A little over a year ago, I reviewed the original This War of Mine on PC. Despite a slew of updates, including a fair share of modding tools, I was unable to steel myself to return. In that special, hypochondriac way a person dreads going to the doctor, going back to the house where much of the game’s brutal narrative takes place felt daunting.
But then I heard about This War of Mine: The Little Ones--which adds children to the mix--and suddenly found my interest renewed. This addition surely wouldn't make the brutally depressing narrative any more palatable, but the presence of children would certainly add a new dimension to the story, one that also needs to be told if you’re going to have a game simulating the soul-sapping reality of being a civilian trapped in a warzone.
Not much has changed about the core gameplay in the transition to consoles. You still start out in a distinctly Eastern European wreck of a house, tasked with keeping three poor survivors alive. Your first playthrough always involving Bruno, a cook; Pavle, an ex-football star; and either Marko, the football star’s best friend, or a journalist named Katia.
By day, you must keep the survivors fed and as comfortable as possible--or at least hard at work crafting the things that will make them comfortable. By night, you can either sleep, guard the house, or roam out into the world to forage for supplies. If you’re lucky, there’s either no one home, or those you encounter are friendly enough to trade for supplies. If you’re unlucky, scrounging for supplies becomes a stealth game, where you sneak around rummaging through everything while avoiding those more desperate and well-armed than you. If you do decide to go out, hopefully your home is well-protected, lest you come back to find items missing or, worse, someone bleeding to death.
My first playthrough this time around was still as dreary as ever, but there was at least a familiarity to that dreariness, allowing the game’s bread-and-butter resource management mechanic to find a day-to-day rhythm with some measure of ease. Within the course of three days, water was no big deal, the fridge was full of food, the holes in the house had been patched, and everyone had coffee and cigarettes.
The only hitch was the touchy and twitchy controls. This War of Mine’s roots as a game intended and optimized for a mouse and keyboard are ever-present. Much-needed conversations to help heal and comfort the depressed are ruined by the slightest touch of an analog stick, which run a character halfway up the stairs before it responds to commands to come back down. Enemies are alerted because sneaking--which was once the default movement speed when on scavenging runs--is now tied to analog stick tilts, with no steady gradation between a careful tiptoe and setting a land speed record. They’re still functional, but even the simple addition of a Sneak button would have done wonders.
Much-needed conversations to help heal and comfort the depressed are ruined by the slightest touch of an analog stick, which run a character halfway up the stairs before it responds to commands to come back down.
Around day 18, some bandits got bold, and despite a fair amount of stockpiled weaponry, the other two survivors I had left behind were mortally wounded. They lasted another four days--with constant bandit attacks chipping away at my dwindling supply--until a bad, unfocused scavenging run got poor Pavle shot, leaving the other two basically waiting around for the reaper.
At that point I decided to bite the bullet and do a run with a child in the mix. You could just keep doing new playthroughs--which randomize variables like people, skills, how bad the war has gotten, and when winter sets in--but in the end, I just chose one from the “Write Your Own Story” menu, which allows you to create a custom scenario. The tools themselves are intuitive and detailed enough, especially the one allowing players to create a custom survivor. However, this feature introduced a surprising new conundrum: it actually cheapened the experience some.
This War of Mine is fairly obviously personal work, borne from genuine, painful experiences of its creators. With that in mind, there's something about being able to break those experiences into freely adjustable pieces that gets in the way of the message. Conversely, it's not that the player can inject anything of themselves into those elements, which makes using the customization as any measure of personal expression doesn't quite work either. Ultimately, that customization undermines the feelings and inspirations that made the game powerful to begin with.
Regardless, it did, indeed, allow me to choose a child: a determined looking little girl named Lydia, and her aunt, Irena. The scenario with a child in play isn’t fundamentally different from the core scenario, but it creates a whole different hierarchy of needs. Children can't fully grasp the ramifications of what’s happening in the world at large. And as such, preserving their sanity is more precious than anything you must do to keep the adults moving and productive.
Attention must be paid when they have questions. They will want to play, even though there’s someone nursing a gunshot wound the next room over. They still require toys, and will sing songs to stay occupied. Their needs are simpler, and yet meeting them will keep their souls alive and bright in this dreary place. In addition, while they can’t be sent out on their own to scavenge, they can be taught how to perform tasks around the house, like cooking and collecting water and food when its ready.
Having the soul of a child hanging in the balance every day in this game changes the tone of many of the day-to-day activities, especially scavenging. If you’re reduced to two survivors living in a house, and the adult has to scavenge, there is an emotional cost, and it has to be made up during the day, which is not always an option. The incredibly nuanced AI successfully makes these children feel real, instilling real emotion when you make tough decisions.
There are two major drawbacks to the immersion here. For starters, there can only be one child. Any sort of a Grave of the Fireflies scenario with two children trying to survive a war is impossible. Even if you could have more than one, however, the strength of that narrative would be neutralized by the other drawback: in this game, children can’t die.
Should you fail in your duty to protect and provide for the child in your care, that child will be whisked off somewhere safe, and that’s the end of that. None of the adults ever skate this easily. Suicide, criminal activity, starvation, and freezing to death are just a few of the myriad, emotionally devastating ways a playthrough can come to an end, and it’s what drives you to keep them consistently healthy and happy. I’m not lamenting that we don’t see skeletal children weeping their eyes out until a bandit comes to finish the job starvation couldn’t, but the lack of consequence should you fail undercuts the strength of the game as a statement on the nature of war as a monstrous force. If there are no tangible stakes to failing to care for the child and there’s always the emotional cushion of “they’ll be fine,” there’s less real impetus for caring for them more than for the endangered adults living under the same roof.
It speaks volumes that even with these flaws chipping away at the appeal of the experience, This War of Mine remains a potent portrayal of the small-scale cost of warfare. The additional need to play caretaker to an innocent adds another layer of depth, but there’s a loss of purity in the bleakness--it has been muddied by the need to keep the experience firmly in the realm of a game. What once felt confessional, an abstract, pencil-drawn expression of horrors survived, is now attempting to serve a secondary, less dignified master: engagement. It's attempting to answer a question of how to keep eyes in front of the game after the first few, undoubtedly devastating hours with it, despite the game doing just fine in that regard being exactly as harsh and unyielding as it is.
There are any number of games that let players challenge themselves with the planning of time and resources, but very few that force players to exercise empathy for those who have experienced this horror out in the real world. War is still hell in The Little Ones, but there’s something deflating about having the ability to tell a depressed survivor, “It’s all going to be OK,” and mean it not because of the human need for hope or self-delusion, but because you can go into a menu and adjust the "intensity" of the war that's supposed to have stripped you of control in the first place.