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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Review: This War Of Mine (Apple iPad)

It really does my heart glad when I see game developers take a more mature look at the impact that war has on people. I enjoy the odd shooter and I love strategy games, but, of course, real war isn't heroic, and even when it's righteous and soldiers are fighting for a good cause, civilians and innocents invariably get caught up in it all.

That is what This War Of Mine is about. It's an unflinching and emotionally loaded essay on the realities of war. It's not heroic soldiers clashing with an enemy in the name of freedom. It's not kill streaks and headshots for fun. No. War is civilians desperately trying to survive as their buildings and world fall down around them.

Thematically, this game is a little like the classic film, The Pianist. Players take control of a couple of survivors caught in the middle of a warzone. There, they need to scavenge around for food and medicine, keep their building warm, protect it from raiders and perhaps - just perhaps - build a couple of creature comforts to help provide some morale relief from the horror of it all.

During the day you'll be directing your survivors to clear away rubble within your home, build furniture, rest, eat, and deal with the occasional visitor to the door. In the early stages there's more things to do during theses daylight minutes than can possibly be managed, but after the basic bits of furniture are built and a routine has been established, daylight hours start to become monotonous and dreary... which must be what it's like to live in a war zone with no power, comforts, work, or anything to do.

When night falls things get much more dangerous. Each day, you can send one character on a mission to scout an area of the city. You might be running low on food, so you decide to explore a supermarket. Alternatively you might need munitions for your weapons, and hit up a mechanic to look for some more. Where things get dangerous is that other survivors have the same idea, and they're desperate or angry people themselves, and so are not necessarily friendly.

There's a strong discussion around human nature, survival, and morality that happens within This War Of Mine, and a lot of that discussion happens during these nighttime foray. I felt sick to my stomach when, the first time that one of my characters explored the supermarket, he peeked through a doorway to see a soldier type assaulting a young woman, before leading her off, with the strong implication that she's about to be raped - or worse. What I wanted to do then and there was break through the door and help the woman out, but my character had no weapons, and no way to deal with this soldier type. I knew he would have been killed. That decision, to put survival over the life of the woman, was the moment I realised that this was a game without happy endings. Survival might be the goal, but that survival was only going to be over the bodies of people that, under better circumstances, I would have helped.

The deeper the game got, the more it challenged me. I found myself seriously contemplating robbing people who had almost nothing... but they had more than I did. The more dire my situation, the more desperate I found my actions to be. I'd have my characters go to areas that I knew were more deadly, because I knew the potential rewards would be higher. I'd have them do things that I would otherwise hate them for.

This is all the more impressive because it doesn't rely on a great deal of storytelling to get you emotionally involved. The dark, grim aesthetic, coupled with the haunting music and subtle behaviours of the people, all combine to tell a story that works and dialogue could never achieve. I was invested in This War Of Mine almost from the moment I started playing. I cared about the characters, and I found myself getting quite emotional over their plight.

This is the kind of game we really need to see more of. Games that look beyond fantasy to explore the realities of the material that we so often twist into mindless entertainment. Games that demand we take them seriously. This War Of Mine plays well, is challenging, and is a very good game. It just also happens to be a very good piece of art.

- Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

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Review: This War Of Mine (Apple iPad)
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