As someone who’s been fortunate to never have witnessed armed conflict, I doubt even the most lurid depiction — fictional or nonfictional — would rival the feeling of being in actual combat. I lost my shit at seeing a violent car crash; I can’t imagine what it would actually be like to live in or around violence far exceeding that level.
But it’s not for a lack of trying from the entertainment industry. Combat is so omnipresent in videogames that it’s featured in roughly 85 percent of all titles, ranging from graphic depictions of violence to Mario jumping on a goomba, and the odd in-between found in T-rated games like Uncharted where shot enemies seem to spray faint mists of ketchup as they die. One of the largest videogame franchises of all time, Call of Duty, is dedicated to recreating historic, modern and fictional warfare with extreme levels of violence.
This War of Mine, originally released in 2014 and recently remastered for PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, aims to capture a different aspect of war: the effect it has on civilian life. Based largely on the years-long siege of Sarajevo in Europe, the Polish developer 11 Bit Studios aimed to create an experience that simulates what it’s like to try to survive an unpredictable, disturbing and deeply depressing war from the perspective of people who want nothing to do with it.
The game thrusts you into the day-to-day simulation without much context or tutorialization. This is an intentional choice, according to senior writer Pawel Miechowski in an interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun, because “when war breaks out no-one would tell you what to do, there would be no tutorial.” I, a coward, looked up tips on how to get through the game online before I even started.
It runs a bit like more calming life simulators, where you take control of one character at a time and assign others to complete different tasks like cooking, eating, sleeping or building. At night, you assign characters to automatically sleep or guard our home and can take one character out to scavenge for resources.
After I had cleared the first few risk-free areas, I decided to check out a homeless shelter in which non-combative people hung out. My first trip, I only took what was acceptable to take without stealing. The second time around, I took a look at what they had, and was immediately tempted by the plethora of food, medicine and other high-value resources they had. I assessed the area and noticed that nobody had any weapons, and my character was far faster than any of them.
I stole from the homeless.
For the rest of the game, I barely left home at all. We had gathered so much from that one trip that I only had to briefly visit other low-risk areas without needing to steal anything. We had a good cook and another character who cheered everyone up after temporarily becoming depressed over stealing the few resources that were keeping maybe around 10 people alive. Because I wasn’t going into risky areas, I sold most of our weapons in exchange for food, which we rationed out every other day, only feeding ourselves when we became hungry enough that it impaired our functioning. I slipped into a comforting, boring routine where everyone had enough to survive, knowing that it was because of one action that condemned innocent people to die.
But I won. We all survived the war.
As a privileged American college student, I try not to think too much about the war in Ukraine. I have homework to do, bills to pay and videogames to review. I listen to my daily news podcast as I eat my breakfast each morning, sipping on the coffee that comes free with the rent my parents pay. I try not to be too wasteful, but if the coffee goes cold, I more often than not toss it down the drain. I get bottles of flavored water because the water that comes out of our tap, an infinite supply, tastes yucky.
So no, This War of Mine has not been a revelation on the horrors of war. I know nothing about it and I don’t want to. I know it’s bad, that the people caught in the crossfires of war deserve food, water, shelter and respect, and that nobody — not the billionaires running the world nor the protestors nor politicians nor writers like me — is doing enough to stop it.
I’m getting paid to write this. I could give all that money to people who need it to survive. I doubt I actually will.
Even as my characters’ depressions subsided, when neighbors came to ask for help, I would often do so. After I had set up my systems to provide us with enough necessities to make me confident enough to not even need to set foot outside home, I felt fine sending characters off to help others in exchange for a morale boost and some extra resources. Perhaps this was a way of me trying to balance my own karma — I may have doomed those homeless people, but I saved some others. Net zero lives lost, right?
Back when the original game released in 2014, Javy Gwaltney wrote that “This War of Mine takes a risk by accounting for player’s actions with the aforementioned psychological consequences. As a result, This War of Mine, as bleak as it may be, ultimately rejects nihilism, making it one of the more surprisingly human games about warfare.”
I agree. It can feel pointless to even try to understand, empathize with or help people in times of crisis, whether they’re people we know or continents away. When we do decide to help or donate, we might do so in vain or view it through the “myopic lens of our own self-actualization,” as Bo Burnham’s Socko says.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. Just because it’s impossible for me to stop the war, I could spare a few dollars to pay for a few cans of soup to go to someone who needs it. I don’t know your economic situation, but I know you have Internet access. You can do a lot with that.
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Looper and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.