My daughter is useless and annoying, a drain on my limited resources with no redeeming factor. She needs attention and food, but she can't use workbenches, she can't clear rubble, can't cook, can't guard, can't scavenge. She's a luxury I cannot afford. She's inefficient.
This is how This War of Mine makes you think. Characters are cogs in a machine that has no margin for error. This is base-building with no comfort. Your shelter may have advanced, weeks into your survival, but there will always be a resource required for consumables that you can't create, so you will have to scavenge, and it's dangerous out there. If - or when - people die, you won't mourn them out of love: you'll mourn your loss of efficiency.
The console release of This War of Mine, the acclaimed survival game from small Polish studio 11 bit, comes in tandem with expansion The Little Ones. It introduces children, and it's in caring for and worrying about them that the game reinforces its own humanity. It reminds you that these are people not cogs.
The father and daughter campaign I played (there are other campaigns with children, though none are available from the off-set) is bleak. You will have to leave her alone at night, unguarded, to go scavenging. Not only do you worry what could happen to her but also about how she's coping, how scared she must be. So you rush back and on the first night she's fine, albeit shaken, and wonders why you had to leave, asking that you never do it again. But you know you will have to, and that those other nights may not be so calm. It's a constant knife in the heart.
The relief that comes with someone at the door asking to join you one day is palpable. Not only does it mean one can guard while the other scavenges, it means there is another person for her to cling to, to talk to while the father sleeps. All of a sudden she's not so sad, and not crying in the corner on her own.
The child influences everything. I don't send the father on exploratory scavenging missions, despite him being able to carry more than the others, because if he dies then we have an orphan. She becomes the justification for stealing, the justification for putting another log on the fire. She is the rallying point of the shelter, a reason for the adults to keep going - a role children often take in times of hardship. She glues everyone together.
And soon she's not useless, even though she can't contribute like an adult. She can do things like put wood in a heater and take meat from traps, and she can learn from adults how to do even more. And even though she needs interaction, because she feels ignored and becomes sad if she doesn't, the process helps adults in return. She eats less than adults and she generally occupies herself with drawings on walls or by using toys built for her. In other words, children are implemented with leniency, and they bring to the game a sense of heart.
Otherwise This War of Mine is not drastically different to the one launched on PC over a year ago. Technically it converts dutifully to console, although thumbstick navigation occasionally gets fiddly and can be perilous in dangerous situations, so if you have a choice of platforms go for PC for a more fluid and natural experience.
This War of Mine remains a striking exploration of civilian wartime survival, a topic broached by news but seldom explored by entertainment. Yet there's still the sense it remains somewhat limited. There's a thrill in surviving and in upgrading your base, but a monotony soon sets in, and all the seasonal changes and contraptions you collect can't alleviate it. It needs another gear to go into, but it doesn't have one. Perhaps that's deliberate. Perhaps that's the message developer 11 bit wants to put out, that surviving a war is a wearisome, daily grind. Or perhaps it simply highlights how much a small developer, for whom this game was an establishing hit, could afford to do. With its tinny sounds and charming but basic presentation, I'm inclined to believe the latter.
Nevertheless, This War of Mine is a game I still recommend. Its blend of compelling base-building and gritty setting really needles deep - something I realised while scraping my real-life son's leftovers into a tupperware tub for the next day, because I didn't want to waste the resources. And then I turned the heating down. And then I looked around me and was embarrassed by, but grateful for, the luxury I live in. A healthy reminder. A game like This War of Mine doesn't come around often.