This War of Mine: The Little Ones

Updated for consoles with new content exploring the plight of children in warzones, This War of Mine: The Little Ones delves even deeper into the traumatising realities of warfare today.

Game Review by Stewart McIver | 19 Feb 2016
Game title: This War of Mine: The Little Ones
Publisher: 11 Bit Studios
Release date: Out Now
Price: £19.99

This War of Mine isn’t an easy game to play. It’s intuitive to pick up, with an obvious system of gameplay and progression, so that’s not what renders it challenging. It’s overwhelming and at times terrifying, with every decision feeling like the right choice to progress, but perhaps at the wrong time, or with consequences that might strike out of the blue in a few days time. It’s only a game, though, and experience should reveal strategies to complete it, so that’s not the challenge either. It’s challenging because playing to win hurts. It’s perhaps unique in gaming, where failure often feels a relief, considering some of the choices the game piles forced players to make relentlessly, day after day.

The setting is based heavily upon the 1990s Bosnia conflict and the Siege of Sarejevo, which grants it particular poignancy with Syria today. The protagonists are civilians, living in fear (or at best wary co-dependency) of the soldiers purported to protect them, while competing with other survivors for ever dwindling resources: food, fuel, medicine, ammunition. The battle for resources feels relentless and often requires choices that are emotionally exhausting.

Steal medicine and food from an old couple, because there's a hungry child to look after in your household and their sole surviving parent is sick. Walk away from a soldier assaulting a woman because he has a rifle and all you have is a shovel. Refuse food offered by strangers because they didn't demand something upfront in exchange. It's harrowing, which comes across as being precisely how developers 11 Bit Studios intended, having consulted survivors, museums and foundations for assistance in conveying the realities of war. As such, it’s a game well worth experiencing, but perhaps not one you can ever pick up to enjoy.

Graphically, it looks attractive, albeit cluttered at times. The only serious issue is with the pencil drawing effect which aims to give the game a hand drawn look. With default settings, some parts of buildings are hatched with pencil marks to such an extent the actual detail is completely lost. Thankfully players can turn the filter off as well as simply adjusting its strength, like film grain filters that seemed all the rage a few years ago, but for a game that’s unremitting on its subject matter, this apologetic approach to its artstyle is incongruous.

This is more than forgiven due to how the characters are handled. The people are simply, but elegantly animated, so much so that their moods are infectious. The children, when saddened, wander aimlessly, dragging their heels before finding a quiet room to sit alone with their thoughts or emit an occasional, quiet sob. When kept happy, they play, explore, and seek out other inhabitants to talk to.

They’re new to the console release (hence the addendum The Little Ones), and although the additional dialogue between adults and children is fairly stilted, keeping them happy and safe gives the player a much needed push towards the game’s darker elements, making the need to survive feel more significant and rewarding. Its enough to justify buying the game if you don't own the original version on another system, but the new content is fairly limited beyond the inclusion of children.

It took only a few minutes to grow attached to the characters, and a few more days of gametime to fear for their wellbeing. Much of the character development takes the form of diaries kept by each character. These fill up over time to form a personalised log to reflect on, giving a day by day account from each member of the household of their experiences so far. However, it’s the small comments made by the characters and those they encounter that really shape your perceptions of them as individuals. Voicing concerns over what they’re becoming after stealing from victims of the war even worse off than themselves, mental scars from crimes committed just to stay alive.

Characters and their fragility, mental and physical, make this game unique and not just one of innumerable stealth based platformers or base management sims. It’s possible to play it as such, but there are better options out there for such playstyles. This War of Mine is better to play it as intended, without resetting the days, with permadeath and the full brunt of the consequences of your actions.

In terms of gameplay, progress is marked by a simple day and night cycle as the group awaits the end of the war with few hints to when that could actually happen. By day the survivors are free to potter around the house. They can rest up in crafted beds for a night of scavenging, cook or craft to improve their chances of survival or mental wellbeing, and in the first few days, finish the exploration of their new home to find salvage and learn the ropes of the other half of the game. At night, players can assign one inhabitant to search other nearby locations for food, medicine, loot or whatever proves most pressing.

The interface 'helpfully’ displays which locations contain each kind of resource as well as what kind of quantities they are in. It’s best not to place too much credence on these often misleading descriptions though; crafting parts are prevalent everywhere, whereas anyplace alleged to contain ‘loads’ of food or medicine always seems to require a fight. Finding even scraps of food often proves impossible, and leaves you with the inexorable knowledge that soon you’ll have to fight, steal or cheat just to survive.

Combat is simple and crude, limited to hitting, stabbing or shooting depending on the weapons or tools available. It's frustrating and often unfair, which is in keeping with the characters’ backgrounds and the tone of the game. Actually killing someone, or stealing, or refusing to help someone in need, all have an emotional cost, further disincentivising immoral acts. Yet often they’re the only option.

Few other games are so swift or skilled at playing with emotions. This War of Mine isn’t subtle or a joy to play, but it dares to confront the plight of civilians head on, where other games incorporate them only as pithy objectives, soon forgotten. It's an unforgettable experience, and a great example of how games can confront some of the world’s most serious subjects without trivialising them.