This War of Mine ★

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This War of Mine is an insult. Implicitely set during the Siege of Sarajevo, it turns a still-fresh tragedy into little more than window dressing for a generic game of “survival”. Its uncaring depiction of civilian life during armed conflict trivializes the horrors of the Bosnian war and its shallow, nihilistic sense of morality not only makes the game uninteresting to play, but results in unintentional whitewashing.

The whole premise of the game is based on lies. This War of Mine depicts a Sarajevo that never existed and struggles that have more to do with the feverous imagination of its Polish developers than with how life was conducted under the siege. Starting with the fabrication that people avoided sniper fire by only moving at night and following with the invention that food was obtained by ransacking abandoned houses, its assault on memory is restless.

Take one horrible example; the grotesque mass rapes that took place during the war. The Serbs, backed by the remnants of the Yugolavian Army and fueled by hatred and nationalism engaged on a genocidal crusade. They sought to annihilate Bosniaks on a cultural, religious and ethnic level and resorted to organized rape as a tool to terrorize and cleanse the Bosniak population. Women, often as little as 12 years old, were kidnapped and repeatedly raped in camps until they got pregnant.

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This War of Mine depicts this as a generic woman being cornered by a single, drunk, unaffiliated soldier acting out of his own volition in an abandoned supermarket. The whole ethic, genocidal aspect of the rapes has been removed, sanitized. Religion is not even mentioned on character’s biographies and the presence of a church in the game only serves to highlight the complete lack of Muslims in the game’s world.

In the world of This War of Mine, war is something that just happens, like weather. It has no explanation, nor is it a conscious decision. One day in the game’s fiction a city woke up to artillery shells and everyone accepted it as as their new reality. There was no international arms embargo, no NATO and no politicians or reporters. There was not even a Serbian army, but a diffuse group only referred as “the enemy” that had no motivation and branded no excuse. Compared to their real-life counterparts, the digital denizens of the game were lucky.

It’s astounding how distant the themes of This War of Mine are compared to actual reality of the conflict, how the priorities of the game are misplaced or even opposed to those of the people who lived it. When the Serbian Nationalist army burned down and shelled the National and University Library, the citizens of Sarajevo formed human chains to save what was left despite the fire and bombs and snipers. They tried to save their culture, their history, themselves from the forced oblivion of democide and were willing to die for that cause. For comparison, This War of Mine has burning books as fuel as one of its main mechanics.

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One could make the grave mistake of thinking that the developers are some kind of Balkan War denialists, the kind that downplay the importance of ethnicity in the conflict and frame its war crimes as the actions of an unrepresentative few instead the inevitable conclusion of top-down orders. Nothing could be further from the truth. The people involved with the game never set to deny the atrocities of the Siege of Sarajevo if simply because they never intended to make a game about it in the first place.

All those elements; the scavenging, the threat of an unideological enemy, calling your house “our shelter”, the moral conundrums, the restriction of only being able to go out at certain times during the day…they are not the elements of a game about war. Rather, they are the elements of a game about zombies and once one removes the shallow coat of paint that covers it, it’s impossible not to notice that its setup is identical to that of Dead of Winter or all those “zombie crafting survival” games that spawned in the wake of Don’t Starve.

This is why one of the first things you can do in the game is go rob the elderly and why the game snowballs into “stealth mechanics” and gunfights. If the developers had been truly interested in making a game about living in a war zone they would have had the player wait in line for a stale can of beans, not making sure you could build a sniper rifle in your kitchen and go kill your neighbours in a ahistorical bout of sociopathy.

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It’s not just my impression of it, either. In an interview with Kotaku, the man behind the core ideas of the game, Grzegorz Miechowski lists a paranoid, “survivalist” article encouraging Americans to stock up on guns and ammo to prepare for the inevitable societal collapse as an influence. And probably unconciously, this extreme “gotta do what it takes” nonsense seeped deep into the game to the point it became it became its source of morality. It’s even used as part of the marketing. “During war, there are no good or bad decisions; there is only survival.”, it says. What a bunch of garbage.

But even if one could ignore its opportunistic use of tragedy, This War of Mine is shallow and lifeless. Mechanically, it starts mildly interesting at first and soon devolves into boring, self-sufficient routines of making water filters and checking rat traps. Its “moral choices” range between meaningless and offensively stupid, like choosing whether a man wounded by snipers is worth helping or should be left to die on the street. Stripped of its façade This War of Mine is no smarter than the latest instalments of Assassin’s Creed or Fallout. With it, it’s just a good-looking liar.

Further reading:

Sarajevo: A street under siege by Ademir Kenovic and Patrice Barrat for the BBC (1993-1994). A series of brief, on-site reports that captured the day to day struggles of the citizens of Sarajevo during the siege. Harrowing and informative, it paints a completely different picture to that of This War of Mine.

Territorio Comanche by Arturo Pérez-Reverte (1994) . A hard-hitting, fictionalized retelling of Pérez-Reverte’s experiences as a TVE reporter during the War of Bosnia. Its a explicit, cynical novel written from experience and unafraid to call out journalists, politicians and television channels for their cowardly views of the conflict. It’s not available in English, but copies can be found in Arab, Russian, Dutch, Italian, Portuguese and Polish as well as its native Spanish.

THIS WAR OF MINE (2014) Based on an idea by Grzegorz Miechowski Designer: Rafał Włosek Developer: 11 bit studios Composers: Piotr Musiał

THIS WAR OF MINE (2014)
BASED ON AN ORIGINAL IDEA BY
Grzegorz Miechowski
DESIGN Rafał Włosek DEVELOPMENT 11 bit studios
WRITING M. Skora, K. Kwiatkowski, W. Setlak MUSIC Piotr Musiał

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