way that This War of Mine gets this wrong, there is some subtle brilliance. The easiest way to fail in the game is to attempt to kill your way out of starvation and scarcity. It’s primitive, limited, and unreliable combat system feels more realistic and representative of reality than the first-person shooters that dominate the market, more chaotic and random and awful in the way that close-combat urban warfare so often is.
And most importantly, each death in the game is permanent. You do not get to restart the level. You do not get to load up a saved game. When one of you dies, they die forever.
Even if it is “just a video game,” This War of Mine represents a worthy entry in that other category of war narrative and literature – that of the civilian caught directly in the middle.