How to Survive a Digital Genocide

By making you play as civilians and not soldiers, ‘This War of Mine’ is a hauntingly unique war game—the act of digital genocide is decidedly unenjoyable.

This War of Mine gives true meaning to the oft-repeated phrase “War is Hell.” War can look like hell in a video game, but it rarely feels like it. Hell isn’t fun, and big budget shooters have to make the act of digital genocide enjoyable.

Since Call of Duty 4 paved the way, most modern shooters will have shocking sequences that elicit some sort of emotion from gamers, but players are usually only bystanders. It’s rarely anything they did that caused things to go horribly wrong. They are complicit rather than outwardly culpable. Even in games where you are forced to do horrible things—like the infamous civilian massacre in Modern Warfare 2’s “No Russian” mission—you do them because you’re told to.

No one gives you orders in This War of Mine. You’re not a soldier. You’re a civilian.

This War of Mine is not a first person shooter. It does not look like Call of Duty, nor does it play like it. It looks like a digital dollhouse; it plays like The Sims. Polish developer 11bit Studios was inspired by real accounts of civilian experiences during the Bosnian war. They turned that experience into a video game. A cruel, punishing video game. A game that kept me up for nights after I finished it. I tossed and turned, and in those rare moments where I entered dreamland, I was inundated with disease and violence and death. And then I was awake, thinking about what I had done in the game world.

This War of Mine didn’t tell me to steal. It told me I could steal, but that’s as far as that went. It was 23 days before I felt that things had become so dire. The night before, one of my characters had been shot and seriously wounded. I didn’t have any bandages for him, but he was my best scavenger. I couldn’t lose him. The next night—travel during the day is impossible due to the constant fear of sniper fire—I traded away a huge number of supplies to get him a bandage. As I walked back towards the exit, I saw an unguarded cabinet. I looked inside and saw some more supplies. The game told me that these supplies were property, but I took them anyway.

If you do something once, it’s easier to do it again. The next night, I stole four cans of food from an apartment complex owned by an elderly couple. It was a mistake, one that over the following 18 days would ultimately cause one character to leave, two more to meet horrible ends, and the fluke survival of a fourth on the night he was undoubtedly going to die.

Other media have long had works that are not “enjoyable” so much as they are “worthwhile.” You can appreciate the craft, but the actual experience is distressing. Until very recently, video games have never really had that. Video games are “games.” They’re supposed to be fun. This War of Mine is not fun. It does not pretend to be fun. It shouldn’t be fun. To give players any semblance of understanding of just how horrific it can be to live through an armed conflict, the game must be hostile to the players. It must function, but it should also be a little bit broken.

You’ll be mad at This War of Mine not just because of what it makes you do but also because of what it doesn’t let you do. If one of your characters becomes physically abusive, there’s no button to kick them out. If you want them to go, you can put them in a position where they will be killed, either by the elements or by other survivors. Sometimes a glitch will make things appear in the wrong place. Sometimes two characters will be talking to each other despite being on different floors. These moments hurt the realism that This War of Mine strives so hard to achieve. But the flaws don’t hurt the experience, because the reality is that the experience would be messy. A perfectly polished product would undermine itself. This goes right down to the look: It’s a sketched pencil aesthetic, and it’s just the right combination of ugly and beautiful.

The world feels lived in. Your shelter is full of rubble and riddled with holes that allow for the elements to come inside or raiders to gain easier access during the night. The rubble can be picked away and the holes can be boarded up, but they make it clear that there were people here before. That they left is simultaneously fortunate and worrying. Questions arise: Why did they leave? Did they survive? Were they killed? Are we next? The distant sounds of gunfire never let you forget that a war is going on outside. The occasional appearance of others at your door, whether friendly neighbors or armed militia men, serve as a reminder that there are others out there trying to survive as well.

Your characters have names. They have photos and backstories. You grow attached to them, which makes it all the more difficult to watch them suffer. They will suffer. You will do everything in your power to keep them safe and healthy, fed and rested. You will fail to do so. Food is such a scarce resource that my characters spent the entire game hungry. I could only afford to feed them when the hunger impacted their ability to function. I felt terrible making that decision each and every day, but I couldn’t afford to waste food on people who weren’t starving. I never knew where the next meal would come from. The traps I laid rarely brought in any meat, and bartering for canned goods was such a drain on those precious resources that it wasn’t always worth the cost.

It was canned food that I stole from the elderly couple. I had brought a knife with me that night, worried that I might have to fight my way out. Marko, my best scavenger, had been wounded by some armed thugs, so I was forced to send out Pavle instead. He’s a fast runner, but he’s not able to carry as much as Marko. After sneaking in, I took five cans of food from their fridge. I was caught by the old woman, but I couldn’t bring myself to fight her. I ran to the exit. That decision would be my downfall.

The next day, everyone knew what Pavle had done. They wondered aloud what would become of the family and whether or not it was the right decision. Pavle himself was racked with guilt. But it didn’t prepare him (or me) for what was to come. That night, I sent him out again (Marko was still recovering). I stole again, right from under their noses. I don’t even remember what it was, but it wasn’t worth it. As I tried to flee, they caught up to me and attacked. Pavle had a crowbar. He fought back.

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Only in retrospect did I realize that the people Pavle ultimately killed were cowering in fear after he retaliated with a crowbar, and that I probably could have run away. I was so terrified at the thought of losing a character that I didn’t let him stop. After they were dead, I ran to the exit.

The next day, he was a broken man. Literally. The game described him as “Broken.” He wouldn’t do anything other than cry and mope. He had been lethally wounded in the fight. I had two bandages, and two of my characters were wounded. I had to make a decision: Do I try to save both, or do I let one of them die? I spent several minutes staring at my screen, daylight dwindling, trying to decide what to do. I decided that I couldn’t let them die, not without a fight. I bandaged them both and set them to sleep.

At the same time, Bruno, a cook, fell ill. Anton, an elderly mathematician who joined us later, became sick soon after. I couldn’t send any of them out for supplies. I put one up to guard the house from intruders. The other was put to bed. That night, we were raided.

It all felt like a cruel joke perpetrated by the masterminds at 11bit Studios. But it wasn’t. I had decided to steal from the elderly couple. I had decided to kill those people (even if it was in self-defense). On night 30, Pavle died from his wounds. That was my fault. And the already abysmal morale of the remaining characters plummeted.

Marko died three nights later. Anton left six nights after that. For the last three days, I just watched as Bruno’s physical state deteriorated. On Day 41, all I could do was feed him. As he ate, he said, “So much blood… am I going to die?” I put him back to bed, thinking I knew the answer.

On Day 42, the war ended. I should have been happy that Bruno survived, but I felt cheated. I didn’t deserve to “win.” I deserved to feel like the complete failure that I was, but This War of Mine didn’t even let me have that. Instead, it gave me a hollow victory.

Each time I turned the game off and back on again, it would give me the option to “Try again.” In those final days, as I was unable to help as my characters wasted away, I thought about it. But the bonds I had formed with the characters didn’t let me do that. I needed to see their story through. I had to know where it would all end up.

People in the video game industry love to throw around the word “Immersion.” Developers want to make “immersive” worlds that players want to be “immersed” in. The worlds should look and feel lived in. They should seem like real places that you could visit if only you could jump through your computer or TV screen. This War of Mine is immersive. And it’s personal. The experiences I described above were not scripted. They were a result of my decisions and my actions. If you play it, you will be faced with a completely different (and equally tragic) set of circumstances.

This War of Mine is not the first “serious” game. It’s not even the first “serious” game to star an Eastern European civilian just trying to survive—last year’s fascinating Papers, Please put players in the shoes of an immigration officer checking passports and other paperwork at his country’s border. It’s not the first game to make players feel bad for the things they’ve done. But it represents exactly what makes video games so compelling as a medium and an art form. This is a game that shows the horrors of war.

You can read a book or watch a movie about war. You can talk to people who have lived through war. But that can’t make you understand the kind of choices you would have to make to survive, or the repercussions they may have. This War of Mine gives you the chance to see that. It gives you a chance to understand, in some small way, their desperation. And it does so in a way that only a video game could.