Friends, I love games. I also love talking about games. Unfortunately, I am not alone. There are approximately four great video game review sites for every human being currently alive on this planet. So occasionally here I’d like to talk about a game I’m playing. I’ll focus specifically on the game’s financial mechanics. There are lots of games of uneven quality that nevertheless come up with cool inventory systems and in-game economies.
I strongly believe that gamification is the key to engaging more young people in the unsexy art of understanding personal finance. So even if these games aren’t individually great, I want to call out the interesting ways in which they use items and currency.
Sound good? I’m starting with This War of Mine, a 2014 war survival game published by 11 bit studios. Specifically, I’m playing the recent The Little Ones expansion, which introduces children into the game’s mechanics.
I’m primarily a console gamer, so I missed This War of Mine during its initial release. I’m so glad I’ve found it now, because it’s pretty damn incredible.
The game is based upon civilian experiences of the real-life Siege of Sarajevo. It sounds grim, and it is. It’s also exactly where I’m most excited to see video games go.
Don’t worry. There will always be a space for stories about Indiana Jonesey white dude action heroes mowing down faceless, vaguely-ethnic bad guys while engaged in witty banter with righteous babez. Honestly, I still like lots of titles that follow that basic formula. It’s pap but it’s sometimes really fun pap. But games present a unique opportunity to add complexity to the player’s worldview and provide emotionally rewarding experiences rooted in empathy.
The game begins with a small group of unrelated civilians tumbling headfirst into a new shelter. The shelter is large but unsafe. Using whatever flotsam is on hand, you direct the survivors to build. You’ll need food, water, heat, medicine, tools, and weapons to survive. A single member of the household can risk a nightly scavenging sojourn into the ravished city. Others sleep or guard your depressing fortress.
The game is quite punishing. My partner took the first go, and he lasted a grand total of nine days. It took us both a few cycles to start to figure out how to be really successful. And just when you’ve got it figured out, the difficulty ramps up as winter arrives and crime waves begin. Eventually a ceasefire will be declared and the war will end. Based on the character’s experiences vis-a-vis the player’s choices, the epilogues will reveal triumph or misery. If you helped your neighbors and kept your friends alive, the future is somewhat encouraging. If you murdered and stole your way to victory, the consequences haunt your characters forever.
The former occupations of your characters have some effect on their skills. A former cat burglar can sneak more quietly. A former footballer can run faster. A chef can stretch food a bit further while a handyman will be able to build items using fewer components. Some have skills with no use whatsoever (ouch—my art degree just felt the stinging lash of reality).
Children can be taught simple tasks, like filtering water and rolling up cigarettes (the game’s biggest European tell). Above all, children are enormous liabilities. If the child is injured or hungry, everyone’s morale suffers. They can become disturbed and begin lighting fires and causing other mischief. They cannot guard the shelter at night or go scavenging, and even though they contribute less, they must be fed and protected as much as the adults.
The game never gets easy, and I had to lean heavily on soft resets to work my way through the campaigns successfully. With several characters and situations to choose from, including a custom game option, This War of Mine has great replay value. It’s not an especially expansive game, but its core mechanics are tight and addictive. Split between two people, our household probably got sixty or more hours of play.
Lots of people will not enjoy the game for its premise alone. Video games are a great way to unwind after a stressful day at the office, and keeping Bosnian children from starvation is not the escapist, relaxing fare you may be used to. But in a strange way, I did find it to be a great stress reliever. It reframed my day’s troubles as the trifles they are. And the entrancing quality of the drive to survive cannot be overstated.
It’s a hard game to put down or forget.
Stripped of its narrative elements, the game is a quintessential resource management game. Can you trade or transform the items you have into the items you need? If the answer is no, your characters will die sad, miserable deaths.
Survivors have two fixed needs: food and (in the winter) heat. In the game’s only real show of mercy, there is no dehydration mechanic, making water slightly less pressing—but you do need it to cook. Canned food is available, but scarce and uneconomical in the long run. Eventually you’ll need water, which means creating rainwater collectors (or melting snow) and passing the water through filters. The filters are single-use and must be crafted from scrap materials. You need to risk your life to scavenge the materials, or give up something valuable in trade. And when you go scavenging, there’s no guarantee you’ll find the part you were looking for.
If you want to make This War of Mine laugh, tell it that you only need two more weapon parts. It will scroll up a map with everything but weapon parts. I DON’T NEED ANY MORE HERBS, GODDAMN IT. What is this, Outlander?! #herbs
Rate of return on investment
The genius of this game is its crushingly low levels of return. Typically in games with crafting-driven economy mechanics, there is some item you can focus on farming. (Remind me to review Stardew Valley, because it is a great game with horrible economic balance.) Not so in This War of Mine. Even high-touch items that require vast investments in specialized equipment upgrades barely turn a profit compared to the materials you need to craft them.
It is possible to build all the upgrades and equipment you would ever need and reach a state of equilibrium where you no longer need to scavenge… but the game is calibrated to stop at or before that time. The length of the game generally doesn’t allow you to sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labor. The moment you finally roll your boulder over the crest of the hill, your Sisyphus simulator has already concluded.
I also like the way that This War of Mine approaches inventories. Each character has a limited amount of carrying capacity. Some are born pack mules, but others (typically the characters who had desk jobs before the war) can only carry a handful of items. Depending on your scavenger, you can carry 8-15 things home each night.
Once home, you can dump the items into an unlimited shared household inventory, but there is a danger of thieves breaking in and stealing from the common pool. The safest way to store something is on your person.
As realistic as this is, the game’s stacking mechanism is distinctly unrealistic. A single cigarette takes up the same amount of space as ten cigarettes; and a single cigarette also takes up the same amount of space as two pieces of lumber. While it doesn’t make a ton of practical sense, it forces an added layer of strategy into selecting which items to bring home with you. If you badly need fertilizer, but only found one unit of fertilizer, is it better to fill that space in your inventory with ten units of water, even if you don’t need them right now?
Balancing happiness against wealth
The game forces you into multiple decisions where a sympathetic action grants contentedness. Give valuable medications and food to two children with a sick mother, and eventually the mother returns and offers you coffee beans as thanks. It’s a lopsided deal, but it greatly boosts your character’s emotional well-being.
Conversely, the game’s crushing resource management becomes easy if you’re willing to steal and extra easy if you’re willing to kill. But your character’s morale will plummet, sometimes down to the point where they are so depressed they cannot move or do anything. They can even abandon the house, taking valuable resources with them, if pushed past their ethical limits. Characters who survive without enough positive interactions may commit suicide or slip into depravity in the epilogue.
This is an interesting way to incentivize virtuous behavior using the in-game economy. You can strategically trade or stockpile items to keep characters in their emotional sweet spot.
I love the way the game approaches trade because it’s fairly dynamic. Rates vary based on with whom you are trading. The man who is looking for medicine for his sick father will pay you far more for it than the roving regular trader. Even individual characters are better at bargaining than others. There is no set, agreed-upon price for items, and each deal has a fairly wide window of agreeability to both parties.
All merchants in the game experience seasonality. Fuel prices rise in winter when they are needed most desperately by all.
You know the joke that in RPGs, weapons from the first town have an attack damage of 5 and cost $500, while weapons in the last town have an attack damage of 100 and cost $500,000. These economies are narrative props. They don’t suggest a realistic world where goods and services are traded freely or strategically—it’s just set up so that all the good shit’s wherever you’re going last.
This War of Mine’s economy is basically freestanding, despite the narrative. If your characters freeze to death or die of hunger, the marketplace marches on. It’s pretty brutal but also pretty realistic, which I greatly appreciate from a gameplay perspective.
Is it worth it?
I got this game for free on PlayStation Plus (the subscription was a Christmas gift), but the full-price game is only $20. I absolutely would’ve paid that and more for the many hours of strategic, cathartic fretting it gave me. Any future DLC will be purchased at full price without a thought.
I tend to buy AAA games used or borrow them from friends because I’m not super interested in incentivizing multi-million-dollar Hollywood-garbage games. Honestly, I want to see more tight, interesting, emotionally complex games from independent studios. I will gladly encourage you to give 11 bit studios and Deep Silver some dollars. Not a lot of publishers want to pick up games about shielding children from the horrors of war.
Don’t let the game’s grim subject matter fool you. It’s a really interesting game that’s very enjoyable in spite of itself. Its economics are complex and interesting. I’d even say it’s a fairly good candidate for entry-level gamers. Its controls are super simple, and you can go through the entire game without touching the slightly more complex combat mechanics.
I’ve decided JUST NOW that my super arbitrary metric for rating games will be how much they cost versus how much I would’ve paid for them in retrospect.
This game costs $20, and I would’ve paid $35 for it!
Get this game if you like: incentivizing more games from small studios, incentivizing more emotionally challenging games in general, strategic resource management, a bit of nail biting, a bit of bean counting.
Don’t get this game if you like: pure lighthearted escapism, stress- and guilt-free entertainment, direct storytelling with lots of music and dialogue to tell you which feelings you should be feeling.