I hadn't been playing This War of Mine very long, before I encountered irrefutable proof of the permeability of own moral boundaries.
As a character living under the violent siege of a modern city, me and a few friends were eking out a miserable existence by foraging abandoned houses for food, water, medicine and other materials that might make life bearable.
I'd been shot at, cheated and, so far in the game, had nothing to show for all this grief except the fact of my own continued existence, albeit one where I was hungry, sick, tired and depressed most of the time, not to mention frightened.
When I came across a house, rumored to be plump with resources, I broke in and found an elderly couple trying to stay alive. The old lady was confused. The old man was firm. He asked me to leave. But the house was stuffed with medicine.
I was sick. So were my friends. I took some of the medicine. The old man begged me to leave the medicine. I left him some. Not much.
I figured, there are plenty of desperate people in this city who will rob this old couple of more than a few medicine bottles and a few tins of tuna (yeah, I took those too). They might even kill the old couple.
I went upstairs. There were medical supplies and valuables, things that could be used and traded, things that could keep me and my friends alive and in any case the old people were just waiting to be robbed or maybe even killed by someone much worse than me.
The old man explained that, by stealing these supplies, I was sentencing his wife to death. I thought, he's right, these guys can't forage like I can. But, they were just waiting to be robbed by someone and that someone happened to be me so I took the rest of the medicine, left the house, headed back to my hideout and shared the food and the medicine with my pals and we all lived another day.
The next day I beat a priest to death with a shovel.
This War of Mine is a resource management game in which you gather essentials faster than their absence can kill you. The gathering is usually dangerous, or it carries moral costs, like the life of that old lady, or the priest who got in my way when I needed something he owned, and, in my view, needed less than I did.
There is a scale of goods to be collected. It's not just about food and water. I managed to craft a bed and a radio, which made me and my friends less tired and less depressed. My next project is a small distillery. When life is precarious, small pleasures become needful.
While I'm foraging, my pack can only carry so much stuff. I have to make practical choices all the time, mostly between something I might badly need further down the line, and something that I want right now. When supplies dwindle, I have to decide who among my friends gets to eat, and who does not. Even while dealing with fictional, digital characters, it's a pretty difficult choice.
My hideout attracted thieves, and so I needed to gather resources in order to craft basic weapons. I sought the power that comes with weapons, the sort of power the old couple did not have. If he'd pointed a gun at me, I'd have left that old man alone. So, I needed to become a part of the war, not merely a victim of it.
They say that truth is the first casualty of war, but the fact of the matter, as I found out, is that all the elements of morality, as we know that term, are destroyed or at least severely tested.
What I liked about This War of Mine is that I did not enjoy robbing that old couple. I did not like killing the priest. I decided they were unpleasant but necessary acts. I measured their cost against the benefit. But this game also counts of the cost of violence. Characters who do horrible things can become demoralized by their own viciousness.
Other players may make different, perhaps better choices. You may measure the golden rule or the old woman's life as more valuable than the tin of tuna that will save your best friend's life. You may even, like in a nice Hollywood movie, find a way to survive without doing bad things.
This War of Mine from Warsaw-based 11-bit Studios launched last week on Windows PC and Mac ($19.99). It's a sideways view 2D game, very nicely illustrated and with excellent audio work. I especially like the noise of rummaging through a pile of rubble with bare hands, which sounds utterly authentic and really horrible.
Like Papers, Please, Depression Quest and Cart Life, it marries simple mechanics with a distinctive story-telling style. It asks questions of the player, not merely, "can you complete this level?" but "in a pinch, what sort of a person are you?"
You may not like the answer.