Though This War of Mine: The Little Ones draws its inspiration from the Bosnian War, its misery-laden atmosphere feels scarcely personal. The most obvious evidence of this detachment lies in something you’d think would be innocuous: a level-select screen. Players can unlock a location on this screen called The Brothel, which, like all others in the game, comes with its own description: “If you want to get laid for a can of meat, this is the place. Mothers will do some really kinky stuff to get food for their children.” These two lines, unattributed to any character, are little more than a tasteless way for developer 11 bit studios to entice fanboys into selecting the level.
The blatant insensitivity of eroticizing war rape is surprising given that the game intends to illustrate a serious contemporary wartime experience. Before the title screen, This War of Mine quotes Ernest Hemingway as “In modern war…you will die like a dog for no good reason.” If one particular character, Arica, dies while searching for supplies, another character will corroborate this idea (“They killed Arica like a dog”), creating a specious connection to Hemingway’s perspective. Hemingway was drawing from his personal experience in summing up a shift from a romantic view of war, whereas This War of Mine seems interested only in presenting a near-pornographic level of human despair in a warped attempt at edifying players.
The object of the game is to manage and scavenge for resources on a day-by-day basis without dying by murder, suicide, starvation, or illness. You must assign tasks to multiple characters in a way that efficiently retrieves materials needed to improve shelter, tools, defense, weapons, and more. The premise is simple, but the difficulty curve can be steep given that a single mistake, such as a character getting killed, can result in instant defeat (a remaining character, depressed by his or her companion’s death, commits suicide). In general, the game is designed to rub agony in your face, as you can unlock new characters and scenarios by dying rather than succeeding.
The overwhelming focus on civilian deaths is audaciously manipulative. Let’s say all of your characters die within five miserable days because you’ve yet to learn what types of threats can jeopardize their stock of items, such as food, medicine, and fuel. You don’t get a simple “game over” screen: Not only will the game scroll through stock war imagery with one-sentence blurbs of why each day was horrible for the characters (blurbs that were already prominently shown to you when the events in question happened), but it will follow that with banal obituaries about the dead characters, such as someone being survived by family members who may meet the same fate.
It’s as if 11 bit studios won’t let you start over until it uses every exploitative trick in the book, including some of the most sorrowful music in video-game history, to make you reach for a box of tissues. Even worse, if your play session happens to involve a playable child character, the game reminds you of why certain days were gut-wrenching, only with the horror detailed in child drawings and writings (hence the game’s subtitle). It’s difficult to think of a game that drags out the pain of defeat to such a monotonous extent.
As much as This War of Mine wants its civilian characters to represent more than the developer’s transparent attempt at making one sad, the protagonists are irrelevant outside of how they help you succeed within the trial-and-error setup. The game’s concise bios, repetitive dialogue, and use of black-and-white photos—complete with cheesy blinking eyes—don’t make these people come alive. Their specialties matter more, as combat proficiency, efficient cooking, and extra inventory space for scavenging are linked to how you’ll overcome challenges, such as other civilians breaking into your shelter and stealing your supplies. With time and effort on the player’s part, the game becomes a sort of a dark version of The Sims, making the experience more about best learned practices than any lasting reflection on tragedy.