In 2014, a Polish game company named 11 bit studios released a survival game based on the Siege of Sarajevo, which lasted 1,425 days during the Bosnian War. This War of Mine is not a typical Call of Duty, first-person shooter pitting players against each other as armed, kevlar-vested soldiers in highly rendered battleground simulations. Instead, players begin the game with a group of three civilians whose special skillsets include cooking, defense, running, and bargaining. The objective is to hold-out until the fighting ends.
Additional refugees, who can be added to the group, arrive at random intervals. The gameplay is simple and repetitive. Every night, the player travels into a nearby neighborhood to search for food, medicine, and supplies. During the day, everyone stays indoors making upgrades to the bombed out house where they are hiding with supplies scavenged the previous night. This is also the time to eat, rest, and tend to wounds—both physical and psychological.
In addition to the physical well-being of the group, the player is responsible for morale. Characters become depressed, often due to the choices they make in order to survive. If two children knock on the door asking for help do you turn them away or give them the last of your supplies? Give them medication for their mother and your characters will feel better about themselves, but you’ll be short if someone gets sick (and someone is always getting sick). If a character is killed, kills, or steals from other civilians, the mental state of everyone quickly turns bleak. Like real people, the characters also feel guilt and uncertainty. No one knows how long the siege will last. The length of the game is randomized each time you play.
The longest I’ve survived is ten days. At the moment, one member of my group is sick, one wounded, and the third suicidal. A fourth young man who joined the house around day six has just been killed on a desperate (and admittedly misguided) scavenging mission for bandages and medications in an area of the city controlled by a sniper. He was very grateful when we took him in—just the sort who’d risk himself for the group. Morale, needless to say, is low. We’ve been raided at least three times. Everyone is hungry and tired. The temperature is dropping. I remarked to my husband that it’s impossible to thrive in this game. “Isn’t that kinda the point?” He said.
Between gaming sessions, I’ve been reading Soundcheck: Tales from the Balkan Conflict, a collection of short stories written by Miguel-Anxo Murado, a Galician writer and war correspondent. The stories are meant to, according to Murado, “(reflect) the 1991 universe of the Croatian War of that year, and partly that of the conflict in Bosnia that followed it.” It is roughly the same world as This War of Mine. But where the game allows you to experience war as a civilian, Soundcheck follows the lives of the people involved in the direct conflict—soldiers, journalists, and aid workers. Murado is intent on showing the stark contrast between what war is and how it is represented in fiction and the media. Each story is preceded by a brief scene, usually less than a page long, based on actual conversations Murado had or overheard. The fictional story which follows is meant to flesh out the ideas and emotions that opening scene introduced.
“A Day at the Zoo” begins with one man commenting on the sound of an air raid siren being “…the sound of the twentieth century.” On the next page, a journalist tours a zoo held by the Croatian Defense Forces. He’s surrounded by the cries of starving and fear-crazed animals. The tour culminates in a dying elephant, torn apart by shrapnel, his massive heart pumping “out liters and liters of blood…” It is perhaps one of the most surreal and powerful stories of the collection and almost impossible in its humanity. Yet, it’s based on the fate of the animals at the Sarajevo Zoo in 1992.
In “Death in Croatia” the reader eavesdrops on a group of war correspondents sitting around a table, laughing and joking about how they put their lives at risk: “The Gulf, Ethiopia, Slovenia, Croatia—what an absurd way to live! It’s like asking to be shot in the most bizarre place possible.” The story then follows one correspondent to his death. Instead of sound and fury, Murado chooses to focus on the awkward final interactions between the killers and those waiting to be killed. Death when it appears, as it does frequently in these stories, is almost always apathetic and inevitable. Murado writes:
He looked around at the beautiful dawn landscape. There were so many things in the world. What an odd country to die in. The tall, sad poplars, the unharvested corn. But he thought it was beautiful. He folded the note with unnecessary meticulousness and wrote his name and address on it. He handed it to one of the soldiers, who seemed to understand because he made no gesture beyond stashing in in his uniform pocket. The man noticed for the first time that his hands were trembling. The captain came over and pushed him to the side of the road. The man saw that he was as nervous as the others. But everyone kept silent. No one said anything, no one begged for anything. Suddenly they all seemed to know what to do. It was like a joke.
This is the advantage literature still has over video games (though that advantage grows ever smaller as the games continue to evolve). At its core, This War of Mine is a simple side-scroll survival game. The developers created brief biographies for each character which players can read by clicking on the individual portraits, but very little effort went into incorporating those backstories into the narrative of the game. The two-dimensionality of both the environment and the characters remains a limitation of the format. In many ways, the success of the gaming experience is dependent on the player projecting a narrative onto and, through that narrative, emotionally investing in her band of survivors. The characters’ isolation, the lack of news and information they have on the war, the finality of death; these all add to the game’s authenticity. But the weakness of This War of Mine is in its storytelling. Soundcheck provides a real-world context, raising the stakes of empathy and understanding.
There are thirteen stories in the collection, with a variety of narrative perspectives–an aid worker delivering supplies is faced with a group of refugees requesting her help; two journalists watch a colleague die on the video he shot, himself, as they rush to get the tape ready for the evening news; and three soldiers trapped behind enemy lines in need of a miracle get one. The protagonists are all caught inside the grim microcosms which, put together, make a war. Murado writes each with the solid prose of a seasoned journalist—treating them pitilessly, perhaps because this is a place and circumstances his characters have chosen for themselves. Absent are abstractions like valor, honor, brotherhood, and duty. Murado seems intent on sapping his stories of any adrenaline-inducing action, instead placing all his focus on the toll a conflict like the Bosnian War takes on the individual.
11 bits studios and Miguel-Anxo Murado are both going against standard depictions of war found in the media, which is part of their appeal. There are approximately fifteen wars and armed conflicts taking place around the world right now displacing upwards of 60 million people. The Call of Duty franchise, roughly ten years old, has sold over 175 million copies worldwide and has over 40 million active player accounts with over 100 billion multiplayer matches played. But Call of Duty, for all the realistic graphics and sounds, is a poor representations of the experience of war. Most people don’t get to be soldiers and even fewer get to be heroes. For most of us, the real experience of war is that of a dead young man who was stupid enough to think he could outrun a sniper and the cries of a bunch of confused animals dying in a zoo.