This War Of Mine

When I was writing up my review of Siege Survival, I was a bit nervous because of how long it had been since I played This War Of Mine, and that I couldn’t remember playing it all the way through (turns out I actually did, though – when I reinstalled the game, one of the scenarios was marked complete). My review of Siege Survival was pretty unfavorable, which is unusual coming from a guy who’s pretty sympathetic to creators and much more likely to at least give a game the faint praise that it might be second or third or twelfth in line in a ranking of best games of its genre, but if you really like that genre you will eventually get down to it.

Most of that unfavorability stemmed from Siege Survival being medieval This War Of Mine and just not as good. It frames your peasant civilians huddling in the courtyard of a besieged castle as unambiguously helping the defenders to repel the invaders who, though I’m given to understand they’re about as sympathetic in the greater Gloria Victis setting, may as well be white walkers in Siege Survival itself. This takes the game’s narrative about nearly-helpless civilians struggling to survive a war zone and turns it into a narrative about civilians-turned-partisans playing a key role in keeping the siege defenders supplied by making nightly scavenging excursions. That’s neat, but the gameplay is largely unchanged (some tweaks are made to adapt the game to siege warfare rather than continuous modern battles, so the tech tree is drastically overhauled and the exact nature of the threats you face while scavenging are different, but the basic loop and the narrative it supports is unchanged), and TWoM’s gameplay is only gripping because of the narrative attached.

What I worried about while writing up Siege Survival is that maybe TWoM was worse than I remembered it. Maybe, once the novelty of the game had worn off, I just didn’t like that kind of gameplay. Having now replayed TWoM, I can confidently say that no, TWoM is just better. Having a bunch of soldiers sitting around in a castle manning the walls while you go on nightly excursions to keep them supplied is just not nearly as compelling as being on your own in a wartorn city. The soldiers of Siege Survival come across as equal parts selfish and stupid for not ditching the chainmail to go scavenging for themselves, the inability to fight the invaders under any circumstances fails to communicate the deadly danger posed by heavily armed opposition the way that TWoM does, where you can defeat soldiers, but it is very unlikely. They’re small details that affect the raw mechanics very little, but they make a world of difference to the narrative. You’re a small band of civilian survivors. The military patrols and criminal gangs are ordinary humans who die when they are shot with bullets just like you, but bullets are a precious commodity, you’re not a very accurate shot, and they travel in packs while you scavenge alone.

People who get very good at TWoM totally can play as partisan commandos who climb up an equipment tree from an improvised knife to a scoped assault rifle and separate enemies out to pick them off with stealth and surprise, clearing out criminal gangs or even military patrols to score huge amounts of supplies for themselves, but it’s not your first experience with the game. Your first experience with the game is breaking into an elderly couple’s home to steal some desperately needed food, fucking up the stealth, and then realizing that there’s nothing they can do to stop you except plead. Robbing them – especially robbing them so badly that they’ll likely starve – inflicts psychological damage on all your survivors, and if enough accumulates, they become broken, unable to do anything except sit and stare for several days until they recover. But on the other hand, the first psychological hit just makes them sad, which has no impact on anything and they’ll get over it after a couple of days. But, y’know. It would be nice to survive this war without dooming an elderly couple to starvation in exchange. But back on the other hand, you will be the ones who starve if you don’t find food somewhere, and odds are excellent that your band of survivors are all at least twenty years younger than the couple you’re robbing. You’ve got a lot more life to live after the war if you make it. That seems like a fucked up perspective, but it’s war, this shit happens. But then, all crimes (except, like, witchcraft, I guess) are things that happen sometimes, and that doesn’t mean it’s okay to make them happen an additional time to an additional victim.

And it’s all carried by game mechanics. You don’t get a dialogue box popping up with a blue-colored “leave them alone” option and a red-colored “steal their supplies” option. You walk into their house, and if they spot you, the old man just follows you around and occasionally a speech bubble pops up begging you not to rob him and his wife. There’s some lootable containers in his kitchen containing a bunch of food, and you can take as much as you want from them. The game does track and notice whether you’re taking just enough food to survive or robbing them blind (I’m not sure exactly what the threshold is, though), but it doesn’t give you Renegade points and it trusts your intelligence enough to realize that robbing old people is bad without painting the option to do so red.

Siege Survival has vignettes where people are starving or injured, and you have to choose whether or not you want to help them, but if there’s ever any option to rob them, I didn’t find it in the first few hours of gameplay. And since the whole siege is caused by viking invaders and you are unambiguously sided with the psuedo-English defenders, it cuts in exactly the opposite direction of the difficult decisions presented by This War of Mine. A specific faction is responsible for all the bad stuff happening and you are directly supplying the faction opposed to them. This kind of thing happens a lot, where someone writes a very morally ambiguous and brutal narrative, and then imitators pick up on the starvation and rape and whatever, but completely miss out on the nuances of the situation that gives rise to it. But the way greater social and economic systems drag a society down into atrocity is what made those original games compelling. Starvation and maiming is B-movie schlock, and if you want a video game about B-movie schlock, then give me the power fantasy. Let me stab invaders in the back and loot their stuff until I’m kitted out in enough military-grade gear to win a direct fight, and then let me scavenge for enough healing herbs that my wounds seal up as fast as they can be opened and I can bulldoze entire patrols of 5-6 vikings. No, it’s not realistic, but Siege Survival wasn’t able to portray the human pathos of a warzone the way TWoM did in the first place, so who cares?

Perhaps the most fatal blow to Siege Survival as opposed to TWoM is the way the run ends completely if you run out of resources and starve. In Siege Survival, starting the run over from the beginning feels like a slog, but in TWoM, the ending where your band of survivors slowly circle the drain before freezing to death halfway through winter because everyone is too sick to scavenge for wood to heat the place feels like a perfectly appropriate ending to this gruesome story. That happened to me, and I jumped back into a new run immediately, because it didn’t feel like anything had been lost. It was a “bad ending” in the sense that I clearly didn’t win, but it wasn’t a bad ending in the sense of being an unsatisfying resolution to the story.

This War of Mine wasn’t so good that I felt compelled to leave it on the Incomplete list after having finished a single scenario. The other scenarios are identical except that 1) the locations you can scavenge in are randomized each run, 2) different circumstances like the crime wave and winter trigger at different times depending on the scenario (some scenarios start you in winter, for example), and 3) you have a different set of characters in each scenario. But while this significantly switches up the logistical puzzle of how do I get these unlucky bastards through the war with at least one survivor, there’s not a whole lot of new content. It’s less like an extra level in the game and more like the same level with a new character. So it’s complete, but not 100%’d, and while I might wander back to give another scenario a go at some point in the future, I’ve decided I’m not going to 100% it. Still, it’s very good at telling the story it wants to tell, and that story is a very nuanced and gripping story.

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