This War of Mine: The Little Ones review for PS4, Xbox One

Platform: PS4
Also On: Xbox One, PC
Publisher: Deep Silver
Developer: 11 bit studios
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: No

From a purely philosophical point of view, I suppose I’m glad This War of Mine: The Little Ones exists. Considering how cheap life tends to be in video games, and how quickly and easily most games tend to elide over the human cost of violence and destruction, it’s nice to have This War of Mine as a counterpoint. It serves as a harsh, brutal reminder of…well, how harsh and brutal war can be.

From a more realistic point of view, though, I have to admit: there’s literally zero chance I’ll play this game ever again.

Are those two points of view in conflict? Possibly, though I’ll do a little eliding myself by saying that, though I think This War of Mine is an Important game, that doesn’t mean I think you should rush out and buy it immediately. Or, you know, ever. It’s unrelentingly grim and dark, the kind of game that’s meant to be endured rather than enjoyed.

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In fact, This War of Mine seems to exist purely to be an argument for the idea of Games as Art, with Art in this case being a substitute for “misery porn“. It’s as if the game’s developers looked at how well-regarded media like Requiem for a Dream, Angela’s Ashes, Push, and Dancer in the Dark, and decided that video games needed something that was equally bleak and depressing. (Or, alternatively, the cynical view might be that they were a little too inspired by 30 Rock’s run of episodes where Tracy wins an Oscar for his role in Hard to Watch.)

Because make no mistake: that’s all you’ll get here. This War of Mine wants you to remember at all times how thoroughly awful life is in a war zone, and to that end you spend every moment of your time in the game dealing with that fact. You scrounge through garbage and rubble for supplies. You steal from your equally destitute neighbours. You try to prevent soldiers from raping vulnerable civilians. You try and prevent your protagonists from dying by sniper, or suicide, or easily preventable diseases, or starvation, or any of the myriad other ways people die in war zones. All the while, your chosen characters stare at you from the bottom corner of the screen, looking malnourished and beaten up, and occasionally blinking just to make you feel truly unsettled.

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Eventually, if you’re lucky, a ceasefire miraculously gets declared, though because the game is random there’s no way of knowing when or if that will happen. All that you can do is keep scrounging and scrapping and fighting, and hoping you don’t die along the way. More likely, though, all your characters will die miserable deaths, and — assuming you’re in a particularly masochistic mood — you can start over again from the beginning, without really having gained any knowledge that will help you survive.

In this respect, I guess, the game is fairly true to life. And, like I said, This War of Mine deals with subject matter that most games don’t touch with a ten-foot pole, so it’s kind of nice (for lack of a more appropriate term) to see one that rejects Call of Duty-style consequence-free explosions in the name of a more realistic view of the world. It would be pretty ridiculous if This War of Mine was more uplifting or positive, since that would be so contrary to what goes on in war zones. It may not be enjoyable, but neither is what the game is trying to represent.

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At least, that’s the generous view of the game. The more cynical one is that, on some level, This War of Mine is an exercise in cheap edification, a way for everyone involved to say that they “get” the brutality of war without having to think about any of the real armed conflicts happening in the world right now. Or, to put it more bluntly: This War of Mine is basically the gaming equivalent of Kony 2012.

That, of course, is probably too harsh a view. After all, there’s nothing to suggest 11 bit studios created This War of Mine with anything more than a desire to share what they’d read about the Siege of Sarajevo. But just because a game is fuelled by good intentions doesn’t mean that you have to play it — and personally, considering how readily available these traumatic stories are in real life, I’d much rather play games that act as a safe space away from it all.

Grade: C+