Romanticizing Tragedy: Should Disaster Games Be Fun?

Games Features

I know how to turn Oregon Trail, that old milquetoast edutainment game, into an action-packed romance. You can buy only bullets and shoot only rabbits—they’re the fastest and trickiest to hit. You can name all of the wagon riders after your current crushes, even the ones who don’t know who you are in real life, so their ailments and illnesses will feel all the more overwhelming and poignant. You’ll have to rest for every broken arm and increase rations and shell out for fancy ferry rides—all to protect your darling harem.

I was a pretty lonely middle schooler. For a game that is purportedly about a team traveling cross-country to build a future home together, Oregon Trail is a surprisingly lonely experience. No one but the wagon leader seems to have any sense of personal responsibility at all; the members of your party do nothing but eat the food you hunted, get sick and break bones. You’re doing all the work! You’re absorbing all of the stress! The rest of your family members and/or cute crushes are just a bunch of freeloaders!

That’s just what I loved about it, though—playing the protector, the hero. I lived for the moments when someone would get dysentery and then make a narrow recovery thanks to my patience. I felt like I was making a real sacrifice, like someone’s life was really on the line. Every time I caulked my wagon and let it float, I would cross my fingers and chant “please,” out loud, over and over, until we made it safely across. My heart would skip a beat every time that notification box popped up—had we lost someone? It felt stressful, and horrible, and amazing, and real.

Oregon Trail is a survival game, and also a disaster game. Most of the choices are opaque; you don’t know whether caulking your wagon will get you safely across the river or not, and it all depends on an invisible roll of the dice. You can’t prepare for the unexpected, nor does the game allow you to do so; all you can do when disaster hits is rest and hope that circumstances improve. It’s not a power fantasy. It’s unpredictable. You’re never safe. You’re constantly waiting for something to go wrong, again, and again, and again.

Nobody enjoys stress, right? Stress is bad! It makes you feel bad!

And yet I have actively been seeking out stressful games since I was a kid. I did my best to make even harmless edutainment fare like Oregon Trail into as stressful an experience as possible; as an adult, I prefer StarCraft. Many strategy games, especially survival games, are built to be voluntary, borderline-masochistic engagements with one stressful situation after another. There’s that sweet adrenaline rush, that sense of unknowable and impossible circumstance, that head-pounding rush of despair when you fail—and that sweeping, dizzying relief when you land on your feet.

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But I’ve had to make an exception when it comes to This War Of Mine, a disaster-themed, strategic survival game inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo. Unlike other games with “survival” as their genre, This War Of Mine never lets you feel in control or like you have it all together. You aren’t some individualist demi-god with tons of rations and guns saved up for the apocalypse—you’re part of a ragtag group of civilian survivors who have very few resources or strategies beyond stealing from other people. Stealing is stressful. Scavenging for medical supplies and conserving energy and planning out who’ll get to sleep at what times is stressful. But this time … I don’t like it.

I don’t think anyone is meant to “like” This War Of Mine. It’s meant to help you empathize with how the civilians in a war-faring area might feel, day to day—how their struggle for survival depends on factors beyond their control, and how their own nourishment and self-care must always come at the expense of others’. There is never enough of anything to go around in This War Of Mine; the decisions are hard because there is often no “morally correct” answer. You do not get to gun down any mustache-twirling Nazi zombies; your only enemies are hunger, illness, weather, and the other people around you. Even your own makeshift family begins to feel like a burden, especially when they’re sick or wounded. This War Of Mine is not only about stress, but also resentment—of poor circumstances, of systemic unfairness, and of one’s own drive to live. If only you could just lie down and sleep forever. Actually, if circumstances in the game get rough enough, your heroes will commit suicide.

Pretty damn dark, right? From a design standpoint, This War of Mine pulls out all the stops when it comes to ripping up heart-strings—and not in a thrilling way, like when I worried my imaginary crushes might die in Oregon Trail. On the contrary, This War of Mine evokes a thoroughly unromanticized position of despair and desperation; the deck is constantly stacked against you in terms of resources and supplies. Every time you instruct your heroes to scavenge and remove garbage and build radios and beds and chairs, they drag their feet as they walk, cast their groggy eyes downward, pull at the moaning floorboards in submitted defeat. Who do they really resent: the soldiers who’ve left their city in relentless shambles, or you—the player—for forcing them through these pointless motions? What purpose can there be in stealing a loaf of bread today, when tomorrow everyone will wake up hungry once more? What use is it to feed a man who’s already halfway in the grave?

So I guess This War of Mine achieved what it set out to do, which is teach me that trying to survive as a civilian during wartime is a waking hellscape. Given how many other war games make combat into a thrill-packed roller coaster, it makes sense that these developers would want to push back by creating a game about the intense, inescapable suffering that civilians suffer during wartime. More importantly, though, I think This War of Mine grapples with a question that niggles at me from time to time, which is whether or not games about disasters are inherently exploitative.

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I don’t think “accuracy” is a productive hill to die on when it comes to historical fiction; I’d prefer to insist upon emotional truth and a respect for the subject matter. Oregon Trail fails in many respects—its irresponsible romanticization of colonial conquest, for one—but it does, at the very least, invite the player in to participate in its world and feel that their actions have consequences. The fact that you can hunt the buffalo in Oregon Trail to extinction, for example, seems like one intended way to “teach” children that you shouldn’t take more than you need. Unfortunately, that lesson comes across as a bit too subtle in context, given how much fun the hunting mini-games are to play.

So, is that a sign of disrespect on the part of Oregon Trail’s developers? Should an updated, grittier version of Oregon Trail be released that more appropriately conveys the full weight of the consequences of Westward expansion—not on the buffalo population, but on Native Americans? Is the current version exploitative, even irresponsible, in regard to its historical subject matter?

I’d say yes—but yikes, do I ever not want to play a grittier Oregon Trail. That’s not a story I want to participate in.

I say that because I’m not sure This War of Mine is accessible. The depth of its sadness renders it unplayable, at least for me. I mean, I played it, for a little while, but I could hardly bear it. It made me angry and frustrated, and then I felt guilty about feeling angry and frustrated. The characters were going through so much, and there was nothing I could do to help them. The worst part was knowing that was exactly the point. The game wasn’t even ham-fisted or pretentious about this lesson, either—it wasn’t a game that pointed to itself and yelled, “See, Maddy? War is bad!” Instead, it just crawled into my stomach and coiled there like a miserable snake, hissing at my heart.

Does that make it a “good” game? What is its “fun factor”? (Zero.) What is its “replayability score”? (Zero.) What purpose does it serve from a design standpoint? What lessons can other developers learn from This War of Mine—perhaps they can learn how to make a game that humans can only stand to play for a few minutes at a stretch, before craving the sweet release of death? What price-point would be fair to put on a completely miserable experience?

I don’t think art has to be accessible. I don’t think games have to be fun. But we sure do seem to lack the tools, as critics and as consumers, to talk about the games that do not play by ordinary rules.

I feel obligated to say that This War of Mine is “important,” to impress upon other people that I’m glad it exists. The truth is that I’m not glad I played it, and I wish that I hadn’t. Yet any way that I can think of to make This War of Mine more accessible to me would involve destroying what it fundamentally is. Other games make that compromise all the time: they make murder fun, or torture, or stealing, or even mowing the lawn. Sometimes, these games will try to make you feel guilty for playing them—by shaming you for killing all of those buffalo, perhaps—but This War of Mine flips that trope on its head, since it isn’t fun to begin with. If you behave badly in the game (by stealing or killing other civilians), then you get even unhappier endings. It starts out sad and it only gets sadder. All you can do is hope for the least sad ending to your already-doomed story.

There do seem to be people who enjoy playing it, though. I’ve found examples here and there from people who are far more emotionally hardy than I am, describing their experiences wading through This War of Mine again and again. I don’t know how they do it. That’s a variety of “hardcore gaming” that even I can’t understand.

But, hey, at least there is a market for a gritty Oregon Trail reboot, should any developer dare to pick up that depressing torch. I’d probably play it, too, if it ever really existed. But I won’t enjoy it. At least, not if you do it right.

Maddy Myers is Paste’s assistant games editor. She tweets @samusclone and co-hosts a weekly gaming podcast called Isometric on the 5by5 Network.

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