This War of Mine has seen critical acclaim for its unflinching portrayal of the civilian experience in wartime. It demands that players care for the vulnerable, helping them scavenge and survive.
But as Matt Sayer writes for Unwinnable, it makes a few missteps along the way, particularly in its handling of its survivors’ mental health. Depression crops up among your survivors, and as you might expect, it’s a debilitating experience. That’s not the problem — the way it’s overcome is.
When a character falls into the ‘depressed’ state, there are three main ways to draw them out: drinking, talking to others and sleeping. Each of these approaches is deeply flawed. Drinking, for instance, is often associated with depression, but rather than helping it, alcohol masks the symptoms while making the condition worse. Depicting booze as some sort of mental medication is irresponsible at best, especially when the only side-effect is a minor case of temporary drunkenness.
In contrast, the notion of treating depression by talking to people is a far more grounded representation of mental health. For as much help as antidepressants and other medication can be, deconstructing the root causes of depressive thoughts is the only way to truly get them under control. This is no easy task, which is why it can often take years of professional therapy for sufferers to feel comfortable with their condition–and that’s if they ever get to that stage at all. Proper therapy involves a whole host of cognitive techniques and behavioral exercises, and determining which work for you is part of what makes a good therapist. This is where This War of Mine falls short.
When games portray mental illness, it’s usually a numbers game. This War of Mine goes further, looking at the impact of depression on a small, fragile community. It’s a move in the right direction, but as Sayer goes on to explain, it doesn’t go quite far enough. This is a game of hard choices and sacrifices — and handling depression in a healthy way can be a very a hard choice, particularly when your situation is bleak and temporary fixes wait at the bottom of the bottle.