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Reviews

This War of Mine (Cert 18+)

Andy Robertson

11 bit studios
PS4, Xbox One, iOS, PC, Mac

Video-games set in war zones are common. There is a dark joy in the prowess of shooting enemy characters in the head. Such is the success and marketing of big budget blockbuster army simulators you'd be forgiven for thinking that video-games are synonymous with power fantasies.

This War of Mine challenges this assumption by turning the tables. It's a survival game inspired by events of the 1992-96 Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. It stands out from other war-themed games because its protagonists are the civilians rather than military.

Your role is to look after a group of people stranded in a besieged city while war rages on around you. Accordingly, you are not out to kill your enemies but deal with a lack of food, medicine and the poor weather conditions as winter approaches.

From the side on view, depicted in a charcoal handdrawn visual style, you click to move around and interact with the different aspects of your 'safe' house. Scavenging for food and medicine in the building will only get you so far, eventually you need to venture out.

As night falls you can take the risk of raids on surrounding buildings. With the clock ticking down in real time the tension mounts each time you enter a new room. Threats and friends look the same but offer very different opportunities or dangers.

Tiredness, hunger and cold hound the men and women in your care. Find the materials to make a bed and you can ease their sleepiness. Clothing and fires can help keep out the cold, but through any of these small victories runs the forlorn inability to make sense of their plight.

You can play This War of Mine on iOS, Mac or PC. But on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One there is a further twist, children. The Little Ones version adds youngsters into the mix and extends both emotions and game-play in new directions.

It's surprising how the presence of children change things. Alongside the pure survival activity of the original game you also need to accommodate their need to play and interact. Sometimes they are included in your party as orphaned individuals or arrive with a parent or carer in tow - either way they bring an additional sense of urgency to survival.

Dialogue is deftly handled and at times heart breaking. Children ask adults to play with them, or ask why this is happening. There are moments when characters have nothing else they can do for each other but to hold and be held.

Like any good art, This War of Mine not only shines bright in the bounds of its own experience but also sheds light on the creative work around it. Certainly, going back to play Call of Duty feels quite different after this.

Equally, being placed in such a desperate situation connects us to those parts of the world where this is a reality. Unlike the external news report, or dramatisation of a film, in game-form we enter in and experience life from within the war-zone.

It's sad and dark but not without hope. Moments of humanity break through the bleak winter's storm. Strangers come to the door to help, or can be welcomed in. Fleeting moments of love, care and appreciation are caught between the hunger and illness of our survivors.

It's certainly a fitting final game review for Thirdway, underlining what I've been asking of these interactive experiences all along - are they more than entertainment?

As for others elsewhere in these pages, I've here been afforded space to address faith in a rare way - through the lens of video-games. This War of Mine is one of many games I've written about that offer a rare and rich vein of meaning.

If you are looking for more of this in the coming months I've hatched a plan with Greenbelt festival that will host a games-and-spirituality program. Maybe see you there?