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Can misery be fun?

The first time JW offered to lend me his copy of This War of Mine, I politely declined. The game is notorious for being a heavy, gloomy experience that brings the player down, and I didn't feel like punishing myself. After seeing so much praise about it in the forums lately, I decided to let my guard down and ask my good friend to send it over. I have so far played 3 campaigns. The first session blew me away. I enjoyed the second session a lot but grew a little frustrated. Upon completing the third one, my impression is that this is a very good game that often sacrifices player agency on the altar of being 'true to theme'.

In my eyes, TWOM resembles Robinson Crusoe in quite a few aspects: it has an engaging crafting system through which you select and build a few devices that help you survive inside the house. It also has random events that consistently mess with your plans, especially because the weather is always freezing. And finally, your heroes never have enough actions available to do all that needs to be done. Like Robinson Crusoe, this is a game that never gets boring. It draws you in, as you struggle to gather every little piece of scrapwood, mechanical part, broken weapon and whatnot, and also scavenge for food, water and meds in the hope of getting through another day.

Gameplay appears totally random at first, but soon you realize there are things you can do to prevent your characters from dying. Building a heater will keep them safe from the cold. Boarding up holes on the walls gives you some protection. And deciding when to bring a new character in or who to leave behind to sleep and regain energy can help you reach the end of the campaign with at least one person alive. I never managed that. I did arrive at the epilogue but both my characters were about to succumb to their wounds. In all three of my campaigns I couldn't build more than 3 fittings (upgraded heater, chair, and workbench) either for lack of action points or lack of required components.

Since survival tactics are limited, I generally felt at the mercy of fate - which is itself part of the mechanisms (there is a card draw pile named Fate). When I had a well-stocked pantry, night raiders stormed in and took everything. I needed coffee and bandages, and all I got was cigarettes and chems. I sent people outside to bring visitors in, and stray bullets hit them as soon as they opened the door. Frankly, this chaos didn't bother me, as I considered it part-and-parcel with the theme. We have a brutal civil war, shit is bound to happen.

There is, however, one element which I found to make no sense, and that is the almost inevitable death by misery of the survivors whenever someone else leaves or dies. Characters get miserable quite easily, which is of course expected. When their misery reaches level 4 though, they either take their own life or abandon the house. It happened to me several times to have people that were well-fed and rested with just level 2 misery insta-die because they supposedly couldn't handle the news of another person's passing. I'm not saying that this wouldn't happen in a real war situation but because it happened to me all too often, it seems more like an artificial way to make the game harder than a realistic note.

All in all, I'm thankful to JW who gave me the chance to experience TWOM. I think it's a really 'fun' game, where fun equals being truly engaged with the gameplay, feeling for the characters, and not once be tired after hours of playing through the campaign. Having said that, the game doesn't offer enough reward for skillful play, and this may become somewhat disheartening. The misery cascade eventually turned me off. I understand that the point is probably less about winning and more about 'enjoying' the journey before the almost inevitable demise. So it comes down to whether one can stomach this. If you haven't already, I would recommend trying it out and seeing for yourself.

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