I never thought it was a good idea to rob the hospital. It was an act of desperation. Bruno was seriously ill and unable to leave our shelter, so one night I sent out Pavle, our fastest runner, to find medicine. He crept through the war-torn city to the hospital and stole supplies while the patients slept.
Over the next few days, as Bruno recovered, Pavle fell into a depression, unable to forgive himself for stealing from the needy. One night he went out to scavenge supplies in a militia-occupied supermarket and got careless. A single gunshot and he was dead. Losing Pavle, I felt distraught, but I also recognised — somewhat guiltily — that I now had one less mouth to feed.
The potent cocktail of hope, distress and internal conflict I was experiencing meant that This War of Mine was doing its job. This highly original twist on the survival genre was first released by Polish studio 11 Bit in 2014 and it has now been remastered for the current console generation. It is still utterly singular.
While most war games cast you as a soldier unthinkingly sowing destruction, in This War of Mine you control civilians attempting to survive a siege. It is the anti-Call of Duty, seeking the realism of war not in military jingoism or advanced blood-spatter physics but in human tales of hardship and hope. Here, war is a dead end. There are no winners, only varying degrees of loss. In 2020, the game’s power to engender empathy led to it being used for teaching in Polish high schools.
While the game’s fictional city was inspired by 1990s Sarajevo, it now unavoidably brings to mind Ukrainians living under siege in Kyiv or Mariupol. As a gesture to this sad consonance, 11 Bit recently donated $850,000 from sales to the Ukrainian Red Cross.
In the game, your home is a bombed-out house, a 2D cross-section in sombre colours, rendered like a moving pencil sketch. At the beginning, the player is given no instructions whatsoever — but then, nor are real-life civilians when they are plunged into war. It’s relatively intuitive, though: your characters need food, warmth and shelter. Gameplay is divided into night, when you leave home to go scavenging, and day, when you craft improvements to your base and tend to your survivors’ needs. Elegant design makes the gameplay remarkably compelling.
Each character has specific skills: one is a good cook, another cheers up people low on morale. One is a loving parent, another smokes when stressed. Through them we learn the value of small objects during wartime: the welcome fire in the belly after a sip of home-brewed vodka, the trading potential in a pack of cigarettes, the brief escape provided by an old book or guitar. As the days roll by, new areas open up for scavenging, filling in the story of the besieged city through memorable vignettes. There’s a church where a priest trades essential goods, a house in flames that nobody thought to extinguish and the plush home of an elderly couple you might rob when desperate. But if you do, your characters’ morale will suffer.
These are scripted narrative beats, but This War of Mine is most powerful when it allows players to tell their own stories. It does this by subverting the tropes of the popular survival genre — games such as Minecraft, Subnautica and Valheim, where players are abandoned in hostile environments and left to fend for themselves. Such games are about tough choices: how best to deploy limited resources or weigh risk against reward? Here the setting makes such decisions more painful: should you trade the last of your medicine for clean water? Does the mother or the daughter deserve to eat tonight? Often there is no good choice; you just have to try and do the least bad thing and accept that further tragedy could strike at any moment.
Despite its grim themes, This War of Mine is rewarding because of the unique stories that players co-author in each playthrough, creating their own dilemmas, tragedies and stolen moments of joy. It is impossible not to become invested in these characters, not to feel responsible for their lives and eager to get them through to ceasefire. This is the rare game that asks you not to kill, but to care. It argues that consoling a scared child might, for a minute or two, be the most important thing in the world.
‘This War of Mine: The Complete Edition’ is out now on PC, Switch, PS4/5 and currently on Xbox Game Pass