Thursday, October 12, 2017

This War of Mine - Review

This War of Mine (2014) is a point-and-click resource-management survival-simulator in which you play as a group of civilians attempting to survive as long as possible in a city that's under siege as part of an active civil war. The original hype surrounding this game centered entirely on how starkly it contrasted with typical military shooters (which tend to glorify war and murder) by putting you in the shoes of regular people -- not soldiers -- who have to suffer all of the hellish effects of war, despite being innocent bystanders. Although the game is decently engaging from a mechanical standpoint, it's really just a simple, run-of-the-mill survival-simulator; the real reason to play This War of Mine is to explore its theme of what it might be like to be a random civilian trying to survive a war, and to see a completely different wartime perspective than what's usually on offer in video games.

The game plays out over a series of day and night phases, lasting anywhere from 20 to 50 days before the siege comes to a halt and you "win the game," if you survived long enough to reach the cease-fire. You lose the game if your characters all die before reaching the cease-fire. During the night phase, you send one character out to go scavenging for supplies and resources, which plays a bit like a stealth or adventure game as you rummage through debris at various locations and sometimes interact with (or avoid) other NPCs; during the day phase, you use the resources you gathered from the previous night to fix up your shelter and build new tools, weapons, and appliances. As a rogue-lite "play until you die, then try again" sort of game, you will most likely fail your first attempt, and you're encouraged to try again (even when you succeed) because the randomized elements, in conjunction with playing as different characters, will offer a slightly different experience.

Three survivors band together in a ruined shelter.

A game of This War of Mine begins by picking a group of survivors to play as. Each survivor has their own little backstory along with some type of special skill and, in some cases, special needs. A character like Bruno, for instance, is a good cook and can prepare meals using fewer resources, but has a smoking addiction and will be adversely affected the longer he goes without tobacco; Katia is a news reporter who can barter with other survivors more effectively, but needs coffee to operate at peak efficiency. These survivors are assembled into different groupings, which also serve as different scenarios -- although the core gameplay will remain the same from group scenario to group scenario, one group may start in the middle of winter while another group plays out entirely in spring, or another group may encounter a rise in crime really early while another group encounters the rise in crime much later.

In addition to these scripted scenario changes, each playthrough brings with it different randomized elements, so that even playing with the same group of characters in the same scenario will present different challenges and events each time. When you start a new game, you'll always start with a different amount of random items and resources, which you gain from scavenging the rubble of your ruined shelter. Likewise, when you leave the shelter to go exploring during the night phase, the amount and type of items/resources you find will be randomized. The locations you can visit outside of the shelter also vary from game to game, although there might only be a handful of differences. While exploring these locations you sometimes encounter random events, which may be different (or not occur at all) on another playthrough. The day phase sometimes brings random events as well, with people showing up at your door looking to trade or asking for help.

Kids these days, begging for hand-outs. Maybe they should get a job if they want medicine for their sick and dying mother. 

Like most survival games, you have a lot to consider when it comes to keeping your characters alive, and as such, the crux of the gameplay comes from managing a limited supply of resources and prioritizing your interests. Each character has multiple gauges measuring their status in different fields like how hungry they are, how tired they are, how injured they are, how healthy they are, and how happy they are. If any of those meters reaches critical levels, a character is likely to die, which could be from starvation, illness, injury, or even suicide. Naturally, each condition requires different tools and resources to both treat and prevent. You need food to prevent starvation, obviously, but you also need a stove to cook it on, along with fuel and water to actually cook the meal. If someone's sick from cold temperatures, then you need a heater and fuel to raise the temperature of your shelter, along with a bed and medicine so they can rest and recuperate.

None of this is available to you at the start of the game; all you start with is a basic work bench for crafting all of these various tools, items, and appliances, plus a single wooden chair and whatever randomized parts and salvage you can find in the rubble of your ruined shelter. At first, your goals are simple: build some beds to sleep in, patch up the damaged walls of the shelter, and maybe make a stove to cook food on, all of which only requires a few basic materials like wood and "components," the easiest stuff to find. Other necessities like food, bandages, medicine, and weapons must be scavenged from surrounding locations in the city on a near nightly basis because you don't yet have the advanced materials or sophisticated crafting infrastructure to produce these things. As the game progresses, the amount of available resources you can scavenge declines, but if you've been upgrading your shelter sufficiently you'll be able to produce everything you need to survive from within your own shelter.

A look at the advanced workshop crafting screen.

The crafting system comprises roughly half of the gameplay in This War of Mine, and it's simple enough to be accessible while also complicated enough to be satisfying -- an ideal sweet spot as far as I'm concerned. To build a radio, you simply need to have seven components and two electrical parts, and select it from the crafting station. For 14 components, seven wood, and five parts, you can upgrade the workshop so that you can make better things, like animal traps, an herbal garden, and so on. For 10 components and five wood, you can make a metal workshop where you can make tools like a crowbar, knife, lockpick, etc, and as you upgrade the workshop you can make firearms, ammunition, and armor. Other things you can build: a rain collector (which needs filters to create safe drinking water), a heater (which needs fuel to keep your shelter warm), an herbal workshop (for creating cigarettes, herbal remedies, and medicine), and a still (for making moonshine and alcohol), among other tools and appliances.

The goal of the game, besides simply surviving, is to reach a point when you're completely self-sufficient from within your own shelter, such that you don't have to risk your life by going out scavenging at night. How you get to that point is probably the game's most satisfying element since the crafting system opens up tremendously and becomes more and more elaborate as you upgrade your shelter. A seemingly simple task like making bandages, for instance, requires that you build a still so you can produce moonshine, which requires water, which requires you to build a rainwater collector and a filter for it, plus fuel made from wood or books or components, then you need to upgrade your workshop so that you can build an herbal workshop and an herb garden, which you'll have to use to make fertilizer from food, which you get from making animal traps, and then use the fertilizer to grow herbs, then you need to upgrade the workshop again so that you can build an improved alcohol distiller, which also requires you to build a thermo regulator, so that you can convert the moonshine you made earlier into pure alcohol, then go back to the herbal workshop with your pure alcohol, herbs, and components to finally make bandages. All of which ends up requiring over 250 total resources, just to reach a point where you can produce a single bandage.

A look at the city map. Grayed-out locations are currently inaccessible.

To get all of those resources, you have to go out scavenging at night, which comprises the other half of the gameplay. Scavenging plays like a two-dimensional side-scrolling stealth/adventure game. Each night you select where you want to go from a list of available options describing rough estimates of what you can expect at each location. Once there, you explore the new location by rummaging through piles of rubble, checking inside cabinets and nightstands, and so on. Each character has an inventory limit which forces you to prioritize what you bring back each night, since you'll likely find much more than you can carry. Sometimes an area will have some type of danger associated with it -- there might be a sniper in the background that you have to avoid by running from cover to cover, or there might be armed bandits patrolling the area, in which case you have to move more slowly to avoid making noise, peer through keyholes to see what's in a room before entering it, listen for footsteps and conversations, and avoid line of sight.

You have limited means to defend yourself early on, so it's in your best interest to avoid conflict whenever possible, but as you gain access to weapons you can choose to sneak up on other NPCs to knock huge chunks of their health out with a stealth attack, or else shoot them from a distance. Given that this is a survival simulator with a fairly grim, realistic theme, that should never be your first instinct, especially since not everyone you encounter is openly hostile. Sometimes you're dealing with armed bandits and soldiers who will likely attack you on sight; other times you're dealing with other survivors who're just trying to grab enough of what they need to survive; sometimes it's innocent bystanders, or people in need of help. Some locations aren't even exactly meant to be scavenged, but rather serve as trading hubs. The hospital, for instance, is still in operation, so although you can go there to get wounds and illnesses tended to by the staff, you'll be in deep trouble if you get caught trying to steal anything.

Thank you, kind stranger, for not shooting me in the face.

The whole game plays out in a series of alternating day and night phases; crafting and upgrading your shelter by day, scavenging and exploring the city by night. All of this plays out in modified real time, with a timer constantly ticking the minutes away, leaving you with but a limited amount of time in each phase to do what you want to do. Most activities take a certain amount of time to complete, such as an hour to build a bed, or four hours to collect rain water. Clearing a huge pile of rubble takes 2-4 hours by hand, but only a quarter that time if you use a shovel. If you're sneaking around a supermarket that's being patrolled by armed bandits, you'll have to move more slowly and wait in hiding places for paths to clear, which takes more time. If you haven't gotten out of any location by sunrise, then that character won't be available during the day phase and could possibly run into trouble trying to get back to the shelter off-screen. The timed nature of the gameplay can be pretty tense while scavenging during the night phase, and I like that it adds kind of a real-time strategy vibe to the day phase.

The structured day and night phases creates a pretty engaging rhythm where you're always compelled to keep playing "just one more phase" or "just one more day" because there's always a little something extra you have to do. During the day phase you take stock of what you have and work on building things, and realize that if you can get a little more wood or a few more electrical components then you can make that critical upgrade or appliance you've been eyeing, and so you go out at night looking for those supplies, and when you get back the next morning you immediately want to put them to use building more stuff. Meanwhile, random events pop up sporadically to pull your attention elsewhere, like when a character gets sick suddenly and you have to find some medicine, or when your shelter gets raided in the middle of the night and you lose the food you were planning to eat the next day. There's always something going on demanding your attention, and the game's methodical pacing and constant ticking-clock makes it hard to put down. That is, except for when there's nothing going on and nothing to do.

Day 10 and everyone's starting to lose hope.

The day phase, for instance, can really drag at times, leaving you to sit around twiddling your thumbs while you wait for your characters to rest, wait to see if anyone will show up at your door, wait for tasks to complete so you can move onto the next thing, wait to see if your animal traps will catch anything, or wait until later in the afternoon to put fresh fuel in the heater so it doesn't burn out in the middle of the night. There's an option to skip through the rest of the day phase, thus going straight to the night phase, but that's not a viable option if you still have things to do later in the day. Sometimes there's absolutely nothing to do in the day phase because you just don't have the resources to do anything, which isn't so bad because you just skip right through it, but towards the end of a successful run you may find that you've set your shelter up well enough that you don't even need to bother going out to scavenge anymore, which can make the last quarter of the game incredibly boring as you basically just sit around automatically producing everything you need and waiting for the game to end.

Even the night phase -- the main part of the game with any sort of active gameplay -- can suffer from this sense of boring tedium sometimes. As previously mentioned, you may reach a point when there's no longer any need to go out scavenging, but at other times you may find that your choices of where to go have been drastically reduced due to fighting or snowy conditions, leaving you with just a handful of locations that you've already exhausted, or that don't have what you need. Sometimes you'll go to a location and clear it of all hostile threats, and then have to spend several nights slowly hauling everything back to your shelter, little by little, because your inventory space is so limited and you have no way to increase inventory space (ie, by crafting a bigger backpack or something). And when you need dozens of resources at a time for a single crafting upgrade, it can feel like too much of a grind repeatedly going back and forth between the same locations just to bring back a mere fraction of what you need each trip.

A desolate stretch the city, in the middle of winter.

Despite all of the randomized elements and the possibilities to play as different characters in different scenarios, I felt like there was limited replay value because you're essentially going through the same motions every time you play. The "upgrade tree," for instance, doesn't change from game to game, meaning you'll always start in the same place and have to work your way up to the same end-game goals each time. Every time you play, you'll likely go through the same steps based on priorities -- beds and a stove are much more important early on than, say, a comfy armchair or a heater, and making sure your shelter is safe and secure is more important than being able to grow your own vegetables -- especially once you find a system that works. Meanwhile you'll be exploring many of the exact same locations and experiencing some of the exact same events, with slight variations in the distribution of items. Once you "solve" the general strategy, you're basically just rolling the dice and seeing how easy or hard this particular run is going to be.

There's no tutorial whatsoever, and that makes the game especially difficult in the beginning. I suppose it's thematic, since your characters wouldn't have all the answers and wouldn't understand how their actions might affect things down the road and would be confused by a lot of different things, but this opaque uncertainty only works, thematically, on the first playthrough -- after that, you have the meta knowledge of how the game works and what to expect up ahead, and then it stops feeling like a "realistic war survival simulator" and more like another typical video game. Meanwhile, it turns your first playthrough into a trial-and-error, "trial-by-fire" kind of scenario where you bumble around confused by almost everything, wondering which upgrades are more important, which tools are more useful, what order you should be doing things, how scavenging, trading, and combat works, and so on, pretty much guaranteeing that you're going to do horribly and be miserable in your first run of the game. After 16 days of my first run, having lost multiple characters while trying to figure out how stealth and combat work, and having my shelter constantly raided in the middle of the night causing me to lose critical supplies and getting my remaining survivors seriously wounded in the process, I literally gave up and decided to skip forward until my group eventually died, just so I could start over and try again with a better understanding of the game.

Beating a shotgun-wielding bandit with a shovel. I know he's a bad man because he so blatantly talks about "getting rid of" the priest. 

And if the lack of tutorial is indeed intended to be thematic, then it actually breaks thematic immersion when you try to do something and struggle to figure out the user interface, like when you try to sneak up on an armed bandit, hoping to slit their throat with a knife, and then bump into them and get shot multiple times while standing around like an idiot doing absolutely nothing, because you didn't realize you had to be in "combat mode" to attack someone, and that clicking on them in "scavenging mode" will do absolutely nothing. Even once you understand the mechanics of combat, it still feels clunky and awkward. Granted, this is a point-and-click survival-simulator, not an action game, and sure, you're supposed to be ordinary civilians untrained in combat techniques and weapons usage, so it's not going to be anything too involved, fancy, or elaborate, but it's literally point-and-click RNG. Different weapons, different characters, and different statuses on those characters determine how effective each attack will be, but you literally just click on the target a few times and see what happens, based on random results.

Ironically, the game's biggest draw, and why most people recommend it so much -- its theme -- is probably what bugs me most about This War of Mine. To me, the war theme did not come across very strongly. I didn't feel like I was trapped in a war zone, largely because I never saw or encountered any actual signs of the war, apart from ruined buildings and needing to scavenge for food and medicine, which could've been the result of any type of apocalyptic event. You could just as easily pretend that you're trying to survive a zombie apocalypse, a nuclear winter, a meteor strike, an alien invasion -- practically anything. Otherwise, the only things that actually suggested war to me were the game's title, occasionally being unable to go to certain locations because of "fighting," a few things said on the radio, and a few sentences written in my characters' backstories.

Similar to real life, you experience the war indirectly; you hear about it more than you actually see or feel it.

I also felt no attachment to any of the characters, because they didn't feel like real people to me. All you get is a few sentences of backstory briefly explaining who they were before the war and how they came to be trapped in the city, and then they simply become pawns for you to order around, no more deep or human than generic worker units in an RTS. They hardly talk or interact with each other (or other NPCs), and when they do, it's either implied off-screen or heavily simplified, almost abstracted. If a character is depressed, for instance, you can have someone talk to them to try to improve their mood, but this amounts to literally just "We can't give up, we have to stay strong" and other such cliche nonsense. Each character has a little biography that updates with diary entries as the game progresses, but most of the time these are just them restating the facts of events that have happened to them, like "I'm glad we could help that man," or "We really need food!" Every week or so, you get entries marked "My Story" which give you a few more sentences of backstory, usually some type of flashback depicting highlights of their life before (or at the start of) the war, but to me this is too little, too late. They feel more like symbolic representations of characters than actual characters.

Any story or characterization that you can glean from this game is going to be stuff you make up yourself, because there is no story. Really, this game is just a bunch of gameplay mechanisms glued together with the (loose) theme of civilians caught in a war. To its credit, there's plenty of room for emergent narratives based on how you, personally, would perceive and describe the series of events happening to your characters -- I've read synopses of people's playthroughs on forums that make all the little things happening to their characters (like running out of coffee, or sending someone to help the neighbors board up their windows) sound really fascinating -- but again, that falls on the player to make something out of those building blocks. If you're an empathetic person who can put yourself in these characters' shoes and imagine what they're feeling (keyword being "imagine," since they sure don't show it), then I could see you being rather engrossed and engaged by the "story." But if you're someone like me who's more practical and who looks at things from a more mechanical, logical perspective, you may not be so emotionally moved.

A brief look into Emilia's backstory.

Wherever you fall on the "logic vs feeling" spectrum, you may find some satisfaction in the variety of moral decisions you have to make in this game. Sometimes these decisions are forced upon you in a more overt manner, such as when someone shows up at your door during the day saying their friend got shot by a sniper and is in dire need of bandages, or when children show up begging for food. In those types of instances, you're placed on the spot: do you part with precious goods you need to survive because someone else possibly needs them more, or hold on to them and take care of yourself before helping others? Other decisions are less structured, and are ones you make of your own initiative; when you see a young woman being attacked by a soldier in the supermarket, do you risk your own life trying to save her, or stay out of it? When someone in your group is deathly ill, do you resort to stealing medicine from the elderly couple that live by themselves?

For me, the decision was pretty obvious in most cases: I have bandages that I could give you, but I also have someone in my group who's critically wounded and so I can't afford to part with them; I have enough food to last a while and I can produce more, so I can easily part with some; I have no weapons and therefore have no safe way of taking that soldier down, so I'm not going to interfere; I need medicine and I'm willing to steal it from an old couple because this is just a video game and I'm probably never going to see or experience any kind of consequence for doing so. In that last instance, one of my characters became sad, thinking "what has the world come to that we have to steal to survive," but I personally felt no remorse because to me it was just a matter of using built-in game mechanics (a stealth system) to complete an objective. Maybe that says more about how desensitized I am to the plights of fictional video game characters, but I found it really difficult to care, especially in that instance, since that couple serves no other purpose in the gameplay or story -- even if you show up peacefully looking to talk or trade with them, there's no way to interact with them, except to steal from them. They don't exist as actual characters within this game's world; they exist purely as a moral dilemma, a symbol of the game's overarching theme.

Just a few more days, Katia, then you can buy all the houses you want.

This doesn't seem like the type of game you play because it's such a great game, but rather because of the ideas it's exploring and the message it's trying to send. It feels like a game whose primary intention is to be Important, with a secondary goal of also being a Good Game. I think everyone was primed to praise and recommend it simply because of its unique take on war, which we rarely, if ever, have seen in a video game, depicting the actual harsh realities of war in a much darker and more serious light. It's the type of game you literally can't criticize because it has such good intentions and its message is (or at least, can be) so powerful; to offer negative criticism of This War of Mine would be akin to saying that Schindler's List is a bad movie and telling people not to watch it. And yet, after years of hype and praise creating such high expectations, the game falls a little flat for me.

It's a fairly run-of-the-mill survival-simulator with a decently satisfying crafting system, but the gameplay doesn't do a whole lot to make it stand apart from the huge wealth of similar roguelite survival-simulators saturating the market. The game's unique theme is supposed to be what makes it stand out from the crowd, and indeed there are some good things going on with the theme, but it feels like a wasted opportunity to do more with it, because I felt like I barely noticed it at all. I never felt like I was in a war, and most of the stress and struggle stemmed from being in a typical survival-simulator where you never have enough of what you need to do what you want. After a horrendously miserable and frustrating first run in which I basically gave up, and an overwhelmingly successful second run which felt much too easy down the stretch, I got bored during my third run, even though it seemed to be going well, and decided to quit partway through it. I felt like I'd already seen the majority of everything I was encountering, and it really felt like I was just going through the exact same motions (with slight variations) for the third time in a row, starting from scratch every time.

Most importantly, I just wasn't having fun. And I don't mean that in the "omg it's so stressful and intense" kind of way, where you'd expect me to follow up with "while I didn't enjoy playing it, I'm glad I did," or "I didn't like it, but I do appreciate it." I'm not going to be that apologetic. I just did not like it. Not so much for me to warrant my usual "[Game Title] Sucks" headline, but definitely in a way where I felt disappointed and letdown by the hype and expectations. Granted, I don't generally care for these types of games anyway (I don't really see the appeal of survival-simulators) so maybe you should take these conclusions with a grain of salt, but I can't recommend This War of Mine for the execution of its gameplay or the application of its theme. Maybe if you really like survival-simulators, or if you absolutely have to see for yourself what the fuss is/was all about, then This War of Mine could be worth checking out. You just might want to temper your expectations a bit.