“When two elephants fight, it is the grass that get trampled.”
This is the concept behind 11-bit Games survival-themed, anti-war game now available on Steam and the App store. The game differs from most war-based titles as it does not focus on the war itself but the civilians trapped within the conflict areas. As such this article will cover the emotional feelings this experience evokes as well as discussing the gameplay itself.
The game was made to raise awareness of the plights civilians face during wartime as well as donating part of the proceeds to the charity War Child, A charity that seeks to help children affected by conflicts in their own countries through programs like Education, Psychosocial support, Legal support and many others. The charity works in concert with local authorities, teachers and community groups to help ensure children in conflict areas have a better chance for a brighter tomorrow.
Though the city of Pogoren is fictional, the setting of the game is inspired by the Bosnian War. More specifically the Siege of Sarajevo which was the longest siege in modern history. The style of the game is constantly moving pencil art which gave me the impression of a story unfolding before my eyes. A story of desperation, survival and trying to hold on to your humanity in a desperate situation. The locations in the game are riddled with little scraps of people lives, Graffiti, notes and even a dogs grave, that further illustrate life during this grim civil war.
The games events are procedurally generated. In my first playthrough a few children came to my door and asked for medicine for their mother. Since it was still early I gladly gave them a bottle. The act raised my teams spirits and made them happy, pulling my cook out of his slump. Sometimes lending a hand to people that come to your door has a positive effect in the future. Later on, the children’s mother came back and gave me a bunch of coffee right when I needed it. Since there was a shortage I was able to trade it for some precious food.
Everything you do in this game affects your survivors mood and every character has their own reaction to different things. When I was forced to steal medicine from a sick old man and his son my runner and trader became sad while my cook seemed to have little problem with where the supplies came from. Especially since they got my trader back on her feet after being ill for a few days. I found myself really caring about their mental well-being, and crafting creature comforts like chairs, coffee, and books help keep spirits high.
Characters that are injured or sick move slower and don’t work as hard; if their afflictions worsen they become immobile, counting on the other survivors to care for them. This can be problematic due to the way the day/night cycle functions. You have a limited amount of time during each period to achieve your goals. A clock keeps track of the hours and will automatically move you on to the next day or night accordingly.
You also have the option to advance the cycles - during the day you can press the End Day button and during scavenging sessions at night you simply take your appointed survivor to the exit either manually or by using the Run to Exit option. It’s important to note that running in this game is louder than sneaking and can alert NPCs in the area to your presence. Removing rubble, breaking down furniture and pulling open doors can also alert others to your presence. Noise is depicted in visual ripples that emanate from your scavenger. You can use the visual clues to determine if a possibly dangerous NPC will hear you or not.
Each character has a sort of bio journal in the bottom right of the screen. As the game goes on it adds their thoughts and feelings to the pages. Stories about their lives and reactions to the horror that surrounds them daily. It makes you feel invested in their well-being and want things to turn out well for them.
There is no tutorial. No guide on what to build. I ended up keeping it that way for the sake of immersion. Just as my survivors were unsure of how to survive, so was I. I liked being just as in-the-dark as my group. It added a sense of tension to my first playthrough, but in subsequent plays I noticed things became easier as I figured out what to build and trade for maximum effect. It gives the game itself a limited amount of replayability but I think that this is more a fault with the survival genre itself, rather than an inherent fault with this game.
You start out with a simple work bench. From here you can make some basic furniture like beds and chairs as well as a radio to let you hear what is going on around the city. You can also create a few things vital to your survival such as a rainwater collector, house heater, animal trap and most importantly, other workshops. I would suggest you make a metal workshop first after building a stove. This allows you to build a shovel and crowbar which are invaluable in traversing obstacles like barred doors, rubble and snow which may be encountered by your scavengers. An upgrade on the metal workshop lets you fix weapons and create saw blades to cut through tougher obstacles and better defend your survivors. The herbal workshop lets you grow tobacco and create cigarettes, herbal medicine, and bandages for trade or to use on your survivors. Also I think I will always question how a journalist figured out how to build a moonshine still out of wood and some random stuff found around the city.
NPCs in this game are in the same terrible situation, so you have to be careful while out scavenging. Some people you meet are friendly, while others might attack you on sight or if you try to steal their possessions. While out at night there is also a random chance of being raided offscreen. It is sometimes hard to tell who is friend or foe..The bandits come and steal food and supplies, assaulting survivors left behind to sleep or guard your bombed out haven. You can build weapons to defend with and board up holes in your shelter, but it is not guaranteed to keep you safe.
In addition keeping someone up to guard may leave you with one hand short to help build during the day, improving the bombed out house you have taken shelter in by building resources, creature comforts, making supplies and weapons to trade, use and defend yourself from people both while you are scavenging and those that might wish to raid you at night.
I chose to go with a trading build. I built a moonshine still and then a distiller and for awhile I had a good thing going creating distilled alcohol for the hospital and town center, trading it for food and other supplies. Then a series of events sent my survivors in a tragic downward spiral. I lost my main trading hub. I’m not sure what happened, just that one night I showed up and my runner was shot at by what I think were soldiers. Things continued to plummet downward as I was unable to procure bandages in time to keep him from getting sick and then dying. I learned that character suicide is a possibility in this game. My first run ended when my trader, depressed after her last companion died in his bed, hung herself in the night to escape the awful situation.
NPC actions can be hard to discern at a glance. Some people are in the same boat as you. One night I sent my runner to a supermarket to scavenge and when he arrived there was a man there with a rifle. As he came towards my scavenger I panicked and had him run the short distance to the exit. Right before I hit the edge of the screen he yelled to me “Theres enough for everyone!”. In a subsequent playthrough I was moving around some ruins and found a group there. I tried to sneak around but was discovered by a woman with a gun. My scavenger beat her to death only to watch in horror as her sister came to try and revive her, crying her name. Everything and everyone in this game is veiled in grey.
Though the war does eventually end, I never felt as though I had won anything. My survivors never thrived. Even on later playthroughs when I had a better handle on the mechanics my survivors were only ever subsisting; hardly scraping by and taking it day by day. Ultimately this game isn’t about winning, it is about survival and takes an interesting look at players based on how they choose to do so.
I would whole-heartedly recommend this game to anyone who tends to enjoy tragedies and dramas as well as those who enjoy history or war settings as a change of pace from the usual “Shoot the baddie in the face” trope. I do not recommend it to anyone who hates being sad as this game does not pull punches. It takes its anti-war sentiment and beats you over the head with it. It is not for everyone, but that is for you the reader to decide.