Warning: Spoilers and Mentions or Images of War, Violence, Suicide, and Death
How much are you willing to pay for art? And for what are you paying?
What a simple question. You might answer: oh, you know, artists on social media take commissions for digital art, and I pay them X dollars for the amount of work they put in for me. Alternatively, you might think of an art gallery or exhibition, where a much higher price tag is attached for each piece. Here, the value of a piece of art is a combination of time, skills, materials, aesthetics and a famous artist’s name. Whatever answer you give would be valid, since art takes on many forms.
Now, let me modify the question a bit: what are you willing to sacrifice to protect artwork from being lost or destroyed?
That went from zero to a hundred real quick. The outcome is the same—you keep the artwork after paying a certain price—but the reason becomes different. You pay a ransom for the future of the artwork, not for the artist’s time or effort. What price tag would be reasonable then, if at all? What exactly is the value of art?
This War of Mine: Background
This War of Mine was released in November 2014 by 11 bits studios, which is also the developer for one of my favourite games—Frostpunk. As the third and last episode for This War of Mine: Story Mode, “Fading Embers” explores this topic in great detail. This DLC was released in August 2019, not long before the main game’s Final Cut update in November 2019.
I have officially finished all three DLC stories, and so far the game mechanism for this episode has been the most engaging and fun to play. (You can also read my commentary for the second DLC episode here.) This story is especially unique for its realistic “photographs” of sculptures and paintings, which made me wonder from where the creators got their inspirations. With detailed descriptions for each artwork to go along the plot, I found decisions to be more difficult to make at times of dilemma.
Unlike in popular war games where the players side with the military, This War of Mine focuses on the lives of civilians who are just trying to survive. Many have backstories no different to people around us: music student, firefighter, lawyer, handyman, and child. The setting is inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo, a real horrendous event that took place from 1992–1996, where civilians were trapped in the city with limited supplies, and had to find ways to survive under assault from the military. This War of Mine included a playable map location named “Sniper Junction” inspired by the famous “Sniper Alley,” where many sniper posts were set for geographical advantages. Crossing the city to scavenge and survive, civilians allegedly either ran past or followed United Nations vehicles that functioned as shields. Warning signs that were painted by civilians for other civilians can also be seen in the game. Alongside the scenery of crumbling walls and furniture ruins, the developer does a great job of simulating the dystopian nature of war for players who are used to peaceful daily lives.
While having the same setting, the two game modes differ greatly in the flexibility of their plot and characters. In the main mode, players have unlimited possibilities to combine map locations, characters, weather, and even the duration of the war. It emphasizes exploration and tests the player’s ability to survive until the ceasefire. On the other hand, the story mode leaves players with very limited freedom. All events are planned, and some are even unavoidable for plot development. A quick scroll on their Steam store page would reveal many criticisms revolving around this limitation.
However, I would argue that it is unreasonable to apply the same mindset between the two modes. The interactive options distinguish it from a book or movie, but the story mode should still be treated as what its name suggests: a story about the characters, not the readers. Even if we get to control the characters, we are only witnesses to the dilemmas they have to face in their fight for whatever cause they believe in. This is their war.
Fading Embers: Anja’s Story
The war broke out between Vyseni rebels and the Grazni military, and the city of Pogoren is now under siege. The military aimed to crush the citizens’ spirit along with the entire Vyseni culture, an ethnic minority. It found a way to do so through the destruction of cultural and religious artifacts across the city. The Vyseni people who desperately wanted to preserve their heritage risked lives to smuggle items to safer places.
The Grand Mosque is no more, erased from the face of the earth by an avalanche of high explosive shells. How much longer will the world watch idly, as the modern barbarians destroy the treasures of our culture?!Radio One
The protagonist Anja is an orphan whose grandfather had passed away due to sickness shortly before the war. Her family is of Vyseni descent. Although her parents had already passed away when she was little, she lived a peaceful life with her grandfather for a few years. Growing up with a local Vyseni artist, Anja developed a passion for art and inherited a family art collection representing their heritage. She struggled to survive in wartime without any support. The family collection, the remains of her past, was what kept her strong and hopeful for the future.
One day, a stranger traverses a blizzard to arrive at Anja’s house. He collapses at the door from heavy injuries and sickness. Despite the foreseeable difficulty in keeping two people alive, she does not hesitate to take him in. The man is unconscious for several days but wakes up eventually to tell his story. His name is Ruben, and he is a Jewish stage actor who escaped a military massacre at his consecration place. He managed to save many valuable Jewish artifacts, which he adds to Anja’s collection.
During this time, Anja has another visitor named Milena, a family friend. As the curator of The Pogoren Museum, Milena is devoted to securing Vyseni artifacts and saving them from the Grazni military. As soon as Ruben recovers, they pack the art collection and leave to live at the museum instead.
Fading Embers: Anja’s Dilemma
The museum is much larger, but for good reasons. From the basement to the 5th floor, Vyseni artworks are on display everywhere. Anja even recalls visiting here with her grandfather to admire the painting named “The Battle of Leech Swamp,” a priceless painting central to Vyseni values and history. Unfortunately, the museum has been under attack by military bombardment, and the pillars supporting the ceiling are gradually collapsing. Along with Zoran, the janitor of the museum, Anja and Ruben work tirelessly to move exhibitions to a structurally stable room.
When scavenging at night, Anja meets other people across the city. Her neighbour Tito freezes to death after running out of wood. Father Adam saves a group of young orphans and tries his best to protect them. A few Vyseni rebel members are planning to escape Pogoren by digging a tunnel at the railway station. Soldiers are sometimes willing to trade weapons for supplies, their hands fixed on the trigger waiting for her to make a wrong move.
Throughout the game, Anja always has the option to steal artifacts out of the collection. First of all, in a harsh winter with limited supplies and fuel, anything can be burnt. After all, a wooden sculpture is nothing but an oddly-shaped piece of wood, and a painting is just a stained piece of fabric. Even if Anja chooses not to burn them as fuel, other people have their eyes locked on the precious artifacts. A little girl at the orphanage in grievance for her mother asks for a storybook. Some armed civilians offer to escort the orphans out of Pogoren in exchange for a manuscript, an artifact which Ruben risked his life to save. A man named Crow wants Anja’s mother’s gold necklace in return for his car engine parts. Unlike a regular store purchase, these exchanges sacrifice a part of Vyseni heritage for opportunities or survival. However, the worst has yet to come.
Fading Embers: Sacrifices
Everything has a price in this world – and during war that price is considerably higher.Crow
Despite the temporary safety provided by the museum, the shelter will not last long under bombardment. Milena soon leaves to find alternative solutions to keep the Vyseni artifacts safe elsewhere. Unfortunately, she fails, and the rest of the group runs into a dead end with only two ways out.
Revealing a planned military ambush to the museum, Colonel Markov offers to keep their collection safe. In exchange, he wants the “Battle of the Leech Swamp” painting for its monetary value. Milena smells something fishy behind this deal, and she does not trust a selfish and money-driven man to keep his promise.
As I said, there’s always a choice—one painting to save all the rest.Colonel Markov
Taras, a housing mob criminal, offers to keep their artifacts safe in a bank vault. He wishes for a list of witnesses’ names in exchange, which he will use to track down those who could testify against his crimes. Anja herself already witnessed a dead person whom he kidnapped and tortured, so she knew the horrendous aftermath of this choice.
You might not agree with what I’m doing, but I’m your best chance to succeed in your mission.Taras
Anja must choose between bad, worse, and worst options with varying degrees of sacrifices. Regardless of the possible endings for the player, Anja herself only has one chance for each plot without the ability to foresee the future. Not only is she forced to deal with the devil, but she also faces uncertainty and fears for the consequences of her action.
- For my run, I decided to exchange the lawsuit files to keep the collection in the bank vault. Although Taras will still steal some, most of the valuable items would remain there until the ceasefire. Sadly, with the lawsuit case files destroyed and witnesses killed by Taras, property takeover cases are left to rot in the dark.
- Alternatively, if the player decides to give away the painting, Colonel Markov will betray the group. He ends up selling or destroying the collection, scattering artwork across the city after the ceasefire.
- If neither option is chosen, the museum is eventually engulfed by a sea of fire from the military bombardment. The artifacts would be destroyed alongside a piece of Vyseni culture. The group would fall into despair, and Zoran eventually commits suicide for his failure to keep the treasured artifacts safe.
Milena has always risked her life to bring Vyseni artifacts to the safety of the Pogoren Museum. Unfortunately, she will eventually sacrifice herself in search of a resolution that would protect this collection.
- If the collection is moved to the bank vault, she drives an empty truck to deceive the Colonel. After he curses in fury, his gunshot will abruptly pierce through her laughter of disdain.
- If the group trusts the Colonel, Milena defies her doubts and arrives at the his military base. Once he has the painting, he robs the collection from Milena and kills her.
- If neither person is trusted, Milena is wounded and forever lost without a name to her grave.
Fading Embers: Perspectives
As previously stated, this episode’s lack of freedom and depressing ending made many players furious. There is seemingly not a single good ending to this story. People will die no matter which choice the group goes with. Regardless of people’s sacrifices, not every artwork in the collection can be saved in the end. Some people also commented on the unreasonable aspects of the game, such as the fuel conversion rates or ways to surrender artwork. They also listed other locations that should have been secure enough for the group to take shelter without sacrificing anything at all.
However, the war has already caused irreversible damage to the Vyseni heritage. From people to artworks, historical documents, and memories of this gloomy time, nothing is left untouched. Without Milena’s perseverance in maintaining a collection amidst a war, would any artifacts survive to the end of the ceasefire at all?
To put it in another perspective, if I ask Milena the same questions listed at the beginning of this article, she would not hesitate to put everything she has on the table to protect the museum’s collection from being destroyed. Indeed, she ultimately puts in her most valuable item worth bartering—her life. For Milena, Zoran, Ruben, and many other Vysenians, these artifacts are both the representation and seeds of their heritage. The destruction of artwork means much more than a piece of wood ready to be burned as fuel.
But we promised to keep the books safe. Should it be for us to decide their fate?Office Memos
On the other hand, the value of art diminishes greatly for other civilians who prioritize survival over cultural values, such as those who want artwork in exchange for opportunities or supplies. Some see only the monetary value, others see the benefit of owning the artifact. (And honestly, Taras doesn’t qualify as a civilian, since he rejected humanity with his gruesome crimes.) Are they wrong in any way for focusing on their survival or individual benefits? Is it a crime to underestimate and ignore the cultural significance of these artifacts?
A person that will put this into perspective is Crow, a car workshop owner who trades his engine part for Anja’s gold necklace. During the exchange, Anja begins to describe the importance of this necklace, which was a family heirloom passed down from her mother. Even if she remembers very little about her parents, this is one of the few things reminding Anja of her past. However, for Crow, the story behind the necklace does not matter. Having the upper hand in this deal, he wants an expensive item made of gold which Anja agrees to give, albeit reluctantly. After the ceasefire, this necklace is forever lost. Is Crow wrong to be indifferent to Anja’s feelings in this voluntary exchange? Would it be better for Anja to steal this engine part instead so she could keep her necklace?
Anja is the only person who can experience the player’s dilemma. She can burn artworks when she desperately runs out of fuel, but she could also give up precious opportunities in order to keep Ruben’s manuscript. While Anja cherishes her Vyseni culture and art collection, she is also an orphan who understands the hardship of survival through war and cares about her companions. She considers the artwork to be equally valuable to survival and the Vyseni culture — being neither superior nor inferior. As such, she is naturally always torn between the two values.
There are middle grounds in reality. Perhaps one could convince Crow, trick the military into attacking Taras, scatter the art collection in obscure places, and ultimately try to avoid making the most extreme choices. However, as a game, This War of Mine designs its plot intentionally for players to experience the most painful dilemmas possible in the scenario. Alongside the lack of happy endings, the game mimics the imperfection of reality with inevitable sacrifices and sorrows.
And there is nothing unreal about the bloodless fights to protect cultures from destruction. Many indigenous traditions and languages are lost in the dark history of assimilation and residential school systems. Discrimination has torn an unhealable wound in minority groups as it continues to drive inequality in society. Concentration camps eliminate races and their associated identities or history. Cultural appropriation and cyberbullying on social media ruin the significance of traditions or artifacts. Survivors of these attacks gather to foster and recultivate their culture. Some work to tell stories with their own words and language. Others create art to reconstruct their identities. Descendents treasure the knowledge passed down from their ancestors and retell them to their children. The fight goes on as long as destruction persists.
In Anja’s childhood memory, she looks up at the Battle of the Leech Swamp and exclaimed that she would grow up to be a knight to fight for Vyseni with her sword. Her grandpa responds:
You don’t always need a sword to fight. You can win with nothing more than a brush in your hand.Anja’s Grandpa
Milena spent her life, right until her last breath, to protect their treasured historical artifacts from vicious intents. Many others like her have heroically shielded artworks or documents from destruction. On the other hand, Anja and her companions work to restore the exhibition after the ceasefire. They teach children about the Vyseni history as a young artist begins to paint on a canvas. Indeed, there is more than one way to save a culture from its destruction.
To all those who lost pieces of their culture to time, people, violence, or war:
One day, this war is going to be over. Help those who can pass down our story through the generations. And cultivate the heritage we were fighting for.Milena
Even if the embers fade into ash, as long as their flames still glow, new fuel can be added to restart the fire. In this bloodless fight for survival, the opposite of destruction is creation.
And that is the value of art.
Some screenshots from: https:// youtu.be/HsUoh_mHdvA