Reading The Game: This War Of Mine : All Tech Considered Our occasional series on storytelling in video games returns with This War of Mine — a game about surviving during wartime that proved so wrenching, our critic couldn't bring himself to finish it.

Reading The Game: This War Of Mine

This War of Mine 11 Bit Studios hide caption

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11 Bit Studios

This War of Mine

11 Bit Studios

For years now, some of the best, wildest, most moving or revealing stories we've been telling ourselves have come not from books, movies or TV, but from video games. So we're running an occasional series, Reading The Game, in which we take a look at some of these games from a literary perspective.

This begins on the night that Marko murdered two men.

He had to. That's what I tell myself. It was self-defense. It was an accident. Wrong place, wrong time. But there were three men in the basement of that shelled school in the middle of the city, and there was no way all of them were walking out alive.

17 days into the siege, and we'd been doing okay. Bruno had a stove to cook with and traps set in the basement to catch rats. We had a thing for filtering rainwater, beds to sleep in, some books and a few cigarettes. Pavle had patched up the holes in the walls and cleared out all the clutter. He guarded the place through the long nights.

But Marko was the best scavenger, the one who went out into the ruined city when it was too dark for the snipers to see. He was quick and he was quiet and he would always carry home enough food and scrap to keep us going for another day. He didn't even carry a weapon because Marko wasn't a killer. Until he was.

This War of Mine is a survival simulator, but that's maybe putting it too gently. It's a misery simulator. A nightmare generator. A make-you-never-watch-the-news-the-same-way-again machine. It's a war game, based in a city under siege. It's feels like Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict, but change the art a little and it could be anywhere because you're not playing as a soldier, some indestructible front-line Rambo with machine guns and hand grenades. No, you're just a civilian (three civilians, really), trapped in the ruin of an apartment and trying to survive while the war surrounds you on all sides.

The way it plays out is as a resource management game, but one with brutal stakes. During the day, you perform tasks: You build beds and cook food and clear rubble and try to make the time pass. At night, you scavenge. Or you hide and hope that no one comes to take what's yours. Hope that what you have will hold you as the days pile up and the weather grows colder and the radio you built from scrap and scavenged parts tells you that there's no end in sight.

I'd played through more than two weeks without anything going seriously wrong. We were scraping by, Pavle, Marko, Bruno and me. But then I made a mistake. Bruno built an extra chair for the hovel. But building the chair left us without enough stuff to build a new filter for the rainwater collector. Since we were short on food anyway, and basically out of meds, I sent Marko out to scavenge. There was a schoolhouse not too far away, half collapsed from the shelling, full of building materials. There were rumors that some people still lived there, but that's all they were. Rumors.

Finding supplies was easy. Wood, components for building, plenty of scrap. He could've gone home. But his backpack wasn't full and he hadn't found any food yet, so he went deeper into the school. Found a ladder down into the basement.

He should've died. There were two of them and they had knives. Marko just had his shovel. And part of this was mechanics — having never tried to fight anyone before, I didn't know what to do, so I just mashed buttons until it was over. If Marko had died, this would've been a very different story, but he didn't. He survived. I looted the bodies without even thinking about it because, as a gamer, that's what I've been trained to do. They had food and weapons and I took them. We were hungry, I told myself. We needed the food or we were going to starve.

But the dead men had needed the food, too. Right up until I killed them.

Much of the time, videogames are stories that we tell ourselves. They are projections of our best selves or worst selves under impossible circumstances. We are champion zombie killers, hero alien-slayers with infinite lives. But This War of Mine wasn't impossible. It was a simplified version of the reality lived by people in terrible places all over the world. No monsters. No save points. Just us, an empty cupboard, a shovel.

Marko was in shock when he got back to the apartment. Traumatized. He just kept saying I killed them and I can't do this anymore. He laid down in bed and stayed there until Bruno went to talk to him. It was awful. And I felt every inch of Marko's remorse because, really, I'd killed those men. Or made him do it. So rarely does a game make you feel the weight of the awful things that you do. But This War of Mine won't let you forget that even when all the choices are bad, some are worse than others.

We'd eaten the dead men's food. That night, everyone stayed home. And that night, the bandits came. They had guns. We had knives and a hatchet. Marko's shovel. None of it mattered. They took all the food we had left. The water. The cigarettes. Pavle was shot. We used our last bandage on him, but it wasn't going to be enough. In the morning, Bruno checked the rat traps and found a little food, but we saved it. Marko wanted to kill himself. He couldn't stop talking about the men he'd murdered. Pavle just lay there dying. The storytelling in This War is heartbreakingly present. There's no way you can play and not see yourself in it. And there was no way this story was going to end well.

So I turned the game off and I walked away. I left them there, my three friends, coded into memory. Marko curled up in his pencil sketch of a bed, Bruno standing at the stove cooking the last of the rat, Pavle slowly bleeding through his bandages. I abandoned them to their war, their dreary house, their misery. They are frozen now, stuck somewhere between life and death where it is forever Day 19.

I just don't have the strength to go back.

Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Starblazers. He is currently the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.