Games that form the booming survival genre (DayZ, Minecraft, 7 Days to Die, Rust, The Forest, Project Zomboid, etc, etc) are in theory an exciting simulation of struggle against the odds in a harsh and hostile world, but as is well known, in theory even communism works. These games inevitably seem to encounter the problem that they are supposed to be, well, games. And games should not be painful, in that they are supposed to be a recreational activity entered into voluntarily. There is a delicate balance between the dramatic tension of say, scraping together an axe from stone shards and rabbit sinew, and the sheer boredom of a world without anything actually fun to do. This is where survival games continually let me down – at a certain point survival becomes mere existence, life guaranteed but empty. It isn’t necessarily the fault of the games either. Each of those I’ve mentioned are fun in their own right, for a time. Survival seems to be enjoyable in short doses.
At some point in these games “losing” no longer becomes an issue – enough food is stocked, vegetables are growing, water is plentiful and so on. Or, conversely, dying is so frustratingly guaranteed that survival becomes meaningless. At some point the gamer asks “What am I surviving for?”. In the first circumstance death is not something to avoid, but something to flirt with. In DayZ, for example, I inevitably found myself drawn to the cities to face other players, not out of necessity but because there was no other challenge. The game then generally descends into a form of deathmatch with the occasional forage for pork and beans.
“Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?” Raoul Vaneigem
This War of Mine brings a slightly new take on the genre – it carries with it a strong narrative element and a bleak seriousness about it. Gameplay is perhaps more simple than many of the others in the genre, which seem to be heading towards ever more complex crafting trees and base building elements. This War of Mine is more The Sims than DayZ, though the pencil-shaded and bleak aesthetic might suggest otherwise. The visuals are without doubt some of the most evocative I’ve seen in a game for sometime. They are not the most complex, nor the most beautiful, but the layering of black foreground against grey and cobalt backgrounds gives the otherwise two dimensional graphics enormous depth (very reminiscent of Limbo, for example).
The simplicity of the gameplay however (there is no tutorial, but the controls are simple and intuitive) is an invitation to the far more complex ethical narrative it (or more to the point – the player) develops. The aesthetic of the game is important here because it grounds the ethical experience. It is difficult to play this game frivolously – it is slow, deliberate and humourless. There are no hordes of pantless men chasing you with rocks. Attempts to break out of the aesthetic, with for example a spree of murder, is never as cathartic as it might seem. As the game does encounter periods which are ultimately boring there is a constant temptation and tension – who will crack first? The player or the characters being played.
The management of boredom (both the player’s and the character’s) is balanced by the ever-present ethical demands within the game. The developers have clearly sought to inject ethical weight into the game, but not in the same way that is found in say, Mass Effect or Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, where there is the clearly defined “good path” and “bad path”, that the player is prompted to make decides between.
Rather than a choice between two pre-determined ethical paths it confronts the very possibility of ethics itself by weighing survival against ethical consistency. When does stealing, lying and indeed murder become permissible, and what kind of ethics and ethical deliberation is required to get us through these problems. The choice This War of Mine presents is not a moral choice, it isn’t so much a choice about whether a certain action is virtuous or evil but a choice (or more likely a long term negotiation) between ethical necessity and ethical contingency. In other words, how do we hold onto the prospect of ethics being meaningful when the choice is between ethical consistency (and death) and bare survival.
There are instances, events that occur randomly in each game that put the player in a specific ethical situation. On one occasion my female scavenger Arica was about to liberate goods from an abandoned supermarket when she happened upon what appeared to be a sexual assault in the making.
Arica reacted before the assault began – taking the soldier from behind and repeatedly stabbing him until he dies. There will never be a trial or clear idea of what would have happened if she took no action. The situation blurred the line between threatening behaviour and a threat, and demanded an immediate answer. There was no obligation that the player even choose to intervene, or intervene in the way I did. I could have, for example, simply walked away and I could have done this for a number of reasons from personal safety to an ethical commitment to non-intervention in the sense that the only crime that had been committed was that the soldier was being creepy and threatening. It seemed intuitive that this would be ethically permissible in the circumstances (i.e breakdown of civil society). There were no police to call. This was only the first killing. While I had taken the objective of no murder by Day 18 Arica has killed at least 6 people. I think they were all bandits, robbers and so on. I think, but it isn’t always so easy to tell. Interestingly, she seems to becoming less and less reflective about the deaths, as if she has embraced her role in the shelter as the person who gets things done.
As the game progresses, particularly into and past the third week, an ethical economy begins to emerge. The easily acquired resources are starting to dry up and encounters with other characters are beginning to occur more frequently, under more ambiguous circumstances. While I had intended of playing experimentally as a group of ethical heroes (i.e no stealing, no killing and always assisting when asked) it became increasingly difficult to stay committed to the task. Small transgressions to those ethical maxims began to occur, always justified against a greater goal, so while the stakes for me as a player were quite low (a few hours of spare time) and the idea of survival was transient (I could always just restart) the game managed to draw my ethical deliberations past the fiction.
When the good times roll with plentiful supplies and a reasonably safe environment, remaining committed to ethical maxims has low cost but as the situation becomes increasingly dire – as survival became increasingly doubtful – the costs grow. So far, they haven’t reached a point to where I’ve had to murder, but that time isn’t far off. It is this ethical economy that is for me the greatest strength of This War of Mine and in some way it was the game. By offering less in terms of explicit ethical choices (eg the Paragon vs Renegade, Light vs Dark side) and allowing the gap to be filled not with the designers ethical imagination (what is the right/wrong thing to do in a given situation) but with the player’s the game makes the ethical choices not only more open but more heavy, immediate and ultimately more meaningful to the player.
While I am starting to find some of the gameplay tiresome and repetitive (which, I imagine, is part of the fatigue of the reality of these kinds of situations) – a problem across the entire genre – I am nonetheless compelled to keep going because of the ever approaching singularity that I see approaching. That ethical singularity – where the rules no longer provide rational solutions – has plagued moral philosophy forever. Not even philosophical heavy weights like Kant could deal with it adequately. The bare choice – you or me – is irreconcilable and This War of Mine makes the player confront the possibility of that at some point.
The “pleasure” – for want of a better word – of the game is the exploration of ethical rather than geographic terrain.