The Language of This War of Mine

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I came across Erik Twice’s review of This War of Mine and his review is quite harsh. I believe it evaluates the game from an unfair perspective.

(To be clear, I am writing this because his review made me feel uneasy. His writing is great and this is in no way supposed to be a knock against him or his work.)

Erik critiques the game for not portraying the Siege of Sarajevo in all its realistic brutality and in doing so, ridicules the horrible events that took place during that time. I have not been part of war, or experienced anything close to what the citizens of Sarajevo did, but I can imagine that it’s not only horrible, but also complicated with many different facets. Whether its a video game, or a movie, or any other medium, it is an impossible task to wholly express everything that happened.

When creating a story, the author has to choose the relevant events to describe in order to convey their message or emotion. When basing something off of real life events, this becomes increasingly difficult. Some things are not relevant. Some things distract or dilute the message. Some things are just not very interesting. This is why stories usually drill down on one aspect of an experience or person, or gently touch a little bit of everything. This War of Mine does the latter.

The game isn’t trying to thoroughly describe how things were in the Siege of Sarajevo. It is not a documentary and it is not supposed to be a historical account. It is not telling a personal experience of someone who lived through the siege. It is drawing upon those experiences (and many others from many other wars) to use as dressing over a somewhat standard survival game to convey the general hardships of being a civilian alive during a siege.

In this game, there is no broader context necessary. There is no reason why NATO or the UN need to be in the game. For someone who has this thrust upon them, it matters not which side is which. By identifying the two forces at war, the game would then place its setting somewhere in history which goes against what the developers wanted to do.  Introducing religion or ethnic groups at odds with one another would defeat the purpose of the game, which is the survival of the self. The war is intentionally left vague because it is supposed to be generic so it could take place almost anywhere.

Introducing the politics of the war into the game will also cloud the judgement of the player. It makes the other characters in the game not just civilians. If we know the girl looking for medicine for her family is of the ethnic group or religion we are fighting, it is much easier to not give her medicine. This defeats the overall message of the game, which is that in war, it is the ones not involved that suffer most. The game is not concerned with politics or the reason for war, because there is no good reason for war.

The thing This War of Mine concerns itself with, however, is a horrible situation and the choices that the player makes. So when we build our ahistorical bullets and burn our country’s literature to keep warm, we are making the choice to act this way. When we send one of the characters out to help a family, or to spare civilians even if it means we go hungry, we make that choice as well. So while the people of Sarajevo might have locked arms to protect their library, we can (sort of) act that way, or we can be that ass who wanted to burn all the books to have a barbecue. Over the course of most playthroughs, I bet that players will have done a little bit of both.

And that’s what the game is about – the choices we make when our safe and predictable routine lives suddenly become dangerous and the future is unsure. Maybe that is reductionist. So again are most works that depict war (and many other things). This isn’t an excuse but to fully depict an event like this might be asking too much. Maybe the traditional survival game formula was not the correct choice to fulfill the developer’s aims. To me, it’s an example of why the setting and aesthetics of a game are almost more important than the gameplay. Then again, I liked it. Maybe it is whitewashing war. It is, but as a necessity of being a coherent experience and because they did not want to set it in a specific setting. Although they could have done more work on diversifying the character names. But it is not insulting.  It does not need to include genocide or the rape of 12-year-olds to show the hardships of war.

I think Pawel Miechowski, the developer of This War of Mine, says it best:

This War Of Mine paints the picture of war but it uses language of games to do so. The game does not need to include every single atrocity of war invented by men to deliver its message.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. I think that the key point for me was not so much that This War of Mine is reductionist but simply that the game is not about war at all, at least not anymore than Dead of Winter or Don’t Starve are. For me, its usage of the war of Bosnia as dressing is pretty damn bad in an on itself but it’s merely a symptom of a wider issue.

    Of course, I’m mostly here because I’m glad discussion is being bounced around so don’t worry about it 😉

    • Yea i kind of got that, but i feel it might be the limitation of games (or at least this type of survival game) that causes it. Unless you mean using a recent event as opposed to a more historical one, that is not so fresh in a lot of people’s minds.

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