Archive for Survival

These Wars of Mine

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , on August 6, 2017 by trivialpunk

     It has been a long, strange journey. I’ve considered picking up the metaphorical pen again many times, but there’s never been anything I’ve considered worth saying dripping off the end of it. Tonight is a little different. Tonight, I’m thinking back to my time with This War of Mine. It’s not so much a review as a look at what games can do for us. It’s a bit personal, so fair warning.

"Are you gonna kill us?"

“Are you gonna kill us…?” the old man asked.

 

     Let’s begin with the game, because none of this is going to make any sense unless you understand what I’m talking about. If you aren’t familiar with the Metacritic darling, This War of Mine is a side-scrolling survival-strategy game inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo. You control a variable number of survivors that are using a bomb-torn house as a shelter. The day-time segments are spent inside to avoid the eyes of snipers; your characters spend this time improving their shelter and taking care of their daily needs. You’ve gotta cook food, filter water, build beds, clean up rubble, break down or reinforce walls, construct a grow-op in the basement and make liquor to sell for more sugar to make liquor. If you’re successful enough, you’ll be able to supply an entire neighbourhood with cigarettes and home-made vodka. But, you’ll hoard it and trade it for medical supplies.

     Becaaause, the night-time segments are spent gathering the very limited resources from the surrounding buildings. There’s very little food left in This War of Mine. There’s very little of everything, and what’s left is hoarded, guarded or rotting in ruined shelters. So, in the spirit of adventure, you can send a character out at night to do some jolly looting. It’s dangerous, though, and these fragile characters often have very limited inventory space. If they die, you lose everything they’ve gathered, an entire night of looting, a useful set of hands, and a very dear friend. It’s an insane, but necessary, risk. Your character can be shot dead or break a leg. They can be attacked by other looters or become insanely depressed by the proposition of stealing from helpless senior citizens. War-time is a dark, dangerous time, and your characters are twisted by their war into horrible, selfish shapes. It remains to the player to decide what you take and if you take it, but your choices will end up killing people either way.

     This War of Mine is a stark world, and it is unforgiving when it comes to compounding failure. If you lose a good scavenger, then you’ve gotta send out someone else with fewer slots and a slower run speed. You have to make crucial decisions about finding chances to sleep, preparing water to drink, and reading books to steel your sanity. Everything takes times, and time is the most important resource in the game. Scavenging resources buys you time. Finding food buys you time. Recruiting survivors increases or decreases the survival time-value of your remaining resources and the number of things you can do with that limited time. Your entire goal is to outlast the war, to survive it. That is the war in This War of Mine: a tooth-and-nail fight for both your flesh and your humanity. You will lose chunks of both, but you can survive. You will not always do well, but you may do better. It all comes down to how you use your time. That brings us to my metaphorical war.

     This war of mine was more about surviving a financial crisis. In the last few years, I’ve gone through many ups and downs. I went from my friend’s couch into a single room, through a bachelor suite, and now I’m snuggled into a one-bedroom apartment. It was shortly after I moved into this apartment that this story takes place. I quit my Tim Hortons job to start my dream career as a writer that supports people with disabilities in their day-to-day lives. It was gonna be great! Exceeept, they called and said they didn’t need me after all. I was fairly heartbroken and extreeeeemely unemployed. I had just paid my rent, so I had some time. I went over my finances. There was no way to pay next month’s rent, and I couldn’t sink any of it into my bills. I’d need food and bus tickets, resume paper and clean clothes. I didn’t know how I was going to manage it all.

     I looked at the numbers I’d written down. The duration of my survival quantified before my eyes. It was like staring death in the face again. I would have to make my bed on the street or hope to use someone’s couch, again. I’ve done it before, and it’s never pleasant, but it’s always enlightening. My anxiety welled, and I felt the dread wash over me, a great surge that left me shaking like a leaf. I held on and let it pass through me. Fear overwhelmed me, frothed like a raging hurricane, then subsided. There was much to do. It was time to survive.

     That night, after handing out dozens of resumes, I double-streamed Saint’s Row 4 and This War of Mine to ease my mind. For someone in my position, it was a real relief to solve my financial problems in Saint’s Row with the elegance of violent theft. This War of Mine, on the other hand, seemed to resonate with the same atmosphere my life had taken on. It became a mascot for my financial struggle and a vague reassurance that survival is possible. The rhythm of This War of Mine is a lot of setting instructions, planning while you wait, then reaping the benefits of those plans. That low-key pattern is intercut with sections of tense stealth and violent death, which proved both engaging and oddly relaxing. It was a perfect heat-sink for my anxieties. It helped me think about my own survival in more proactive and productive ways. I rationed out my remaining food with greater care and made smarter purchases with my remaining funds. I contacted my local foodbank and made my first ever withdrawal. Most crucially, I asked for help from my friends in a way I never had before. And they fucking came through.

     My city was in the midst of a terrible job drought. None of my unemployed friends could find work. There was a local group of us that would check in with each other to see how the hunt was going. Like the traders in the game, we had developed a support network, exchanging information and providing solidarity. It was rough. I never actually did find new work at the time. Later in the month, the agency I’d dreamed about working for called me back. They had room for me on the team, now! Which was great, except that I would never get paid in time to make rent. I would get my first cheque three weeks later, exactly two weeks too late to save my apartment. I was devastated, but I would survive. I would start looking for a new one-room place in the morning. I left a post on my facebook about it and went to sleep. When I woke up, an old, dear friend had sent me a message. She’d read about my troubles and wanted to help. She straight-up gave me the remaining seven hundred dollars I needed to make rent and stave off my bill collectors that month. No strings attached. “Pay it forward,” she said. Never tell anyone who did this. I’m not gonna, but you still saved me.

     Now, all I had to do was ration my food and bus tickets through five weeks of work: three weeks to pay my rent and two weeks to get money for food. My cousin, who also happens to be one of my two god-mothers, was in town and took me shopping for groceries. Thinking back, I did better than I had that first time I’d been given a timer and some resources. I remembered everything I had learned from those days with This War of Mine. There are no guarantees in life, and you will not always do well, but you can always do better. The goal of survival becomes more nebulous outside of the framework of war, especially when the harbinger of your doom is Capitalism. However, the game’s mechanical assertions that patience, planning, humanity and community are crucial to survival rings true in every setting.

     Games are imaginary spaces where our decisions are evaporative, and that makes them a perfect mirror for the kind of logical considerations that make your blood run cold in the real world. I had trouble facing the spectre of my own imminent doom, but I could assist a world full of animated puppets with their struggle to survive. Using that space, I was able to be more honest with my circumstances and overcome them more efficiently. It all fell to shit again later, but that’s another game for another time.

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