There are several ways conflict-from-the-civilian-perspective effort This War Of Mine could have gone. Maudlin, shoegazing dialogue piece; inappropriate And One Shall Rise hero saga; icy-hearted death toll calculator like Plague Inc or DEFCON. What I didn't expect was The Sims During Wartime.
A surprising change of tack for Anomaly developer 11 bit studios, This War Of Mine sees you trying to keep a group of civilians alive in a country torn apart by war. Food, medicine and other supplies are beyond scarce, thugs and looters occupy the neighbouring buildings, venturing into the wrong area can get you shot by the military - and winter is coming.
And it's The Sims, mostly, but transplanted from consumerist America to an unspecified (but apparently Eastern European) nation shattered by conflict. Your characters' motivations, then, are not a bigger telly, a sprint up the career ladder or blurred-out nookie with the neighbour's wife, but simply eating, sleeping, staying warm, not getting killed by illness or invader. Even toileting isn't a priority here.
UI is minimal, so you don't get a food meter or a sleep meter, but simply the damning statements of "tired", "hungry" or "sick". It's on you to do something about that, and often enough you simply can't. The key dilemma throughout is shared with Papers, Please - on which necessity for survival do you compromise today? Those parts Katya brought back from her last run into a nearby building could build a burner, or a water filter, or a knife, or simply be used as fuel for the rickety stove. Or they could be traded for food if one of the local opportunists stops by your shelter today. There's never a right answer. Your survivors' wellbeing will almost inevitably suffer whatever you decide to build them, or feed them.
And even during this desperate struggle for subsistence, luxuries are still needed. Your civilians will see and do terrible things - others' suffering, others' violence, their own violence to others - and their mental health will decline for it. A bad cigarette, a bottle of moonshine or a cup of coffee might help them function, but can you really justify the resources and effort necessary to obtain such indulgences when there's no damn food or firewood?
Those are just the days. The days do become monotonous, because that's the point. If you don't have anything for your survivors to do - whether that's cooking, building improvements or having a smoke - there's nothing for them to do. They can't go outside because they'll be caught by snipers. All they can do is wait for night, when darkness grants some safety in their hunt for supplies.
They don't talk to each other. I don't know why. Maybe there's nothing to say. They do talk to themselves, agonising over the choices they've made or despairing at their losses. They repeat the same sentences a little too often, and, aided by the side-on, ant farm perspective, perhaps become too much like insects rather than people. Deliberate, perhaps - scrabbling in the dirt - but the shortage of personality means there's some unwitting inclination to treat these people as resources rather than humans.
This is never more true when the group grows or shrinks. Occasionally a refugee will arrive and ask to join you - another pair of hands to scavenge and defend, but another mouth to feed too. Just as often, there are losses. One wrong move on those night-time excursions and one of their small group is lost forever. Beaten to death by looters, or by those they attempted to loot, or shot down by soldiers. There's no mercy here, because whoever's responsible for this war long ago destroyed this place's skin of humanity.
There's no avoiding the potentially lethal duty of the night, however. Someone has to do a run for supplies. It's primarily for food at first, and junk from which to build a couple of crude beds, but as the temperatures drop they'll need to find space to bring back firewood too. Or building supplies. Or books. Books are precious, but they also make a flame.
Everything needs to be built, too - the stove, the crowbars and shovels with which to bypass collapsed walls or locked doors, the heater, the rainwater collector and its filters, the beds, the chairs, the radio which brings brief, chilling reports from outside, and the weapons with which the rest of group can try to protect their shelter from looters at night.
This building (rather than, arguably, an anti-war sentiment) is the heart of This War Of Mine. Everything is made from junk, everything only just does the job. Cooking food is building too - a meal needs clean water, firewood and ideally some vegetables as well as some manner of protein. None of these things are simple to obtain, or plentiful if they are found. This War of Mine is really The Sims as a survival game, and with the war itself backgrounded to some degree it's hard not to intrepret it as more of a post-apocalyptic game than one concerning innocents in a modern-day conflict.
Of course, there I speak from my own soft, fortunate experiences, which are purely those of watching or playing war and post-apocalyptic movies and games. I interpret This War Of Mine as being like those because I haven't lived in a war-torn place. Reading about the game, its developers have repeatedly stated wartime information such as alcohol being the most-traded item, or health declining because soap was so hard to come by. In any case, perhaps it's only appropriate that it feel like making do after the end of the world. For the citizens of this blighted place, the world has effectively ended.
Back to the nights. When darkness falls, This War Of Mine stops being The Grims and becomes a fearful stealth game. You can only send one survivor to one place each night - perhaps slightly too arbitrary a restriction, given the group's desperation - and you can never know quite what you'll find. The location selection screen will give a few hints - more food, more parts, caution or danger - but these can prove inaccurate, especially as places change over time.
A church I visited in one game was staffed by a friendly, if cautious, priest who shared what he could with me. The next time, looters roamed it, bragging about how they'd murdered the holy man and cleared the place out. The nights are where This War Of Mine is most successful from a 'game' point of view, if you want to see it through such an unsympathetic lens, because they are deadly, unpredictable and require patience and planning.
Conflict is possible, but is to be avoided. Because the danger is immense. Because weapons are hard to come by or construct, and soon break down. Because, even if they succeed, your survivors will be haunted by their bloody actions, even to the point of refusing to perform their duties. At first, sometimes hiding in the shadows with a knife, lunging out at a thug's back as he passes is necessary in order to get back home. Later, gunning other looters down on sight becomes simply the expedient thing. As the temperature becomes colder, so too do you.
There are flashes of light in the darkness - the armed man who invites you to help yourself rather than threatens you, the neighbour who stops by with food because you helped board up their windows - but trust erodes inexorably.
As does hope. Seasons come, seasons go, but the world does not improve. Sims move into bigger houses with bigger televisions. Not a lot of protein in a television, is there?
Whether This War of Mine truly succeeds in saying anything more than 'war is hell' I don't know. Equally, I'm not at all sure it needs to. We play a lot of wars, and it is surely only fair to sometimes be reminded that war is not really about a muscle-bound American man saving the day. It makes its point very well, in that it is harrowing, it is careful, and its increasingly deadly Groundhog day approach supports rather than disrupts the atmosphere of extreme strife. It's without doubt effective and impressive at what it does. Whether, though, you wish to subject yourself to despair in the name of empathy can only be your own decision.
This War Of Mine is out now.