There are facts about This War of Mine: Final Cut that are simple enough. This is a survival game in its core gameplay mechanic, with familiar survival game loops and conditions. This version is the definitive one, it includes all the DLC and expansions that has come before. It also is optimized with updated visuals to take advantage of next-gen systems and introduces a new character, scenario, quests, and events. But a funny thing happens when sitting down and actually playing the game, a story begins to emerge that is somehow greater than the one being told and the impact it can have is hard to match.
I have wanted to play This War of Mine for, well... a long time. The game originally released for PC around 7 and a half years ago and was slowly ported over to multiple consoles and regularly updated. I was intrigued at first by the very concept - with so many games focused solely on the hero rampaging across the battlefield, here was a quieter tale about the collateral damage conflicts creates and the regular folks just trying to survive the chaos and see the other side of it all. It was the reviews and initial feedback on the game that changed that intrigue into genuine desire. The game scored well, with reviewers most noting how finely 11 Bit Studios had pulled it all off, creating both an effective survival gameplay to match a deep and emotional storyline. But here's the thing, the real treasure of This War of Mine doesn't actually play out along the storyline at all. Let me explain...
This War of Mine has no strict narrative thread, no story checkpoints to pass through. It's not open world as much as it is a series of open scenarios. The game itself follows a day/night routine - use the day to upgrade your home base, feed and tend to your survivors, craft items from supplies, and keep everyone alive by overcoming sickness, hunger, exhaustion, and even depression. The night time is the right time to scavenge for more supplies to keep the rest of the day loop going - restock that refrigerator or medicine cabinet or whatever key resource might be the difference between life and death. It's also a time for your own base to be looted as well, so before you set out for the scavenge mission make sure you have set up a rotation to balance both guarding the base as well as the recovery of a good night's sleep for those not on scavenge/guard duty.
Once you're out on a scavenging run, that's where the familiar loop takes its most frequent twists. Locations appear as pin points on the map and each offers its own balance of challenge and reward. Could there be other hostile groups there to avoid or to fight, or perhaps friendlies with which to barter, or is it uninhabited - offering relative safety for that evening but likely less reward. Day and night, planning and execution, the margins are razor thin. Come back empty handed or lose too many key supplies in an evening raid on your own cache and that could be the end for a character as they succumb to one ailment or another. Lose that character and the entire party could soon follow, as the weight that pillar was balancing in this delicate struggle to survive might be too great a burden for the rest to distribute on their collective shoulders.
The game plays out not in a true rogue-like fashion, but with enough variance. Even though many of the locations and scenarios are similar game to game, the order and the actual rewards differ and random encounters that come knocking at your door tend to as well. But that's what the game lays out for you: a series of scenarios and encounters, strict conditions to survive, and limited resources to manage. And then the story happens, and with that comes the magic. I know, I know... I still haven't explained it yet, but I think you need to walk with me one more mile for the proper context before I actually do...
You see, when I first dove into this game I was frustrated. I was not really enjoying it much at all. The first major issue is, there is no tutorial to even teach you how to play. I get it, survival often doesn't come with a tutorial, but dagumit, so many survival games like to hide their simple mechanics behind archaic rules or unintuitive interfaces and unfortunately, This War of Mine has hints of that as well. I'm not talking strategy here, I'm talking simply the difference between whether you are armed and a threat - or unarmed and not - and what is the key press that swap between the two.
In my first play attmept I had to run from some heavily armed squatters bearing only a knife on my own person. I escaped to relative safety, but my mission appeared bugged as I could no longer scavenge for those much needed supplies. Every attempt to transition from combat, or more appropriately running for my life, back to scavenging was greeted with a pop-up message: "You can't scavenge while in combat." Well, I tried to leave combat, so what are my choices? If spotted do I have to kill or be killed, is there no option to flee and remain with my only other recourse to abandon the mission entirely?
On a second play attempt, I met a group of friendly squatters in another location, needing medication and wanting to barter. I approached innocently to see if a deal could be made, but then they also opened fire on me when I arrived, interpreting my approach to speak as aggression. I assumed the game was bugged in both cases, because at no point did anything in the game indicate that I can actually switch between aggression and scavenging with the up/down buttons on the d-pad... I only stumbled upon it later when those earlier failures, and subsequent abandonment of the campaigns, came back into context.
This is the major problem with the early game of This War of Mine. A simple tutorial running through these options would have fixed it, or even button overlays on the UI would have the same effect. This is a PC game ported to console that foregoes the use of the cursor. So while on a PC screen one might be inclined to click on everything, when subjected only to the limited inputs of a DualSense controller this must be made more clear. Button overlays would have been enough. Just drop a little semi-transparent up/down d pad token on the edge of the aggressive/scavenging stance indicators and my earlier games might have been saved instead of ending in frustration. Frustration compounded by an under-generous save system that made every restart backtrack well beyond it's station. The failure occurred in the night cycle but the checkpoint was back to the beginning of the day before. This is fine to deter players from gaming a survival system with endless retries, but when you need to just get your grips on the mechanics as a new player who had no other option to learn, it is endlessly frustrating. Planning and progress of the day soon turned into tedium of re-creating the same steps and having to re-live every hour of that work cycle before making another attempt at the failed night cycle and it's lack of intuitive control or indication.
So I'm sitting in front of this game on which I had heard so many accolades lavished, not just from the gaming press at large but from folks in our own writers room like Nathan - who, not only a month ago described it as "one of the most important games ever made" - and I'm simply not enjoying it one bit, finding more frustration than favor. I've got a review to write, so I'm forced into giving it another go. Thinking about how if this were this just my casual play time I probably would have moved on by now, I load up a new starting condition with The Little Ones expansion content enabled, and that's where it clicked. That's when the magic happened. The Little Ones introduces children to the calculus and I step into the shoes of a loving father and his young daughter against desperate circumstance. I am a father in this real world of mine, and against the backdrop of a war in the Ukraine and even now against a terrible school shooting, the emotional investment that this scenario immediately impressed on me was immense. I was not going to let that little girl die no matter how the odds were stacked against me or how this game itself might frustrate me. Poof... magic.
On the heels of that immediate emotional investment, the game also came to life as well. By now I had largely figured out through trial and error the mechanics the game had hidden from me and with all my chips in the pot, I was able to navigate the loop with everything on the line. I was devastated by my mistakes but reveled in every success, no matter how small. As I got deeper into the days and more locations opened up, I started to take onboard the other stories happening around me, friendly neighbors coming to my door in the day trying to help out, scavenging locations that housed moral choices on whether to try and steal or even kill from others in similar scenarios. This War of Mine does not present the narrative in a black/white or choose your own adventure type formula.
Unlike Sucker Punch's Infamous series or one of the Fallout games, you are not building through binary choices towards one end of a hero/villian spectrum. You are simply doing what you must to survive for you and yours, or risking it all not to cross a line that you set for yourself however or whenever you might set it. You are constantly beset by choices. Do I eat today or can I make it to tomorrow? Do I try and barter with this character or kill them and simply steal whatever I can carry? Do I have enough of a given resource to continue to loot a safe zone or do I need to take a risk to secure more food/medicine/whatever. Maybe you'll get a knock at your door and a neighbor will descend like an angel with a supply of vegetable or wood. Maybe you'll get raided that night and lose the last of a critical resource you were putting off your focus on restocking until later. Maybe a wayward stumble in a new location will alert a trigger happy inhabitant and end your character with a belly full of lead.
How you react to those choices is how the narrative plays out, and each time it is from a script you create for yourself. When you are burdened with the emotional investment of caring for a child, it all ramps in a way that I could never have foreseen until I was in it, because the children also do exactly what children do, they interrupt constantly and are mostly useless, yet the most important thing in the game, and an end goal all in and of themselves. The child survivor can't prepare food, can't scavenge locations, can't craft new items, can't clear ruble to access new areas. They do get depressed very easily, run around the warehouse playing sometimes only to feel the need to jump into a conversation with a caregiver at the worst possible time - just as you might be trying to squeeze that last crafting in before the sun sets and the day cycle ends. Do you ignore the sad child and risk depression or forego the project and put it off to tomorrow? Welcome to the world of parenting, but instead of the stakes being whether the lawn is mowed today we've raised them to whether your shelter is going to have heat or not.
It's not just playing with survivor children that hits, but for me that was the clincher that let me finally "get it." Peruse the player review section for This War of Mine and you'll find plenty describing similar impacts from varied conditions. One particular one to highlight can be found here:
"One bandit ran after me! Surely they had a knife!
No... she ran past me to the man's corpse.
She was crying. She called me a murderer."
There's so much more in that user review and I don't want to just re-post their work here, so please go check it and others out. They're worth a read. There's a reason why this survival game has withstood the test of time and has been lauded over and again. There's a reason why, even after my initial impressions were mostly wholly negative due to my struggling through an unintuitive UI and lack of direction, the game eventually clicked and I joined the chorus singing praises for This War of Mine. But they are reasons wrapped up in unscripted stories that only are created along the way of playing through the game.
This War of Mine is a survival game about more than crafting weapons and items, it's about crafting stories, and the desperation of the emotional connection created by trying to drag these characters across a finish line which some times isn't even the end of this war, but just making it one more day, which can be enough for now. So many survival games pit one character alone against a harsh and unforgiving world, but This War of Mine fills its spaces with others. Some friend, some foe, and many that could be either depending on who you become over the course of doing whatever it takes, or choosing instead not to lose your soul in the process, to keep the ones you have welcomed into your family alive into the next day and the next challenge.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...