The opening seconds of the reveal trailer for This War of Mine could be the first mission of a new Modern Warfare. A bunch of well-outfitted soldiers barrel along a wrecked street, bullets whizzing by and grenades going off. One gets caught in the shoulder and spins round to the ground. True, the scene plays out in kind of 2.5D cutaway style, and there are no points indicators or circling Predator drones. But never mind. It’s soldiers killing soldiers in a brown-grey urban environment. My brain has been conditioned over two decades to respond to this.
There are no guitars, either, though. None of the rock and metal fret-shredding I’m used to while blowing away the enemies of freedom. If anything, the slow keyboard soundtrack is a bit maudlin. And that, of course, is the point: This War of Mine is the anti-CoD. It has higher aspirations than presenting you with a redneck catalogue of firearms and a high score murder table. Instead, its focus is on the everyday people caught up in the fighting – the office workers, parents and children who have always mysteriously vanished, out of sight and mind, from the urban war zones of the modern, big-budget shooter. It’s rare that a game about conflict asks you to consider whether there’s a family cowering behind those unopenable doors lining the street in which your ooh-rah-Oscar-Mike marine is entrenched, but that’s exactly what This War of Mine invites you to do.
“We believe that games are a mature enough form of art to speak about important things,” says 11 Bit Studios Pawel Miechowski, the game’s senior writer. “This War of Mine is an experience of war as seen from a civilian’s perspective. Everything’s based around your decisions and your way when you’re forced to survive.”
Drawing on conflicts in Bosnia, Syria and Libya, This War of Mine is a survival simulator that hopes to strip the polish off war. You aren’t a soldier, you aren’t well trained and you don’t have all the resources you need to keep yourself and your friends alive.
“Imagine yourself in a besieged city. What would you do without electricity or water or food?” What [would you do] to survive?” Miechowski asks. “Do the [identities of the] warring factions matter when the city is under siege? The biggest enemy [in a city siege], surprisingly, is not the military but other people robbing and killing each other for food. As frightening as it is, that’s the truth. And when a city is under siege and terrible things are happening all around, all people aim for is just to survive.”
Survival is a case of picking your battles. During the day you’ll hunker down with your cold and hungry party of civillians while the two faceless militaries kill each other outside. At night you’ll venture out into what’s left of the city to gather supplies – food, blankets, medicine – to keep the group alive. You’ll find other survivors, who might be friendly, violent or just plain scared, and trade for supplies as well as information about where in the city is still safe from the fighting. As in Papers, Please, you will also (of course) be forced into uncomfortable decisions about what you’re prepared to do to protect your group. You might balk at stealing the last tin of food from another survivor, but hey – people can’t eat good intentions.
“This is real world and this is what you stumble upon in This War of Mine,” says Miechowski. “When you have to survive it’s good to have your family with you, but you also have to protect weaker ones, like kids. [Also], what do you do with people you hate? You’re going to face [these problems] in This War Of Mine.”
Despite its real-world influences, the game isn’t trying to be a historical record. It’s not set during any specific city or conflict, and the character you play doesn’t have a backstory of their own driving them on. The sense of anonymity is deliberate: as with any good survival sim, the game is supposed to be an everyman’s story. “This War of Mine delivers an important message: ‘This can happen in your city, in your country,’ Miechowski explains. “And actually when the demons of war surround people, the country, beliefs, their political opinions – it all doesn’t matter. People struggle for food, water, bandages. We’re all the same, with the same needs, but we tend to forget that.”
The depiction of civillians in games about war is always controversial. Modern Warfare’s ‘No Russian’ airport massacre whipped up enough bluster for Infinity Ward to make the whole level skippable, while some of the strongest scenes in Spec Ops: The Line and Homefront centre around civillian death. But scenes like these are exceptions to the rule: in the main, videogames in which people shoot at people who can’t shoot back are still taboo. According to Miechowski, that’s been an issue with some of the feeback the game has received since its reveal, but he’s adamant that contrary to what the team’s detractors say, video games are the right medium for a story like This War of Mine – and that 11 Bit Studios are the right people to tell it.
“After the announcement we got huge positive feedback, but we got negative feedback as well,” he admits. “[But] games are a perfect medium for storytelling because they, at their core, put you in the middle of the ongoing story. You can shape the world; you’re not just a spectator like in books or films. You’re not [just] watching morality tale, you’ll be making good or bad decisions and facing the consequences.
“We’re Polish, so we and our families know war from its worst sides, unfortunately. For most of us, it’s the most important work ever. I’d call it the game of my life. We know what we want to create, we feel the responsibility that lies upon us. We will make This War of Mine exactly what it has to be. No more no less.”