The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 07 Mar 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

This War Of Mine

I’m a gamer in the sense that I play a few games obsessively. The first on my list was Battle Supremacy, an online tank game in which the other players seemed to compete with each other to have the most robustly butch names, like TOTAL DEATH BASTARD SMASH. I chose the name Tiny Peemus, which amused me. Then there was ‘Call Of Duty,’ ‘Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell: Conviction’ and ‘FIFA14’ which I’ve always played on my phone, often with slightly disturbing intensity. And then there was ‘This War Of Mine’ and now everything is very different.

This War Of Mine is nominally a war game, but it isn’t a first person shooter. The objective is not to kill hordes of people who then conveniently melt into the landscape or are auto-generated so that they come in undying hordes to be killed by your infinitely replenishing ammunition. Nor is it about positioning your forces so that they defeat the enemy on the field of battle. This one takes place after the field of battle has long since passed by, because it is about being a civilian who is trying to survive.

Your characters spend most of their time in a house, viewed sideways on. As with all the visuals in the game, it appears as a detailed and studiedly scruffy sketch drawn from a monochrome palette and your characters as slightly more detailed sketches within it. You control a number of characters whose priorities have been pared back to the basics. They want to sleep in a bed and have enough to eat. Beyond this, they want to read, smoke and drink coffee, all understandable human habits. But to get wood to build beds and heat the food which can only be found outside, once the game ticks past the second or third days, they need to scavenge. And because this means leaving the house, you find people who mean you very serious harm indeed.

In recent days, I’ve sent a character off to help someone only for her to come back ‘broken,’ as she was identified in a sub-menu, and then, as I was told a few hours later in game time, hang herself. The implication is that the men who came to the house had not wanted her to help someone but rape her, with the result that she could no longer live with the anguish. Another character was shot approaching a hospital, others were beaten to death while they looked for supplies and another was killed by a sniper. One of my best scavengers saw men with sinister intent taking a girl away from a ruined supermarket with only one objective in mind.

And I’ve had them do appalling things, as well. They refused to help a woman secure her house because I felt that the risk was too great. When I broke into what turned out to be an old couple’s house, I had them steal their food and medicine because I wanted my characters to survive above all else. When I came back three days later, they had died. A priest who found me burgling his church paid for his discovery with his life because I had my character beat him to death and I also stole medication from the hospital which could barely care for its few patients.

These were all decisions with consequences. The man who broke into the old couple’s house was so conflicted that he lost the will to live, while the man who beat the priest to death was shot. I stole medication from the hospital but, when I returned. I was gunned down. As every one of my people died after only ten days of increasingly desperate searching, the game presented me with a list of the things that I had done, including not helping the woman secure her house, in fairly bald monochrome. No judgement was made because, frankly, they didn’t need to.

You can get firearms, and in my most recent attempt, I’m using one to keep my house safe while I go out to scavenge, and perhaps the next stage is to take one with me and start demanding food and essentials from the people I meet. Presumably this too will have consequences. One of my characters was previously a professor of mathematics. What will be the result of asking him to point a gun at someone’s head and demand that they hand over medication and supplies? I imagine that he will end up going the same way as the people I made do other barbarous things.

It’s the abject quality of trying to provide your characters with a decent standard of living while trying not to become as unspeakable as the people around you that makes this game unique. There is no overt moralising or any attempts to make you feel worse than you already do. This is what you did to survive, this is how it made your characters feel and this is what happened. When you can make me, who studied English lit. at university, put books on the fire to heat food, something fairly profound has happened. This isn’t, perhaps, a game as such, but an ordeal. You want them to make it through another day but, by the end, the chance of making it past day ten and not being an armed lunatic are zero.

This War Of Mine asks some fairly profound moral questions about the use of gaming and how we see it. I like FIFA because it lets me pretend that I’m a football manager and write match reports in my head, which endlessly amuses me. And I used to like Call Of Duty because it felt cathartic, but this is like killing one of the enemy with a sawn-off shotgun only to watch a five minute video on YouTube about how his wife and children were going to live without him and feel fairly crap that your character was there in the first place. For a while, at least, I don’t really want to do that anymore. I’ve had enough of killing now that I’ve seen how vulnerable life is.

Can a game change our behaviour? I don’t know. This War Of Mine is produced in association with the charity War Child, which perhaps provided them with the research and gave the dialogue and the situations the blunt, uncompromising feel of real-world experience. A cynic might say that the most provocative game I’ve ever played is no more than a cheap gimmick put out by a charity to drive people to its website, but that patronises the developers, 11 Bit Studios, who have taken on subject matter that could have been severely mishandled and made it into something that is as close as I will get, in my safe suburban home, to the concerns of people trying to survive in a war-torn city. That’s no mean feat.

All I can suggest is that you play the game. If you’ve never played one before, it’s completely intuitive and if an idiot like me can make it work, then I’m fairly sure you can. After all, you registered for Twitter and then found my blog, for which you’ll have needed to know how to point at things and click on them, which is how you make the characters move and interact. The first few times I played, it ended in disaster and it was only through a process of trial and error that I got my people past day three. But please, please try it. This War Of Mine is a singular experience, and I think we’re all better for its existence.

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