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By Paul Meekin
“I believe I’ve passed the age of consciousness and righteous rage / I found that just surviving was a noble fight / I once believed in causes too / I had my pointless point of view / And life went on no matter who was wrong or right.” – Billy Joel ‘Angry Young Man’
My least favorite political ideology is anarchism. Why? Because I, and lots of other folks, would die. And quickly too. I am not physically strong, my skills exist in the realm of creative arts, computer technology, and talking loudly and (arguably) eloquently.
These are not bankable skills when society itself collapses, as illustrated in the excellent, beautiful, exquisite, and soul crushing ‘This War of Mine’ currently available for every platform you can think of. (PC, Xbox One, PS4, iPhone, Android, and even Mac)
Presented in 2D with a washed out aesthetic resembling old photographs and pencilled etchings, from the title menu on, ‘This War of Mine’ reminds players war and the people caught up in it, is anything but a game.’
The word of the day here is oppressive; creating a texture that’s a second cousin to the most harrowing parts of “Schindler’s List” or The infamous POW scenes in the “Deer Hunter.”
Set in a ravaged city in the middle of a war in an unnamed eastern European country (I keep thinking Bosnia, or Georgia), you’re tasked with helping your group of civilians survive amongst the ruins of civilized society by any means necessary. That includes bartering, fending off bandits, stealing food, and in a pinch, murder – all in the name of collecting scant resources so you and yours can survive.
And with those resources your crew will turn your bombed out, dilapidated hovel into a bombed out, dilapidated hovel with with the ability to craft tools, capture food, cook that food, and ideally live long enough for the war to end.
I haven’t come close.
The dangers; bandits, disease, hunger, depression, cold, and injury, outweigh your available resources and often your characters’ will power, so you’ll die like a dog.
But human nature demands you at least try to survive. So you will. ‘This War of Mine’ is divided into two major portions. The first is the ‘day’ where you will craft things like beds, a machine that filters condensation into drinkable water, tools, and as time goes on, weapons, medicine, and various mood enhancing items like precious, delicious, smooth cigarettes.
To make any of this stuff, you need materials, and that requires partaking in the second portion of the game, night. At night you select one character to go out and scavenge for wood, herbs, medicine, food, and anything else you can find. Playing like a 2D stealth game here, you select an area; be it a bombed out school, abandoned hospital, the home of a couple that can’t defend itself, and many more, and start to rummage. Your backpack is limited in space, so you need to know what you need, and make tough choices, is a bit of food more important than two logs? Would that moral boosting stash of cigs be more helpful than a couple of gun parts?
Each of these locations will change from night-to-night, sometimes featuring shoot-on-sight bandits, other scavengers willing to trade, or people in desperate need of your help. As the game goes on, the obvious choices; like stealing is wrong, become less obvious as resources dwindle, your group becomes more desperate, and survival becomes even harder than it was before. Are you willing to steal from those just as desperate as you are, in order to live another day?
Yes, you are.
How you approach these choices will affect the mood of your characters, they’ll resent a character that stole, even if that character is upset about it too, resulting in your characters falling into depression, and eventually a ‘broken’ state, where they can’t do anything.
See what I mean about punishing? In many cases, you either starve or become a monster.
There are a couple of other caveats here; during the day you will be visited by traders and neighbors. Traders offering to barter their items for what you have, neighbors providing missions or asking for help – sometimes with a reward at the end, other times for nothing but a bit of personal karma and the feeling of knowing you’re not as bad a person as you think you are.
Your characters also have special skills; be it combat training (which makes guarding better), cooking (which requires less resources to make nourishing meals), and things like fast running, quiet sneaking, and so on. Some characters are smokers, others not. Each has a bio you can read, along with a daily diary that will interpret that days events – and they’re incredibly well written.
The loop of looting, crafting, eating, sleeping, trading, and eventually pillaging is engaging and, well, fun. It’s satisfying to come back from a scavenge with the resources you need to build a rat trap or food to feed your hungry gang.
And that’s an interesting problem; it’s been said the issue with war movies is that war battles look exciting, thus failing to communicate the true terror of being in battle. Similarly, this game, about the horrors of war, distances itself from those terrors by gamifying it. I don’t feel the hunger pangs, I feel the pressure to succeed. My life life will not change based on what happens to these characters.
But, what the game does, and what makes it special, is how it brings a human element to the game, that does engender empathy. The biographies and diaries and seeing your work-horse scavenger break down in tears after stealing from an elderly family, does hit home. Making you realize this is a game about every day realities in other parts of the world. People live like this. People die like this, and you never know their names.
As I write this, I’m on break from a corporate training I should be paying better attention to. Talk of goals, citizenship, accountability, and synergy are ringing in my ears, literally from a room halfway across the country from me. I was bored to tears.
The characters in this game, and the real life people like them, would give a testicle to be in my bored-to-tears shoes. It is the height of privilege and…comfort to be allowed to dial into this training, and then ignore it.
Meanwhile, I look at ‘This War of Mine’ and wonder how anyone could actively support Anarchy. To a lot of people, myself included, the life depicted in this game is morbidly appealing, a fundamental shattering of our way of life, government, and institutions to the point that we must guard our houses with firearms for there is no rule of law. Anarchists say that would be true liberty, a society without rules.
‘This War of Mine’ says Anarchy would turn us into animals.
I say there is no Liberty without the rule of law, and everything I know about human nature tells me an Anarchist society would devolve into something resembling what this game depicts almost immediately. It’s a nice place to visit, but God, I don’t want to live there.
Thus, on The Libertarian Republic Rating System, on a scale of Karl Marx to Ron Paul, ‘This War of Mine’ gets a Asra Nomani. It provides an accessible window in a world foreign to us, and through its exploration and honesty and first-hand knowledge, condemns it. Condemns it all.
My old boss, Roger Ebert, said video games could never be art; and the internet being characteristically broad, took offense. They sent him titles like ‘Braid’ and ‘Journey’ and all the prettiest and most eloquent games or socially ‘aware’ games available.
But Ebert’s question was never one of beauty. It was a question of function. His point was a game you can ‘win’ or score points in couldn’t be art, and if a piece of interactive media did achieve ‘art’ status, it would seize to be a ‘game’ in the first place and become something else entirely.
I don’t know if ‘This War of Mine’ is a work of art. I do know that like the best art, it affects you as you expierence it, and makes you question or view the world through a different lens; be it confusion, frustration, anger, or rage.
You don’t win ‘This War of Mine’, you survive it.