Posted on June 20, 2014, Ross Lincoln This War of Mine: Survival Horror With People as the Monsters
This War of Mine is a survival horror game that gets its horror from people instead of the supernatural, and it’s riveting.
Truffaut noted in his autobiography that he decided against making an anti-war film about the conflict in Algeria because, as he put it, “to show something is to ennoble it”. The popular meaning derived from this comment is that it’s impossible to make a truly anti-war film (or TV series, or comic, or video game, or what have you) because the combat will always be thrilling, the scenes stirring, that even depicted horrors will be so compelling as to undermine the point.
11 Bit Studios demonstrates it is, in fact, possible to make an anti-war product. You just have to focus, unflinchingly, on the people most affected by a war: the unnamed and anonymous civilians whose lives are generally destroyed while well-armed groups of belligerents duke it out for control of the patches of land on which those civilians inconveniently live. I give you This War Of Mine, a survival horror game in which the horror comes squarely from the actions of people, rather than any supernatural horror.
The game is inspired by an article called One Year In Hell, a purported account written by a survivor of the Bosnian war who spent a full year trapped in a small town of 6,000 people, lacking in any modern amenities. (I won’t link to the article; you can find it yourself but be warned that it’s been embraced by the cesspool that is the online survivalist community who, by and large, salivate at the thought of society collapsing.) Brought to the attention of one of 11 Bit’s founders, he was, so he told me during my hands-off demo of This War Of Mine, struck by the way it completely contradicted the typical way people tend to think of how they would act and think under such circumstances.
That perspective is all over This War Of Mine.
A 2.5d side-scroller with 3D characters (animations captured from members of 11 Bit and their families), most of This War Of Mine is colored in a mournful sepia tone, but player-controlled characters, as well as certain interactive assets like weapons or fire are given splashes of color that emphasize the dull grey monotony of survival and how boredom is punctuated by moments of humanity, or terror. It’s genuinely stirring stuff.
To get an idea of what gameplay is like, think Resident Evil meets Lemmings meets Papers, Please. It’s a point and click experience in which you manage a group of survivors – my demo had three – who live in a bombed out apartment building and must scrounge for everything, literally everything, to survive starvation, disease, or violence not only from warring factions, but from other survivors. The only goal, so I was told, is to help your characters survive until a predetermined endpoint. (More on that shortly)
Each survivor has different strengths and weaknesses, different carrying capacities, even different levels of ability to withstand the physical and mental horrors they may encounter. Balancing these differences is essential to surviving. During the demo, I saw one survivor, an older man whose pause menu-bio described him as tough, but slow, ordered down to the basement where he collected scrap wood, which was used to create a makeshift bed. (You’ll be doing this a lot, not just beds but stoves, fireplaces, bathtubs and other essentials). Meanwhile, a younger female survivor, described as the best negotiator of the group, was ill. She would need medicine to prevent her from dying, so the older, slower survivor ventured out of the bombed out apartment building to search through nearby dwellings for supplies.
He came upon a house occupied by an elderly couple, at which point the 11 Bit representative playing the game told me players can approach such situations differently at any time. In this instance, the player could either attempt to bargain with the couple for their medicine, or simply let the law of the jungle prevail, and take it from them. My tour guide chose the violent path, and so I witnessed his survivor force the old man into his (the old man’s) basement, where he was quickly murdered. When the old man’s wife came down to check, my guide’s survivor murdered her too, and then robbed them of their medicine.