Did a movie ever make your feel remorseful? You can feel compassion and sadness and lots of other emotions watching a movie, but some emotions can only come from inside.
In much the same way that important movies receive coverage directed at those not heavily invested in that medium, every year there are a handful of games that deserve attention even from those who may have zero intention of ever playing them. I actually played This War of Mine last year on PC, but it has just become considerably more accessible with new Android and iOS releases at a price of £4.99. It is a war game, but it is probably not what you imagine. Nor could it be more relevant in the midst of one of the worst refugee crises the world has experienced, marked by disheartening hostility and lack of empathy.
Typically one thinks of war games as a power fantasy, playing an army-of-one soldier charging into the fray with a hailstorm of bullets causing scant concern. Such games have their place as escapist entertainment, as do mindless action films. This War of Mine is, if anything, a disempowerment fantasy. As its tagline states: in war, not everyone is a soldier.
You are in charge of a group of civilians in an unidentified modern city under siege, tasked simply with survival. Sheltering in the husk of a house, you must leave this relative safety to forage for food and supplies. Survival is brutal: much of the time you will be hungry, sick, exhausted and depressed. And that’s before you set foot outside. With the right tools you can make your shelter more bearable, adding the creature comforts that strengthen the human psyche. But how far are you willing to go in order to achieve this?
Looting abandoned stores is a relatively easy moral decision but others are likely to have beaten you there already. What about looting a house? An inhabited one? Does it make a difference if they clearly have more than they need? What if one of your friends is dying? What happens if you are confronted? The strength of the game’s morality comes not just from realism of these choices, but the fact the game doesn’t overtly mark out “good” and “bad” choices.
These are survival choices and, as much as anything, the question is what you can live with. Both characters and players may be haunted by their actions, discovering that their morality is more permeable than they might have believed. Ultimately, the game succeeds when it makes you feel bad about yourself, for a choice that seemed right in the moment. If I rationalise a theft on the basis that others robbed us last night, or that it was easy and otherwise it would just have been someone else, does it really make me less complicit if I take the medicine from the old man pressing me to leave?
As lead writer Pawel Miechowski explained in a talk at GDC, that hollow feeling of regret is not something that can be conveyed by non-interactive media, where at best you can empathise with someone else’s sense of remorse. Although characters may become demoralised by actions they have taken, the judgment does not come from the game. “The only way for players to feel real remorse is if they judge themselves,” says Miechowski.
Why is a game like this crucial now? It’s less about countering the glorification of war, which might have been a greater concern a decade ago. Instead, it is fostering an appreciation that this is the reality from which millions of Syrian refugees have fled. When knee-jerk reactions result in snap judgments about middle class refugees or those with smartphones (which are not a sign of wealth), This War of Mine is a stark reminder that no one should have to live under the awful conditions imposed by war.
It’s not really fun. It probably won’t make you feel good about yourself. And I highly recommend it.