I'm sneaking through a dingy building, ducking to the side whenever anyone passes. My hands scrape through piles of scrap, searching for anything useful. Each time I dig through the trash I find nothing but dirt and rubbish. I curse as my hands shake. I need to get medicine or else Anton will die.
My eyes fall on a desk, the lock and seal on it looking official. Maybe there's something in there? I check carefully of my shoulder and see nobody. I dash over to the desk, shoving aside the pictures on top. My hand closes on a small bottle and I grin like a lunatic. Pills. Medicine. These pills are worth a fortune, and may just save Anton's life.
"What are you doing?" A man barks from down the hall. I spin, hand falling to the rusty kitchen knife I've sharpened to a lethal point. Then I see the man's white coat.
The man is a doctor. I have just stolen from a hospital, full of wounded and shellshocked patients from the war outside. The doctor looks haggard and war-weary as he stares at me, clutching my ill-gotten gains. I try not to cry as I sprint out of the building, the medicines heavy in my hand.
My mom fled Vietnam with her family in 1973. My grandfather was a lieutenant colonel in the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam, and when his superiors could sense the inevitability of North Vietnam's victory they gave him permission to flee the country.
My mom is the oldest of her siblings, and so she has the most vivid memories of this period. She remembers leaving her home and everything they had behind, escaping on a boat that fled Vietnam in the dead of night. They were picked up and shipped to Guam, where they lived in a refugee camp while U.S. immigration processed them. A convent in New York sponsored them, and my mom saw snow for the first time that winter in upstate New York. Eventually my grandparents moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where they lived for more than thirty years.
Now my mom is a schoolteacher, and she lives with my dad in a large house in a wealthy suburb of Boston. My aunts and uncles are doctors, lawyers and entrepreneurs, living successful lives around the U.S. from Seattle to Boston; they're perhaps the best embodiment of the American Dream I can think of. I grew up with the best education money could buy, I never went hungry and we've traveled around the world since I was a child.
My mom's come a long way from that boat leaving South Vietnam, but it's shaped who she is in a very profound way.
This War of Mine is a beautiful, well-crafted game. The graphics are crisp and evocative, the controls are intuitive, and the game-balance mechanics are tight. It is not, however, a fun game.
You control a band of survivors from an unknown war. When you first begin, the shelter has a single chair and nothing else. No beds, no heater, no stove, no radio. You have no food, no materials and no water. Immediately you set to work gathering food and supplies, building what you need and begging, borrowing and stealing whatever you can. The atmosphere is oppressive, a climate of despair where a "good" day is one where nothing gets worse. Survival is the goal; everything else is a bonus.
I should note here that I am fairly familiar with roguelikes, my two most recent purchases from Steam are FTL and Rogue Legacy. Both are fantastic games, and I love (and hate) the roguelike traits of harsh difficulty, permadeath and randomly generated levels as storytelling and gameplay mechanisms. Despite how difficult FTL and Rogue Legacy are, neither of those games came close to evoking the depths of emotion that This War of Mine did.
Part of it is simply that in This War of Mine the stakes are so high, but the dramatic stakes are so mundane. If you fail, you will die. It's that simple, and in that sense the stakes couldn't be higher. However, the story that is being told is almost painfully prosaic. There's no evil empire, or boss monster, or government to overthrow.
You know there's been a civil war, but you don't know why or how it started (your characters will discuss many things, but never why the war started – maybe they just don't care). If you run into the rebels, they might trade with you and they might shoot you. If you run into the government, they'll do the exact same thing.
Sometimes you'll overhear the soldiers talking to each other, and they sound just as bored and depressed as you. They complain about their terrible food, their knees hurt from standing all day so they want to sit down, they just want to watch a decent TV show now and then. With some notable exceptions, these soldiers aren't good people or bad people – they're just people. It makes it worse, somehow, to know that not only will you be shot without a second thought, but that you'll be killed by an ordinary person – Private Joe isn't a stormtrooper, he's just some normal dude whose sick of the war and wishes he could get his hands on some decent scotch. Private Joe will still kill you in a second, though, if he sees you sneaking around.
Your biggest enemy isn't the government, or the rebels, or even the bandits that come at night to steal your supplies. It's time. Every day that goes by is another day where you get hungrier and more tired and sicker. You can spend your time and resources gathering food, or building a heater, or gathering medicine, or making moonshine to trade for valuable parts – but every time you do that, you leave something else undone. Do you want food or do you want medicine? Do you want to board up the walls to prevent looters from coming in, or do you want to build a stove so we can cook the food we gather? The entire game is looking at your priorities and deciding, "Yes, I need all of those, but what do I really need?"
I never really understood my mom's refugee experience. I heard her stories growing up about escaping Vietnam. Some of them were funny (she and her siblings stealing sandals from immigration officers in Guam), some of them were scary (a hand grabbing for her suitcase as she sprinted towards the boat in pitch darkness, having to shove the assailant away and barely making the boat), but all of them seemed strangely incongruous. There was no sense of atmosphere in her stories, no description of where it was coming from or what it was like. Really, she told us narrative excerpts that were entertaining, but never more on what the whole experience was like.
I don't really blame her. She watched her whole life collapse in front of her, and then she and her family clawed their way up every inch of the American socioeconomic ladder. Meanwhile, I grew up in a town with a median household income of $100,000 that was named "Best Place to Live" by Money in 2007, 2009 and 2011. How was I supposed to understand?
To be honest, sometimes I felt like that was used against me: My mom and her family had escaped with nothing, and built a whole new life in America from scratch, so I never had an excuse for not working hard. It wasn't my fault I was born in luxury. I could (and did) work as hard as I could in school, on the field, on the stage, but it would never be the same as my grandfather working three jobs bussing tables and studying for the CPA at night.
It wasn't my fault that I didn't know what it was like to lose everything, and to cling to everything you had in order to survive the next day.
I'm carefully stepping through a ruined supermarket, looking for parts and food. I've heard there's danger here, and after Katia's tragic death I'm very careful to step quietly. As I'm picking through the scrap, seizing what I can use, I hear someone speaking on the other side of the door. I sneak forward carefully, peering through the keyhole.
I shudder as I see who it is. A heavily armed soldier, his fingers wrapped tightly around an assault rifle. Luckily, he's facing away from me. Unfortunately, he's looking at a woman.
Snippets of conversation drift up towards me as I continue to ransack the room.
"What are you looking for?"
"Just some food"
"Come with me and I'll give you plenty of food"
"I - I can't, I'm sorry."
"Come on, you go out with me, we'll get plenty of food."
"No, I can't!"
"Get up, bitch, you're coming with me!"
It is at that moment that two inescapable facts hit me:
1. This soldier is going to rape her
2. I'm not going to do anything to stop him.
What am I supposed to do? I argue with myself. The soldier has an assault rifle and I don't have any weapons. Katia learned firsthand what happened when you crossed someone with a gun. Besides, it's not just me I'm looking out for. Bruno and Anton need the food and the parts I'm carrying, if I die here they might starve.
I continue searching through the supermarket, loading up on supplies as the soldier beats the woman into submission. I flinch with the sound of the first blows, but I don't do anything to help her. Then he marches her out of the building at gunpoint. Disgustingly, a tiny part of myself is glad that the soldier takes her away. If he's with her, then it's safe for me to search the whole building. I crush that voice as quickly as I can, but it's still there.
I run out of the building with my backpack full of food and materials. We'll live to see another day.
I know that war is hell. I know that in war (or other extremes of circumstance) people do what they have to in order to survive. I didn't know how awful making those choices makes you feel. Every choice that sacrifices a bit of your soul to save your body feels painful, like having sandpaper rubbed through your veins.
I wasn't the only one in pain, though. Pavle, the character I was controlling at the supermarket, spiraled into a deep depression. Katia had been killed, and now witnessing the rape left him lying in bed all day, whimpering.
Part of what deepens the immersion in This War of Mine is that the characters you control aren't soldiers, or superheroes. They aren't even like your crew in FTL, who will gamely function at 1/100 hit points no matter how dire the situation. They are normal people who used to have normal lives. Pavle was a professional soccer player, Katia was a journalist, Anton was a mathematician and Bruno was a chef. When they get hurt, they slowly limp around the house, when they get sick they shudder with coughing fits. As they get tired they move slower and slower around the house. As their conditions worsen, they become unable to rise from bed, lying all day in bed until you help them with bandages or medicine.
They also get depressed as the horrors of war crush their spirits. Push your characters too far, and they will just give up and die.
They change, too. About twenty days later I sent Pavle to raid a house on the outskirts of town. As I broke into the house, I saw it was occupied. An elderly couple lived there, the wife obviously sick.
"What are you doing here, get out!"
The man said to me, but he was old and unharmed. I began to root through their belongings, ignoring his protests.
"No! Please, you can't take that!"
I opened his fridge, and found it was stocked to the brim with food. I took it all.
"Oh please, we need that. Have a heart!"
I went through every room, taking what I wanted. I left his wife's medicine, but that was at least partially because I didn't have room to carry it.
When I returned home, Pavle was untroubled. His boyish eyes now seemed slate hard as he said, "they were old and they wouldn't make it anyways." I felt a little bad, but not that much.
I sent Pavle back to the house later, when we needed meds. The house was now abandoned, and Pavle picked up the meds we needed. There was no sign of the owners. Again, Pavle was unconcerned. He understood that we just had to make it to the next day.
As I've grown older I've started to hear more and more about my mom's refugee experience. I heard about how my grandfather wouldn't leave his post, and his commanding officer had to order him to flee the country. I learned that my great grandparents sold all the jewelry they had in the house to buy passage on a boat out, their paper money less than worthless. I heard about her crouching beneath her desk when she heard bombs coming. I didn't hear this, but I was able to guess what would have happened to my grandfather, a lieutenant colonel in ARVN, if the North Vietnamese had caught him.
More than that, though, what I really learned was how lucky my family was to escape. Not only that, my grandparents managed to bring all eight of their children with them. At a time when thousands of families were split, some irrevocably, escaping with all eight children is nothing short of a miracle. With that context, it's not really surprising that my grandfather became a deacon in the Catholic Church.
Even as I matured, it was still difficult for me to place my mom's experiences in any real context. I was a bit older, sure, but still, how much of wartime hardships and refugee desperation do you experience at the University of Chicago and a bunch of summer internships? I understood academically, I guess. I'm a history major, so I'm well-versed in the idea of what people will do to stay alive, and of the darkest atrocities that have been committed. But knowing something is so different from feeling it.
This War of Mine is the closest I've come to feeling what it's like to live through this horror, to understand how my mom, my grandparents and my family must have felt. I'm not going to claim I understand perfectly – it's still just a video game, I didn't actually live through it, and my mom's situation wasn't exactly the same as Pavle's – but it's far closer than any game, movie or book has taken me. Now, at least a little bit, I think I know what it feels like to live in a time where survival is all that matters, and how it feels to live through that.
Anton, Marko, Bruno, Katia and Arica didn't make it. Katia and Bruno were killed by armed bandits, Arica was killed by the military and Bruno was shot by rebels. Anton died of his wounds two days before the war ended. Pavle was weak, starving and wounded when the ceasefire was announced, but he had survived. He had lived through this war.
One reviewer made the very accurate comment that a "victory" in This War of Mine doesn't really feel like a victory. Pavle has seen his friends die, has been shot in the stomach with a shotgun and been on the brink of starvation. He's has lived through severe traumas that will take years for him to recover fully, if he ever does.
But the converse of that is the bleakness of This War of Mine makes even the smallest victories feel like triumphs. At one point my neighbors showed up at my door unprompted. I opened the door, and they smilingly offered me a huge bundle of fresh vegetables. Vegetables are precious, and we were very close to running out of food. I stared, stunned, as they cheerfully said that these were a gift from them. I muttered my thanks as I closed the door.
A week later the neighbors came to the door, asking for our help. Their bomb shelter was growing weak, and they needed an extra pair of hands to patch it up. Could we spare someone for a day?
I looked at the people I had. Arica was starving, Anton was sick, Bruno and Pavle were both dog-tired. Then I sent Bruno to help them.
Pavle smiled after Bruno went off to help our neighbors. "It's good we helped our neighbors," he said, a little wonderingly.
It was the nice thing to do. It was the right thing to do. It wasn't really all that much. But when you're living through hell, doing the smallest bit of good feels like the best thing you've ever done.