By the end of October, Russia has openly attacked Ukraine for eight months. Countless Ukrainian citizens have lost their lives or been forced into exile. As other nations witness the devastation of the Russia-Ukraine war, the rest of the world realizes that in the recent decade, bloodshed and warfare never really leave human society alone. Regions and nations like Syria, Palestine, and Ukraine have long been under military tensions and conflicts. Since we have not achieved worldwide peace, how to elaborate on war-related stories and narratives becomes one persistent theme in contemporary media, including current film and game industries. One of the most interesting cases to look at is 11 bit studios’ anti-war survival game This War of Mine.
This War of Mine (2014) is a survival strategy game with a third-person point of view. Instead of playing as military soldiers or combatants, the player controls a group of civilian survivors in a damaged house in a fictional city under modern warfare. The main task is to stay alive during the war with limited tools and resources until both military sides cease their fire in the city. This War of Mine stands out to many as a critical digital media piece that challenges the lack of civilian perspective in military-related media.
However, I am not devaluing the existence of contemporary wargames and military-related media. Indeed, This War of Mine is phenomenal because it brings interestingly creative elements into the conversation around wargames and the larger entertainment industry; however, it does not mean that mainstream military-related games, namely Call of Duty (2003) and Counter-Strike (2000), have to serve as villain roles. Differences cause comparison, but the process of comparing does not need to produce a binary “good vs bad” perspective.
So, how do This War of Mine’s game design and gameplay evoke the player’s moral awareness? This game creates a balance between emotionally rewarding and painful experiences, playability and real-life reflection, and an entertainment-based game and serious digital media.
As a major genre video games, wargames and their production also embrace a large proportion of the emphasis on profits, creativity, and competition. From the earliest chess and board games to first-person shooter (FPS) video games featuring modern warfare, wargames contain various categories and generally cover historical conflicts as well as war tactics based in famous contemporary geopolitics.
Due to the wide circulation of games with combat content, it is important to note that the creation and consumption of wargames do not mean creators and players are certainly obsessed with conducting actual wars. For video games with heavy modern-military elements, seeking satisfaction in gameplay seems to be the most important. Prevailing franchises like Call of Duty can be seen as a combination of entertainment and consumerism instead of an educational media on the history of wars and military armies.
Connecting wargames with This War of Mine, I think this game builds on the previous practices of military-related games, aiming for the game to be simultaneously creative, profitable, and popular. However, differing from other wargames, This War of Mine takes an alternative way to attract consumer and player’s attention. In general, This War of Mine uses many elements from “the strategy and tactical games (resource management), roguelikes (permanent death), sims (characters), stealth games (danger avoidance) and adventure games (world-interaction)” to rearrange a balance between rewarding and emotionally painful, playability and real-life reflection, and entertainment piece and seriousness.
The generalization of game settings is This War of Mine’s first step to guide the players to focus on emotions and gaming experiences rather than thinking about taking political or cultural sides in specific historical incidents. One of This War of Mine’s crews, Kacper Kwiatkowski, states that the existence of only one POV and lack of other camera angles are made to aesthetically generalize the game’s spatial environment. Through the design of the background story, the players are only required to understand that this is a city siege under a modern conflict. Several consequences of generalization will give the player a pre-game context that is solely about the survival of ordinary people. Firstly, it is a modern city in a modern context, so the game avoids dramatization and the fantasy of superpowers, as a game setting of a magical world or a medieval folklore might generate. Secondly, the player is not required to know the reasons behind the conflicts. No matter how both sides of this conflict claim themselves to be the righteous one to win in this story, the only thing that stands out to both the players and the characters is that the common citizens are suffering from overall violence nonetheless.
Another critical innovation in This War of Mine is the filtering of brutality. Kwiatkowski mentions that, despite the initial intention of wanting to produce a video game that will reveal the realness of wars, the creators excluded certain explicitly disturbing scenarios in the game. Players cannot kill the controllable characters living within the same houses. The characters of This War of Mine are also incapable of killing children, conducting cannibalism, or initiating the behavior of rape. Kwiatkowski and other design team members explain that This War of Mine’s major goal is to make the players morally and emotionally challenged. In this case, the blind inclusion of every aspect and atrocity in real-world war will undermine the main message of the game and weaken the interests of the players. The filtering of warfare-related elements in This War of Mine serve as a critical part in the shaping of the player’s empathy and emotional response.
In the beginning of the gameplay of This War of Mine, there are no clear instructions on how to keep your characters alive. This fundamental design resonates with the disorientation of war, showing that there are many possibilities and ways to react and behave under modern warfare, and few citizens are systematically taught to survive. In traditional strategic survival games, the scarcity of resources often refers to the lack of material and visible resources that characters will use to build and create necessities. Similarly, the continuation of This War of Mine also depends on the characters’ behaviors of producing, exchanging, and searching for essential goods.
Additionally, the restricted time, the character’s mentality, and the outcomes of randomness are also embraced as scarce resources in This War of Mine. In order to finish the gameplay, the player needs to keep their characters alive for consecutive days until a ceasefire is made. Each day is clearly divided as daytime and nighttime. In each time slot, time is limited, and players are always pressured to make tough decisions regarding the allocation and obtaining of resources. In daytime, players ought to use the time to construct essential items, and treat other characters with food, medication, or bandages. It is also a time for wounded members to rest and heal, otherwise, they will not be able to perform at their best status when needed, leading to the risk of death.
At nighttime, time is scarcer because of the requirement for quick actions. Basically, it is the time period when players will control characters to scavenge for additional resources. During these limited time slots, the player’s characters will encounter great uncertainties from the outside world’s people. For instance, if the players did not run away swiftly from the patrolling soldiers and got killed in the process of scavenging, the management of resources will be greatly affected. The nighttime is also a phase when the most forced, discomfort, and unpleasant decisions are made by players.
Along with the restricted times, This War of Mine’s great randomness of events also stands out as its unique feautre. As previously mentioned, all of the actions take time, and sometimes, if there are luckily enough supplies, the player will enter a phase of boredom, a long uneventful period when nothing particularly intense happens. As this game also has a limited chance of respawning, the character cannot come back after their deaths.
The above game’s designs and mechanics serve to push players to make uncomfortable choices and hold players responsible for the fate of in-game characters. The middle-ground nature of player’s choices mentioned here resonates with the player-centric design in This War of Mine. Player’s sense of a clear-cut choice between ethically right behavior and wrongdoing begins to blur. In most of this game’s scenarios, the situation presents wicked and non-black-and-white problems and issues, asking the player to think differently about morality under extreme conditions (warfare).
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