The idea that games can't describe important social topics like the effect of war on the civilian population is kind of bullshit.
War is a game. Moving pieces on a board is frighteningly similar to how generals deploy units on a battlefield. Modern militaries rely on games to simulate situations and provide tools to allow leaders to practice decision-making skills before live fire comes into play. Heck, even drone strikes are a weaponized version Microsoft Flight Simulator. And as much as commercial video games such Battlefield or Company of Heroes simulate the act of war in the service of entertainment, there are not many games about the effect of war. Paweł Miechowski thinks that needs to be changed, and he's doing it with a little game called This War of Mine from the Polish outfit 11 Bit Studio.
"We're in the moment where we want to talk about important things via games," Miechowski said. "We are used to the fact that important topics are covered by music, novels, movies, while games mostly about fun. Laughing 'ha ha ha' fun."
In fact, he believes games are well-suited for showing harsh truths and realities, not by ham-fistedly repeating political phrases or mantras, but by allowing you to draw your own conclusions from the circumstances. "Games are perfect for this because they are interactive. Novels or movies are not," he said. "Games can take you through the experience through your hands, by your eyes. You are not a spectator. You are part of the experience."
What is the experience of This War of Mine then? 11 Bit Studios was inspired by the firsthand accounts of people who tried to survive within a modern city that had no law, no order or infrastructure due to an ongoing war between militaries. "Everything we did in this game, we did after extensive research. Any mechanics in the game are just a translation of our knowledge of situations in recent history," he said. "Yugoslavia, Syria, Serbia. Anywhere civilians survived within a besieged city after war. They were all pretty similar, struggling for water, hygiene items, food, simple tools to make something, wood to heat the house up."
Miechowski showed me an early build of This War of Mine and that's exactly what it is. Your only goal, which is emblazoned on the screen when you start the game, is to "Survive for 30 days." You begin inside a 2D representation of a bombed-out building with several floors. You have a few allies with names like Boris or Yvette, each of whom have traits such as "good cook" or "strong, but slow." Orders can be given to your team, such as to build a bed or to scavenge the piles of junk within your stronghold for any useful items. You usually start out with nothing, but over time you'll accumulate all sorts of items and materials. The game is in real time, the hours slowly tick by, but once you assign tasks it can be useful to advance the timeline by clicking the "Start Night" button.