It's day four. We're out of medicine, but Katia remains sick. I'd send Pavle out to scavenge tonight, but he's still not rested from his last raid. I head down to the workbench in the basement and use what extra materials we have to build a bed. Do I let Katia sleep to keep up her strength during her sickness, or do I let Pavle rest so he can head out tomorrow night? And I wonder, looking at what we have on hand, how many days do we have left?
I'm playing This War of Mine. While other games place you in control of an invincible hero who triumphs over a larger foe due to superior firepower, 11-Bit Studios' newest title places you in the tired frame of a simple civilian. I'm the survivor of a unnamed city embroiled in a larger unknown conflict. The specifics aren't necessary; all that matters is I need to survive with the people I have close to me.
As I play This War of Mine's demo, senior writer Paweł Miechowski explains the studio's intent with the title.
"This War of Mine is not about made-up mechanics, it's a translation of our knowledge of war into games language," says Miechowski. "The struggle people have when their city is under siege and war surrounds them is always the same, it doesn't matter if it's Yugoslavia, Syria, Libya, or wherever because when civilization is down there's no power or tap water. You struggle for water and food."
The game primarily plays out from a side-scrolling perspective; all black and grey, like a somber painting come to life. I pick Katia and have her take the last of my medicine and sleep in the bed I've created. While she does that, I use the last bit of material to build a still, so we have drinkable water. Sorry, Pavle, it looks like you're going raiding tonight. Sleep can wait.
I ask Miechowski what was the genesis of This War of Mine. He tells me that his brother, who also works at 11-Bit, sent him a blog post entitled "One Year in Hell". The post is reasonably popular, appearing first in French and then Russian before being translated into English. It covers the experiences of a man trapped in a city during the Bosnian War.
"It was a spark that caught us on fire," says Miechowski. "We were like 'let's create this experience' and we've done further research to find as much documentation as possible about real conflicts. Everything in the game is just a translation of that knowledge."
At night, I'm given the chance to simply rest or send one of my survivors to another shelter around the city. Some of the shelters are abandoned, but some have other survivors. The shelters with other survivors can be more dangerous, but there's a higher chance of them having things like food and medicine. I need medicine, so I send Pavle to a shelter with other survivors, armed with a knife. I kill two men who are simply guarding what they've scavenged for. I'm not sure how to feel about that. They had what I needed and I had nothing to trade for it; what else was I supposed to do?
"This is a tool to experience war from the perspective of civilians," Miechowski tells me. "You are the storyteller in This War of Mine because this is your story. What moral decisions are you making if you need to get medicine for your friends and family? There's no good or bad, it's just morally gray. On a basic level, humans are all the same and we need to face those really tough decisions."
Miechowski notes that the biggest threat during these prolonged conflicts isn't the military, it's other people trying to survive. This War of Mine wants players to understand this and make decisions about how they approach others. Do you kill like I did, or do you help others and grow your band of survivors? You don't even know if new additions to your group will be positive. I can move into other shelters, but things like the still and bed I've just built will stay in my current home. It's that give-and-take. Do I move to a shelter that may be more defensible, only to give up what I've already created?
"If you have a safe shelter, does it really make sense to move to another one?" Miechowski says when I ask if I can leave my current shelter. "When the war surrounds you and you've created your shelter, you have a stove, are you going to leave this? It doesn't make sense. At some point, you may be forced to do so, but if you've invested your time in making your shelter a safer place, you'd rather stay in it. But what if people attack you in your shelter? Maybe you're forced to leave it."
The game keeps track of how many days you've been surviving, but it doesn't give you any indication of how many days you need to hold out. Miechowski says the studio talked about making the win condition clear, but decided against it. How many actual refugees know when a war is going to be over? Having a clear "survive 100 days" win condition would be at odds with the story 11-Bit wants you to experience.
Katia dies on day 10. Damn.
The PAX East booth for This War of Mine sits in the shadow of Bethesda's booth for Wolfenstein: The New Order. The contrast between the two titles cannot be more different.
"Each movie, book, or game is not for everyone. I perceive this as an experience for mature adults. It's not for teenagers and we're not going to water it down," chuckles Miechowski when I point out the other booth. He doesn't have a problem with games like Wolfenstein because he feels the gaming medium has grown up and can support both titles.
"I'm a gamer myself," he says. "I like to play Battlefield, but that doesn't mean that games are not supposed to speak about important things. Games are already mature enough; games are now more than 30 years old and the community has grown up. Papers, Please is a major inspiration for us."
To some "maturity" means taking your adult content all of the way, but 11-Bit is being more subtle with This War of Mine. Things like suicide and going insane are not currently in the game, but are potential aspects of it. Other things like genocide, torture, and rape won't be included. They may be a part of real wars, but that's not what 11-Bit wants This War of Mine to be about. I'm glad that choice is being made, because I think there's strength in restraint.
"We're not having all the atrocities of war, because it's a painting of war from the perspective of normal people, not a simulator of atrocities," Miechowski tells me. "The heavy moment is making a decision when your people are starving, not rape. That's not the point here."
This War of Mine is currently planned for PC, Mac, and Linux, with a release some time this year. 11-Bit Studios also wants to do a mobile version of the game and Miechowski insists that will be a "premium" experience with no microtransactions. Asking you for more money would just get in the way of the story you're crafting for yourself.