I’ve never really set myself a formal remit for what I can and can’t review, because it always seemed rather clear to me that some media are consistently used to talk about interesting things in interesting ways and others simply aren’t. I review books, films, exhibitions because these are the formats that are generally used to explore the things that I want to spend time thinking and writing about. I’ve never reviewed video games (even though I often play them) because with very few exceptions they just don’t do this. However, this informal rationale has become harder and harder to stick to, as over the past few years games have got much smarter.
There was 2008’s Bioshock for example, which took an axe to Ayn Rand’s objectional Objectivist philosophy by imagining a dystopian society ruled by the demands of the market and a total subjection to free will. Another great example was 2011’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which engaged with complex and highly relevant questions of globalisation, technological dependence and trans-humanism. I’m not sure if they’ve exactly reached the status of art, but games can be very clever and be fully engaged with the real world as well as offering an opportunity for escapism. So with that in mind, here it is, my first (and perhaps last) video game review:
Released by a Polish indie games firm, This War of Mine drops you into an unidentified eastern European city (possibly modelled on Sarajevo) which is embroiled in civil war and under a state of siege. In most games you would expect at this point to assume the part of an elite soldier who must slaughter his way through a ridiculous number of enemies to an implausibly absolute and consequence free victory. Instead This War of Mine cleverly mixes things up by putting you control of a small group of civilians just struggling to survive from one day to the next. From your home in a bombed out apartment building you must sally forth into the city in search of supplies, scavenging in the ruins of nearby structures for the food and medicine you need to keep going and the parts you need to gradually improve your shelter and prepare for the coming winter.
These supplies are few and the moral quandaries involved in getting them are many. At times the only option is to steal from other survivors, perhaps by stealth or as the game goes on and things get increasingly desperate then by taking what you require by force. Doing so is never a decision taken lightly, particularly as it runs a high risk of your scavenger being caught and killed. Losing a character has a knock on effect on the others in your group, reducing their chances of survival and sometimes sending them into a spiral of depression, on top of the already constant dangers of hunger, sickness and being in turn robbed yourself by marauding bands of starving civilians. The game is compelling and somewhat addictive, but it’s also gruelling, tense and at times deeply depressing.
Anyone who thinks This War of Mine gives them an accurate idea of what it’s like to be a civilian trying to survive in a war zone is an idiot, but the game might at least encourage some to doubt the pro-military heroics of most war games, and lead them instead to think about the invisible civilians who might be hiding in the shadows as they blast their way to victory. This War of Mine is also about much more than changing attitudes or raising ethical dilemmas, it has a fund-raising role as well. The game is directly linked to the charity War Child who get a cut of the sales of the game, and you’re encouraged to donate directly to support the charity’s work from within the game. an interesting feature which shows that at least a few in the charity sector are thinking in innovative ways and that they are not all (as it sometimes seems) just desperately attempting to catch-up with the possibilities of new technology and cultural forms.
And looking for new ways to tell stories is important. Photography and video are, and will remain, essential media in delivering humanitarian messages and appeals. But both also have obvious shortcomings, not least in the fact that the viewer’s engagement can sometimes be quite passive and narratives or appeals delivered through these mediums can give you the feeling of looking at a world powerlessly, as if through a window, rather than having much sense of being there. You might empathise with the person depicted but it can be hard to feel compelled to do much more than pull the curtains at the end of the story and carry on with your life. One of the obvious strengths of video games is they demand that you take control and experience (on an ultra-diluted level) the cause and consequences of these things yourself. If you’ve ever seen a gamer physically duck out of the way of something in a game you’ll know what I mean.
It’s hard of course not to feel ethically troubled by a game which turns survival into a form of optional entertainment at a time when so many in Syria, Ukraine, etc. are living this as an enforced reality. The game necessarily has to tread a line between trying to replicate a gruelling experience and making it compelling enough to keep you returning for more. As often as it falls on the right side of that line, it also tips over onto the wrong side. That said, This War of Mine is certainly no more ethically questionable than the vast number of games that turn war into entertainment (or ‘Millitainment’ as Roger Stahl dubs it) and which encourage killing without consideration of its consequences. Whatever criticisms you could make of This War of Mine, at least it keeps these ethical questions very, very close to the surface.
This War of Mine is published by 11Bit Studios.