This War of Mine : Should Videogames Be Fun?

We are used to playing powerful characters in videogames, dispensing violent justice as we see fit upon the vagrants of the game world. Almost every character in a videogame is stronger, tougher, and more bad ass than the villains and red shirt fodder they encounter. Through videogames, we play characters that make us feel strong and in control, monsters and demons fall at our feet, gangsters and thugs scurry before our mighty machine gun. In games, we become Big Damn Heroes.

This War of Mine changes all that. You are put in charge of a rag tag group of normal people trying to outlast a war in a makeshift shelter. It is a sad situation which just gets worse as bandits come to steal your stuff and the winter cold starts biting your heels.

The game takes on war survival more as a theme rather than a simulation and does it very well. The art sketchy art style is reminiscent of drawings that someone might scribble while they are bored, hiding away from the dangerous outside world. The slow, melodic soundtrack while lounging at your shelter is dampening but also rises to a few hopeful notes. The atmosphere of the game is dark, and it does not let you forget it. If you are able to step away a bit from the game mechanics and systems and try to place yourself into the world and its characters, you will end up choosing between doing things which are unsettling or not surviving.

For example, do you steal medicine from an elderly couple who cannot defend themselves to help your terminally ill friends? Would you steal medicine from the patients at the hospital? Do you kill a man who is protecting his family so you can get a few more cigarettes? Would you help your neighbors even if it means endangering yourself and lessening the chances of survival?
When Marko, one of my characters, came upon a fancy little villa that seemed to have avoided most of the destruction that affected the rest of the city, he found it to be inhabited by an elderly couple. His friends back at the shelter were ill and hungry, so Marko prioritized food and medicine as he went from room to room, ransacking as much as he could. The elderly couple could not fight him. The old man followed him around the house, pleading him to at least leave the medicine since his wife was sick, and asking Marko is he was going to kill them. Marko left after taking all their food and most of their medicine, and was able to save his friends back at the shelter. However, some of them, learning how he had gotten supplies, became depressed and would not make food or fix the shelter, and stayed in bed for a day or two. While they were grateful, they thought there could have been a better way, and Marko himself acknowledged he did what he had to do, but that he thought they shouldn’t steal any more from the elderly couple.

These decisions might seem easy if you are desperate for food or medicine, but they either made me stop and reflect on my choice or made me feel guilty. It was situations like these, where I did the right thing by helping my little characters and trying to survive, but also did the wrong thing by making victims out of innocents. This War of Mine is really good at this, and since your characters’ morale is affected by all kinds of actions. But to see morale go down can be heartbreaking. It really is no surprise then, that some people had a difficult time playing the game because it wasn’t fun, no matter how well made and designed it is.

But we are supposed to play games for fun, right?

Well, maybe, You see, as videogames grow and develop as a form of art and media to the likes of movies, television, and books, it will need to deal with the whole of the human condition and experience. Television shows like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones explore the darker side of humanity while presenting its characters’ ambiguous morality and are not always comfortable to watch. Similar explorations are done in Hotel Rwanda, Requiem for a Dream, and La Vita รจ Bella, just to name a few examples. All of these stories explore dark themes, yet they are critically acclaimed and have been enjoyed by millions of people.

The difficulty in using videogames to convey a similar message or theme is that, firstly, videogames are not passive forms of entertainment. When Walter White commits some unspeakable horror to protect his family or further his business, we can say “Walter is a bad person” or at least “Walter did something bad”. We are removed from the character and the story in such a way that it becomes thrilling to watch, even if it makes us uncomfortable. On the other hand, when, in This War of Mine, I had Marko ransack the house of a sick elderly couple to get medicine to help our friends, I cannot say “Marko is a bad person.” It was through my choice and control that made Marko commit this act, and thus it becomes “I am a bad person,” or at least “I did a bad thing”.

Secondly, due to their interactive nature, players tend to feel more a part of the game world than a movie viewer feels a part of the movie world. Passive entertainment can help us empathize with the characters in the work, but interactive entertainment puts us almost completely into the work itself. Thus, the removal of the person from the work is much smaller, and any thematic elements will be more emphasized. So a sad game will make the player feel sadder than a sad movie would, because the player is more engaged with the game.

Thirdly, by using the word videogame to describe these pieces of expression, it sets a certain expectation on the end user. Games are either fun, competitive, or hopefully both, but are not ipso facto forms of art and media. However, by treating videogames as an artform, maybe we should separate the game from videogames and call them something like interactive experiences, which is really unsexy. But the point is that what is considered a videogame now, has evolved so much past just being a game that the expectation of playing a game might influence how we approach games that are very unsettling thematically.

So should videogames always be fun? No, I do not think so. Just like movies and television, videogames should not appeal to every player. In my opinion, the advantage of an interactive element in portraying and exploring darker themes has not yet been fully realized. On the road to achieving that, games like This War of Mine should not be discouraged from being made. People enjoy horror movies despite being scared, and I enjoyed This War of Mine despite getting stressed and depressed.

Videogames have traditionally been a way to relax, compete, and enjoy your time. Growing as an artform though, they are reaching a point where they allow us to not just feel happy or accomplished, but also a range of other emotions. It will be hard due to their interactive nature and they might not be for everyone, but as long as we have well designed and polished experiences like This War of Mine getting released and finding success, I will delightfully play them.

I might not have fun playing them, but I will enjoy and treasure them.

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Maddy Myer’s write up for Paste Magazine on This War of Mine shares many similar thoughts and is very well written.

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