Back again with another of our “Guest Writers” translation series. This time around we have a very personal review of This War of Mine by Guillermo G.M. Guillermo is a developer specialized in web design, writer in several high profile Spanish web magazines such as JotDown, Mondo Pixel and Indie-O-Rama. He is also co-founder of another one of the most important Spanish videogame sites, Deus Ex Machina. A site devoted to personal thoughts about gaming and not chasing the easy clicks. They have also a knack for supporting indies and for having long, in-deep interviews, the last of which was an interview with Daniel Benmergui. This is what Guillermo had to say about THIS WAR OF MINE.
This War of Mine, This War of Ours
A quote opens This War of Mine (11 Bit Studios, 2014). Hemingway telling us that you’re going to war to die like a dog leave us cold; we already know that. But just in case, a Fuck the war! (Inspired by the real picture of a derelict house in Mostar,Bosnia) will decorate a part of the Wall besides the house we will inhabit, if we are lucky, for the following 30 to 40 days. And it won’t be the Nobel’s quote or that graffiti but said house what will teach us about the human being’s ability to debase themselves and mutate in a byproduct just trained for automatic survival.
Primo Levi told an obvious but pretty disturbing thing to Daniel Toaff in 1982: many of those who died in the Nazi concentration camps did so because they were unable to survive; Italian people got to the camps terrified by German, the executioner’s language, but also by Polish, a language full of consonants that represented the nothingness. Italians died because they didn’t understand the language they were spoken to, because they didn’t know when they could swap shoes: daily walks in wrong sized shoes caused feet injuries and Nazis weren’t keen on injured people.
Without getting to the extreme of affirming that in This War of Mine our survival depends on the language, it is true that the game created by Polish studio 11 Bit Studios (one of their writers names Poland’s Nazi occupation as influential) shows us a vast variety of situations in which a small detail can lead us to death or survival until the next morning.
We start the game with a variable number of characters, two, three or four. Depending on that number the possible (and desired) cease-fire will arrive sooner or later. Each character is a world in itself: some will be useful because of their experience as scavengers, handymen, cooks, silent scouts or as former soldiers, while others might be good at maths of good with children. War is a survivor’s filter: we will create certain practical hierarchy, we will know who we will want to sacrifice first; it’s ok to be able to solve integrals but that won’t get me a meal. This ruthless view might be tempered if resources grant that. Once the ghosts of famine and medicine shortage are away we will find time to talk with that person who’s depressed after coming back from stealing from an elder couple. The view ahead is distressing, we won’t have always (nearly never is more accurate) the safety net of minimum resources; opposed to the smallest illness we will be harpooned by moral issues: is it worthy to go to the Hospital to steal medical supplies (surely destined for other patients) to help our sick partner? This War of Mine is full of those dilemmas making you writing a line in the sand that depending on the evolution of the game we’re playing it can be moved here or there. Because that’s the thick of it, agree on a comfort zone that will allow us to be flexible to a degree. Will we doubt about stealing medicines if our partners are on their deathbeds? Will we be able to let them die instead of committing a robbery?
This War of Mine is ready to be unsettling: its point and click gaming mechanic make easy to be ungrateful and look the other way. There is no answer when the homeless ask why you’re not aiding him. It is not a game created to ease you into evasion, it is a game that bids on an inverted emotional gamification: you’re on your comfort zone and start noticing the poking in your face; there is no more reward than the decision itself. It is not going to a late night show to get a reverential interview, it is going to a cross-examination in 60 minutes.
Left, ‘This War of Mine’; Right, government building in Sarajevo under Serbian artillery fire in 1992
The game is divided in two phases: in one hand you have resource management in the house the survivors are holed in, a bit in the vein of Don´t Starve (Klei Entertainment, 2013) with a The Sims pinch. Get the cook to the kitchen (their skill will use less resources), the handyman to build stuff, the silver tongue to barter; talk to the sad ones, solve fights, set up mice-traps. An icon will allow you to chat with whoever is sadder than normal, reminding us how important is the communication: the alcoholic that shows up in an AA meeting to confess, the depressive who looks for a therapist to talk to. Whoever knows how to play the guitar distract us from the sounds of war on the outside. Morale is important: some will drink coffee, others will smoke, adding variables to the barter that will depend as well on the price of said products, and which might vary during the game (we will get news about their shortages on the radio). At first, it might seem silly to worry about coffee during wartime, but it might not be. Changing the radio channel we might as well get weather forecast information, how the skirmishes between the military and the rebels evolve, what is the safety degree for civilians and also some events that might influence the different scenarios: snipers killing civilians whose bodies we will see the next time we go to the Sniper’s Cross, we will no longer see people negotiating quietly about things in the market if a bomb has exploded there. The radio, same as for many people who go to sleep thinking about summer transfers heard on it, entertains and distracts, but it also informs and it gives warnings to the experienced player. As when in a station we are told that it’s going to be cold and that the night might be better taken with a hot cup of tea we already know that we should be getting the stove, the fuel and the wood ready; get the boiled snow, the meds and the axe out. If we hear about assaults, we should be looking to close all access to the outside, bunk the door, craft knives, get any weapons and protective gear ready and pray that we have ex-soldiers in our group. If the news are full with fights between rebels and military men, we will know that some locations will be unavailable. Those events might happen at any time, like that game I started that was in the middle of the winter freeze. Like in Fallout, in some odd way, the radio is our companion and we will be excited hearing on it that an international force is starting to be deployed to the war zone, only to later on get the news that the deployment is postponed or that it will just not happen and we will get instead help from the neighbour country. Such happiness on thinking than a cease-fire might arrive soon, but in the meantime, such hardness to live through that heavy atmosphere in those pencil-sketched walls and its absence of primary colours and that monochromatic style that reinforces the realism of war dehumanization (as in Schindler’s list).
The objective is, in the end, to adapt to what is available, something we are kind of used to nowadays, even if in a much lesser degree. The average Spanish person who is suffering from the current financial crisis no longer laughs about budget schemes and start inquiring about them; they no longer buy fancy fruit desserts and create them themselves by mixing fruits and cheap yoghurt; They no longer buy expensive soft drinks but start using fruit juices mixed with tap water; they stop going to big supermarkets and stay closer home going to the high Street grocer; they do no longer buy properties but compare prices or get foreclosed…in short, they all found that economy’s foundations were not solid but shaky and they all had to change uses and usages. Economy of the suffering, power loss. Your previous beliefs do not matter, your ideas, only how much you need to eat every day, how much can you compromise and what can you bring to the table. This is the walking dead minus the zombies.
In This War of Mine you deal in wood chunks, broken guitars, water, tinned food, bullets, medicinal herbs or moonshine, things that really matter. It remind us of that scene on a Jewish ghetto in Germany in which the bodies, heavy with jewels no one wanted, pile on.
Visitors will knock on the door: people asking for help to break into empty houses and later on to rob them. Kind neighbours will give us vegetables as presents (basic stuff to make the best out of the food resources) in such a kind way that will even start to feel suspicious. People will arrive asking for favours (“please save this books for me until the war ends”; “keep this medicines”; “help! my partner has been shot”; “there are military forces in my area”; “our mother is sick”), and trading (really important if you want to have a levelled supply) and even militias that will made us fear the worst. Our altruism would be put to test by our begging neighbours, since the possibility of them rewarding our help is entirely up to chance. Our reactions to all those events will build a karmic climate that will influence the ending of every survivor member of your party. The details about those members are told via personal cards with their pictures on them, they’re touching in their real day-to-day quality and they could be your neighbours. This (the game) is, as well, about hearing their stories and using them as a shield against the futility of all that surrounds you. The characters sin around, read the remaining scattered books, chain-smoke and are basically trying to tie themselves to a fleeing humanity. They feel like a part of yourself and you want them to be rewarded for decisions that are ultimately yours. It is a feeling not dissimilar to that of Depression Quest when the lead character was feeling better thanks to your choices.
The second part of the game is the night scavenging of several locations on Pogoren, the capital city of the fictional republic of Vyseni. Everything will remind us of Kosovo. This part of the game is based on stealth, the noise we do is shown as blurry waves that might alert other characters. The night bites. If being in the house is close to playing The Sims, locations like the Sniper’s Cross or the Hotel will get us closer to a survival horror game. The right planning will be mandatory: sometimes we will need a shovel, sometimes a lever, sometimes a saw blade. You might have to take several days building those things, but in the meantime you will have to keep scouting: your team needs to eat. Forget after a few days in which location you needed what thing, or even worse finding out about your mistake after packing the wrong tool, is missing a lifeline for the group’s survival and it might also mean that apart than useless, you might have to face muggers. Characters that are demoralised, hungry, sick or tired will be slower in doing tasks or running away.
The writers did a great job characterising those encounters via bubble speech. We will feel sympathy towards the elder man who ask us to spare his wife of any harm, and we will feel rejection towards the armed guys who will boast about having great fun attacking the humanitarian convoys. The main characters’ personalities are also very well defined: Roman, ex-military and knife expert will endure killing military with no morale decrease or depression but will tend to pick up fights with his housemates when his morale decreases for other reasons. The writers scatter a lot of small details: that purse that seems to have been snatched away from its owner on the Call House, the stroller that has formula remnants, the unfinished painting and those cookies to be made by a grannie. Details that craft a deep experience for the player. In the testing phase there were surprises causes by this silenced House, like for instance the female player who stole all the food from the Old Couple to, later on, come back to return part of the stole food to the cupboards hoping to avoid their deaths out of starvation. She judged herself because she felt the whole experience as real for her.
This War of Mine Launch Trailer – The Survivor
In the first few games death will arrive early (unless you’re a Gods Will be Watching devs who are well versed in the precision of the variable scoping). After gaining experience (and if possible having pen and paper close), this ecosystem will hide its teeth. You’ll learn that you can go to that abandoned house without risking any retaliation, that it is useless to get it touch with military patrols unless you have vodka to barter (this has a documented background during the Sarajevo siege; in Nazi Germany the trafficking item were cigarettes), that you can dodge the sniper bullets if you’re careful.
The first impression is a rough one, both in difficulty level and about what the game shows you: 2 weeks after launch only 11% of players reached the game’s ending. However, This War of Mine is a game that rewards replaying it, since in the following games the players would have developed those survival automatisms we mentioned before, entertaining us with possibilities we were not aware of in the previous games, like finishing the game with all your party alive, but not only that: you can be the flagship of political correction and finish the game without robbing or cause harm in any way to any of the city inhabitants. You ca even get to the ceasefire with a belly full of warm food, coffee and cigarettes to spare; rested and drunk and giving extra medicaments to the hospital. But it is very unlikely that you will explore all the crafting possibilities in one single game. You can deeply explore those places you didn’t dare to check previously. The assault to the military post can be thrilling.
One of the best points of its replay value lies in the scenarios, their danger level is not always what we get in the descriptions. In those we will live different experiences in different games and different moments of the game itself: if we go to the Supermarket at the beginning of the game and find a soldier about to abuse a woman who was looking for food. We don’t have weapons to fight the soldier so we can choose to get angry, try something and die or turn our backs saddened. In other games we might go to the Supermarket with a bullet vest and enough ammo to take on the soldier but we will see that he is nowhere to be found as in his place there is a group of well-armed people who just arrived. One will address you and you will have to decide if to have a quick finger to run or to shoot. You will hear him tell you that there is no problem and there are food for everyone, and that will be true. They will give you no quarrel and you’ll be able to pick up what they leave behind. Another of the changing scenarios is The Church. You might find there a kind priest that will not only deal with you but he will also tell you of the refugees that he’s sheltering underground, or you might find a destroyed church with nothing more than a few goons around it, the priest was not lucky this time around. Nothing will happen to us in the hospital as long as we’re not caught stealing, we will know that the hotel is pigeonholed with sociopaths and that behind the abandoned house we will find our first firearms. You will put your stealth mode in when getting close to a construction site since you’ve heard rumblings of a military presence there but you cannot see a thing. Go up and two red points appear (that’s the way the game has to express noises, being those rats, open windows or most times, people). You heard someone say that they’ve seen someone sneakily enter the building. That makes you tense as you know they are talking about you. Next thing you hear is that they’re going to attack. The dots start moving and you run away. When a few days later you come back because the snow or the fights do not allow you to reach other places the dots will have vanished. There is no one there, or so it seems. You keep going up keeping an eye on the hide holes that the game has for us. For some reason there are plenty of those in this building. Little by Little you keep moving up until the very top expecting a fight with those two red dots that you’re unsure it will happen or not.
This replay value also helps to give an idea of the war experience: in our fourth playthrough we will know already what to do, where to go and where to send whom, akin to the experience of the roman general who knows that the frost will keep him from doing a clean unsheathing of his sword. The opposite shows then, the worst side of the lack of experience: in the first game I didn’t know who I was or what I could do; war was an obscure entity and hence, “Polish”, mute. A terrifying and invisible mass that was supported by my lack of knowledge to get to kill me.
Of my initial 3 characters one died trying to steal from a man and their parents, who beat me to death. The same in the case of the second, except that this time he was stabbed. The third one, who was mentally weakened, took in a stealthy girl who looked strong. The girl went to a house and shovelling around she found a few refugees. Fearing the worst she started leashing out with the shovel and killed 4 people. The last one was running for his life when they received the last shovel hit, but of course our girl (me) didn’t know whom that person might call, which weapon might be hidden where. The girl came back to the house depressed and she hanged herself the next day. My last character was not very skilled closing windows and doors and it was doomed to be robbed and injured. After a last bender I drove him to the military areas trying the patience of the soldiers until he was shoot down. 12 days was my mark. In this first game lies the essence of the game. The people behind This War of Mine didn’t add a tutorial or allow you to play more than one game at a time: War does not have second chances; as Primo Levi said, it kills whomever doesn’t adapt to it. We are not here in Valiant Hearts, where you could drive dodging bombs while you listened to Brahm’s Hungarian Dances. Joy is demolished here.
This War of Mine follows the humanitarian brush of Spec Ops: the line (Yager Development, 2012) but from a civilian point of view, far from the warmongery bureaucracy of Papers, Please (Lucas Pope, 2013) – another big inspiration for this game -; this is what Deadlight wanted to be but couldn’t, and maybe what (in the words of some War journalists) The Last of Us couldn’t convey, it is the Depression Quest of war conflicts: not only will it be able to express naturally the war victim’s predicament but it will educate about it advising us in a sort of utopic future education where videogames have been fully recognised as an educational tool. It is a game that doesn’t just feed the discussion about videogame’s maturity as a medium, but just ends it.
Behind such work there have to be a similar equivalent background: the developers have offered to give free copies to those who could not afford it (Pawel Miechowski, studio co-founder and developer on The Witcher, played illegal copies of Commodore 64 games on his youth due to the poverty of post-communist Poland); they used war survivors as beta testers; they created the game because one of the Miechowski brothers read the article “One Year in hell”: a piece in which a survivor of the Bosnian war (in which 40% of casualties were civilian) tells that “war erases the division between good and evil, it is all about survival” while he describes a river corrupted by human corpses in early 90s Yugoslavia. Another of the studio members has a grandfather who survived the dramatic WWII’s Leningrad siege in which is said that survival led people to fall into cannibalism. Many of the studio workers are Varsovians whose parents have their roots in the demolished Warsaw from October 1944. They are interested in that type of stories: Serbian survivors, a Sarajevo injured woman in the early conflict days is saved by the doctors and placed besides another victim, but when the doctors have to ration the medicaments they realise they can just save one of them letting the other victim die. And not everything is European-related: In the studio’s blog there is a physician who was on Fallujah explaining his turn to pacifism.
Then there is the cultural background.
Tadeusz Woźniak gives life to the song composed by Bogdan Chorążuk, used in the game’s gameplay trailer, which end up being part of Polish popular music.
This War of Mine – Gameplay Trailer
The lyrics, inspired in Voltaire’s quote “I cannot imagine how the clockwork of the universe can exist without a clockmaker”, defines acceptance of life’s frailness:
A kiedy przyjdzie także po mnie / And when he comes in my direction
Zegarmistrz światła purpurowy / The high Clockmaster walking steady
By mi zabełtać błękit w głowie / I’ll give my life to his protection
To będę jasny i gotowy / To face a future bright and ready
Spłyną przeze mnie dni na przestrzał / The days are running through my body
Zgasną podłogi i powietrza / With ground and air fading away
Na wszystko jeszcze raz popatrzę / I’ll take a long last look for always
I pójdę nie wiem gdzie – na zawsze / To go I don’t know where to darkness.
The very own game’s initial quote by Hemingway is not literary pose: The Old man and the Sea shows us, under the author’s minimalist Iceberg Theory, old man Santiago a down on his luck fisherman who nonetheless still shows “many tricks and has a resolution” and is decided to fight time itself. When the old man tells the fish that he is decided to fish until death, he is showing his resilience and intention on capturing his piece; claiming a combative old age, harpoon in hand against the sharks of decadence. We also find those references in For Whom the bell tolls, like when, speaking about war, it says ”It was much better to be gay and it was a sign of something too. It was like having immortality while you were still alive” while the characters are enjoying wine from their flasks. It is about fighting the inevitable. “As long as there is one of us there is both of us” says one lover to another, dispelling thoughts of death and loneliness. Robert Jordan (the lead character) lies under a tree thinking himself fatally wounded, and even in this, his latest moments, he concludes that one has to be positive: “I hate to leave it, is all. I hate to leave it very much and I hope I have done some good in it. I have tried to with what talent I had. Have, you mean. All right, have” forcing himself to change the verbal tense, encouraging himself, combative even in the language front. And finally, Hemingway’s book is opened with a quote by John Donne:
No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
This is a plea towards the communal, and hence, the developers of This War of Mine do not let loose a single individual in the house but instead they give them company. That decision further impact the Polish developer’s sociological details: the game’s inventory doesn’t has such name but “Our Things”.
What’s left behind after playing This War of Mine? A dismal feeling, that victim you didn’t save from a psychopath in the Hotel, in the end just memories. Memories that put you against the wall and that in real life (because war is not a game) will be on you as invisible scars together with the thousand-yard-stare. The war that never changes remains. Internet remains, showing you that what you’ve seen in the game not only remembers Kosovo but it is also in front of you in Ukraine:
Civilians Return to Debaltseve: Russian Roulette (Dispatch 96)
Surrounded by War In Sloviansk: Russian Roulette (Dispatch 48)
The ember of human doubt and its many variations also remain, that which feed many stories: Hamlet’s doubt, Neil Young’s fade away, surrender or fight. The resolve of a silent, real heroism. A behaviour that is maybe not entirely human, but surely is heroic. I think about Hemingway, in his defence about passion (he enjoyed hunting, boxing, and bullfighting), of love as the only mean of defence of Death:
Midnight In París – El Amor según Hemingway
Hemingway killed himself when he was 61. Primo Levy apparently did so at 67. Hemingway, who lived the Spanish Civil War on the republican said and who would be more socially conscious after displaying in his earlier works an interest in individualism, said after the fall of Barcelona and Madrid in the preface to Gustav Regler’s novel The Great Crusade:
The Spanish Civil War was really lost, of course, when the Fascists took Irun in the summer of 1936. But in a war you can never admit, even to yourself, that it is lost. Because when you will admit it is lost you are beaten. The one who being beaten refuses to admit it and fights on the longest wins in all finish fights; unless of course he is killed, starved out, deprived of weapons or betrayed.
It is, it has always been, about fighting of surrendering. Or so I think. Actually, what do I know? Luckily I haven’t been through any war. I cannot complain, day pass by through my body still.