Warning: Spoilers + Mentions or Images of War, Violence, and Death
A voice—whether audibly or by text—carries more information than the words it transmits. Tracing back, it can reveal the personality, perspectives, and knowledge of the speaker. Carried forward, it can affect the listener’s actions and evoke different attitudes in response. Voice, the power to speak and be heard, is thus a precious possession of humankind.
But what does it cost to have a voice? As receivers of information in a modern and digital era, we focus on integrating them to benefit our own lives rather than considering the impact on the speaker or source. Surely, despite having access to the same platforms, the cost of a voice is different between a healthcare professional and a conspirator: the former takes years of education and experience, and the latter simply takes a few false claims and a bit of imagination. Do the speakers themselves recognize the power and value of their voice? Do they actively think of the price they paid for it? Does the reaction from their audience justify the cost?
And after all, how would the answer change when the information presented by this voice is weighed against a thousand lives, or even your own life?
This War of Mine: Background
These questions are less meaningful for most of us living in peace compared to those living through war this very moment, similar to the characters in This War of Mine (TWoM). It is a single-player survival strategy game released by 11 bit studios in November 2014, with the last content update “The Final Cut” released in November 2019.
Inspired by the Yugoslav Wars and especially the Siege of Sarajevo between 1992-1996, all events take place in the fictional city of Pogoren with two forces against each other: the Military (“Graznavian” government) and the Rebels (“Vyseni” separatists). As the oppressed ethnic minority, the Rebels aim to gain independence beginning with peaceful demonstrations and escalating to violence to match the aggression of the Military. Although some people are able to escape the city, Pogoren eventually becomes besieged under military control that restricts civilian access to international humanitarian aid or resources in general. After some time, Ceasefire is achieved through international force intervention, a long-anticipated end to the war.
Highlighted by the creators and commentators of this game, it defies the normal approach of a war game which often takes on the military aspect of war; instead, it focuses on the lives of civilians who live through their own conflicts. While the historical inspiration is not the focus of this article, TWoM does a great job intensifying the struggle of survival of civilians during the Siege of Sarajevo, who have turned to black markets and trades for resources while dodging attacks of violence from anyone, at any time of the day. Playable characters have their unique background stories and traits that make them no different than our neighbours. In certain plots, there are also unique interactions between characters, especially between children and adults. (Yes, you can choose a maximum of one child/adult pair in your gameplay. And yes, you will be heartbroken when this child becomes sick… or gravely ill.)
This War of Mine: Story Mode
The Story Mode is a brilliant DLC expansion with three episodes:
- Father’s Promise,
- The Last Broadcast, and
- Fading Embers.
Although I have only played 2 out of the 3 available episodes, the common theme is a constant struggle behind morality and mortality, which aligns with the choices that players can make throughout this game, regardless of the game modes they chose.
The game developer states in the game description:
“During war, there are no good or bad decisions; there is only survival.”
If the ultimate motive of the Classic Mode is survival until the Ceasefire, then the Story Mode reveals the complexity behind the act of making decisions in moral dilemmas.
- Will you steal food from a pair of elders to save your starving daughter?
- Would you give precious medicine to your neighbour’s children without expecting anything in return?
- Would you intentionally leave a terminally-ill character to die without treatment, knowing that full recovery is impossible?
These heartbreaking moments rip away all conventional morality and etiquette from the player. But the clock is ticking, and you have to make whatever choice maximizes your own characters’ survival. This is the war of a civilian.
The Last Broadcast episode, which will be the focus of this article, revolves around a character who would be meaningless in Classic Mode, both physically and psychologically. He is barely mobile and will not even be a controllable character for the last part of the game. All your other characters will be depressed and constantly forced into moral dilemmas because of him. You have to feed him with both food and cigarettes despite knowing that he will eventually leave. Above all, you are risking his wife’s life and energy to serve his purpose, only to be told in the end that he will either die or never forgive your lies.
Undeniably, like a lot of other players, I initially hated him with all my previous experience in this game — until I realized that he was created to tell his own story. You, as the player, CANNOT bring the same mindset from the Classic Mode that focuses on survival to the Story Mode that explores the dilemma of civilians who are weighing morality against survival. You, as the observer, will have very limited space to navigate the plot and will change very little of unfortunate events.
What you will witness is his fight for truth, and what you will experience is his war.
The Last Broadcast: Plot
Malik, the central character in The Last Broadcast, never hesitates to sacrifice himself for the greater good: the people of Pogoren. Before the war, Malik was a morning radio host who focused on entertaining his audience with fun stories and gossip. As soon as the war broke out and the city was under siege, Malik was determined to continue broadcasting news to his listeners as the Voice of Pogoren.
In truth, other than broadcasting news, there is very little he can do. Malik is disabled and therefore unable to leave the third floor with his crutches. His wife Esma is both his caregiver and news reporter who leaves at night alone to scavenge for information. Malik’s reliance on her means more than responsibilities—Esma had lost all connections to her life before the war. Even their son, Adem, left to join the military at the beginning of the war, as the couple continued to stand with the Rebels.
At one point, Esma retrieves firsthand news ranging from the sniper’s location in the park, a military resource pile, exposing a massacre to the public. As Malik describes,
“Words can bring hope and current news can save lives.”Malik, The Last Broadcast
The couple’s efforts are not futile—Esma meets strangers who tell stories of families saved from starvation and travellers who safely returned without harm. There are even volunteers who knock on the couple’s doors to submit information. It is not difficult to imagine the distance that Malik’s voice had travelled, as well as its massive effect. For a while, they found harmony and purpose in this way of living amidst the siege.
However, among their audiences are soldiers from the military, frustrated at the voice who exposed the secrets and led to multiple soldiers dying. (In this fictional world, all immoral acts of violence are almost exclusive to the military and almost all heroic acts to the Rebels. In this scenario, the soldiers’ deaths are caused by Rebels attempting to rescue civilians who were imprisoned and tortured.) Not long after making great impacts, Esma begins to hear of their threats against their radio. Her friends warned her to stay low, and she received a note containing a death threat.
Although she has often risked her own life to visit dangerous locations, with an emerging fear for her husband’s life, Esma faces a new obstacle that stops her from releasing everything she finds to Malik.
- If she chooses to protect Malik and stay low, she will have to lie and lead to Rebels dying from military ambush and civilians blinded from the massacre by the military.
- If she chooses to expose the truth (which, again, is often about the evil deeds of the military), she will anger the military and eventually bring her husband to danger.
There is no right or wrong answer, and either choice will lead to an ending.
- If Esma makes up lies for the radio broadcast on multiple occasions, the Rebels will kidnap Malik for his false and harmful news. He remains alive, as he will join the Rebels, but it is reasonable that after finding out the number of allies whom he hurt by broadcasting fake news, he can neither see himself the same way nor accept Esma’s betrayal of her vow for truth. In his letter to his friend, he writes: “She knew that the radio was my life, and she took it away from me… I don’t want to see her ever again.” Even after Esma expresses her remorse, Malik will refuse to accept her apology.
- On the other hand, if Esma choses to stick with the truth and expose the military’s actions, Malik will be tortured and killed at night by the military, with his body discarded on the cold floor. Along with their son Adem, who returns too late after hearing his father is in danger, Esma gives Malik a proper burial and hears from many who remember Malik and his legacy. She can either leave the city or fix the destroyed radio for her son to continue being the Voice of Pogoren.
“This is Esma. Malik’s wife. I am here to apologise to our listeners… and to my husband. I kept the truth from him. From all of you. I lied to him because I wanted to protect him. But instead my lies put him and many others in danger. I hope that one day… When all this is over… I can seek forgiveness for my wrongdoings. From my beloved husband. And you… The people of Pogoren.”
– Esma, Remorse Ending (Malik lives)
“This is Adem. Malik’s son. I am broadcasting again after the soldiers murdered my father. He was brutally killed for sharing the truth with you. But his voice will not be silenced. We will carry on his work. To say what needs to be said. Because we are your voice. The Voice of Pogoren.”
– Adem, Heir Ending (Malik dies)
Of course, there are a lot of interesting details worth exploring, but the major plot concludes with this note, and the city soon enters Ceasefire.
The Last Broadcast: Thoughts on Malik
I wonder if any of your first thoughts aligns with mine… But I truly thought (and perhaps still think) that Malik is an ungrateful bastard to his wife, and that there is no reason for Esma to apologize. After all, Esma was able to run across all three flights of stairs, visit different locations at night under sniper fire, find double the food or resources for the shelter, and even betray her own values to keep her husband alive. In comparison, Malik is not productive at all—he sleeps, is fed, becomes sad over lack of news, and presses “send” to broadcast news when 99% of the work was done by Esma. (Of course, his disability is not his fault at all, and it is undeniable that Malik’s immobility makes it easier and natural to sympathize with Esma, whom the player usually controls.) But it is nevertheless also reasonable to be frustrated over Malik’s lack of compassion for his own safety and Esma’s feelings.
However, there is one thing that Esma cannot do: she cannot broadcast. No matter how much news she has collected, she will not press “send” and instead leaves it for Malik to do. At first glance, it seems like a deliberate act from the game developer to allow room for Malik to exist—and to be fair, that could be the case. However, Esma will occasionally say this line as her reason for refusal:
“It takes more than just pushing a button to speak.”Esma, The Last Broadcast
This sentence seems to carry no meaning at all at first—what could it take to press “send”? What else would it take to speak into a radio other than voice?
After some contemplation, a potential explanation came to me: that a person like Esma would not have what it takes to be the Voice of Pogoren, because she is a common civilian who has emotional attachments, just like most of us. Many things are pulling her leg, from her own conscience to other people’s pleads—the emotion of love and compassion is a burden that sets our foot on earth. In comparison, Malik clearly only cares about three things: the truth, the Rebels, and the people in his community. He has limited care for his family or himself and, as he described, sees the radio as “his life.”
Imagine that Malik is not disabled and could sneak into locations to capture news himself. Just like Esma, he may have found a piece of information that holds many lives at stake. In the same scenario, Esma would have the information in her head, organized and ready to go, but she will always hesitate in front of moral dilemmas like the ones she had faced. Ultimately, she will always have a choice to lie, whether it be protecting her family or a stranger’s child. But of course, Malik, as the person he is, would not hesitate to run home and immediately release this information to the world. In his view, the people of Pogoren deserve to know, and this is why the radio exists in the first place.
News in times of war is not innocent information. Its impact can range from resources to injury or even deaths of many. But despite the eagerness for Malik to release truth for the world without holding back, it would be incorrect to label him as a heartless person. As reiterated throughout the game, Malik is doing a good deed for his community by releasing vital information about resources and ambushes. In his background description, he writes:
“People of Pogoren need me, and I will do everything in my power to help them.”Malik, The Last Broadcast
(Although it seems like his wife is not on this list, since he does not even forgive her at the end, not to mention “helping…”) Nevertheless, this is due to the nature of the setting of this game, when all truths are anti-military and pro-rebels, coincidentally easy for Malik to decide to expose the truth. It would be interesting to see Malik facing an anti-Rebel truth, or even an apparent truth that is a lie. Would he choose to trust the truth despite knowing that it will be against his beliefs? And what if the truth is planted by his enemy to deceive the people? These scenarios are definitely out of the scope of a simple DLC extension but would nevertheless be an interesting dilemma that Malik would have to face.
Imagine again that we are civilians who benefit from Malik’s radio during the siege. As consumers of information, we would clearly trust Malik over Esma while appreciating his devotion for truth and the greater good. As his theoretical friends or family, however, we would hate him for his carelessness and how he sees us as nothing but tools to help him achieve his purpose in society. The contrast between his compassion for community and cold-bloodedness for himself or his family had stripped away his identity as Malik and made him into nothing more than his radio station—the Voice of Pogoren.
Malik’s story shows that to become the voice for his people is more than self-sacrifice. In his belief, one should speak whenever the truth is ready, regardless of the price that needs to be paid before a voice is heard, simply because everyone should have access to truth.
But on the other hand, most of us are civilians like Esma who have emotions that keep us human. For people like her, it only makes sense to lie or hide the truth if it means saving one’s loved ones from danger. It can be argued, then, that it is immoral to put the lives of your loved ones at stake to release information originally unknown to all.
On a daily basis, we face many moral dilemmas like this in regards to speaking or silencing truth. Would you like to broadcast every truth you believe in, or would you like to lie to maximize the benefit for the moment? Would you like to sacrifice everything you have for a greater good, or would you like to be selfish for your loved ones?
Just like the constant conflict between morality and mortality in TWoM, there is no right or wrong answer, only what makes sense for the individual’s priorities. From self to others, pay whatever price you need or want for your voice, but never underestimate the power of speech. After all, it takes more than a button to speak, but nothing more than a few words to hurt.
Special Thanks to the following sources: