When questionable game-mechanics can improve a game
There’s a certain mechanic in This War of Mine, a strategy game that depicts an all-too-real struggle to survive in a war-torn environment, that really stuck out for me during my first playthrough. During the game’s scavenging sections, where the player must search for supplies at night to support their camp, they will occasionally encounter NPCs that may or may not be friendly. And unless I was doing it wrong, the usual way to ascertain if they are friendly or hostile is to alert them to your presence and wait to see if they start shooting.
This could have been a seriously misguided implication of a game mechanic that would have greatly marred an otherwise excellent strategy game. A player-choice that the player makes in the absence of any relevant or useful information robs them of any real agency in the decision, and as such becomes more of a guess than an actual choice. In this instance, the player has no way to know whether approaching NPCs will result access to useful supplies or a firefight. Both outcomes are of a high level of significance in this game. Essential supplies are always sparse and it is vital that the player finds more whenever possible. On the other hand, a firefight will most likely result in death. And even if your scavenger character manages to survive, their health – and more crucially their morale – will take a pounding from which they might not recover.
For such a weighted decision, it is entirely unfair that the developer 11 bit studios asks the player to make it without any useful knowledge to go on. If this were not a game about a group of non-combatants trying to survive an armed conflict, it would have enough for me to abandon the game out of frustration and happily never revisit it again. However, this is indeed a game about exactly that, and if this mechanic is unfair to the player it’s because its subject matter is inherently and incalculably unfair.
This lack of player-agency can be seen throughout the game. At the outset, the player has no choice about which characters, or even how many characters, join their party. Similarly, the game’s end-point is randomised. The player has to be prepared enough to survive until a vaguely defined point when a ceasefire is called after a few months of conflict (although you can at least be sure a few of those months will fall during a notably bitter winter) [Please note, these elements are not present in the scenario editor added in the game’s 1.7 update].
Any comparable strategy game that alternates between base-building and combat/scavenging missions – let’s say XCOM, by way of example – might benefit for opening itself up to player choice. XCOM is about fighting in a fictional, science-fantasy conflict with a clearly defined good and evil side. This War of Mine, conversely, is about surviving rather than participating in a conflict. There are no identified “sides” in This War of Mine. The enemy, as the title suggests, is the war itself; a war, though fictional, clearly modeled on the Bosnian conflict. By robbing the player of agency, the game highlights the very real sense of desperation felt by those caught in the Siege of Sarajevo.
When the player encounters NPCs and has no way of assessing if they are friendly or not, their inability to make a real choice hammers home the sense of helplessness experienced by those caught in war-zones. Of course the player always has the option of attacking first rather than take the risk, but here again the game has something to say. Unlike pretty much every other war game ever (with the arguable exception of Spec Ops: The Line), taking a human life in This War of Mine comes with a cost. An immoral act by one character will affect the entire party’s moods, which if left unchecked might cause a character to become depressed or even broken, rendering them largely useless. There’s even the risk of them abandoning the other survivors or committing suicide.
None of what I’ve said here should be seen to imply that this is a weak game balanced out by a strong out by a strong narrative or setting (à la my Thomas was Alone argument). This War of Mine is an excellent resource-management strategy game which, despite limited player agency, gives the player enough tools to scratch out a chance of survival in a seemingly hopeless scenario. This War of Mine is about the cost of war rather than its glories. Like a player-choice that is made without player-agency, there might not be a lot here that can be described as fun, but that’s what makes it brilliant.
Overwhelmingly Justified: Yes. Horribly, painfully yes.