People don't die in 11 Bit Studios' This War of Mine – they just stop. Each of the game's wartime refugees is represented by a bowed, shuffling 3D model that moves around on a 2D plane, plus a black and white photograph on the menu bar (a photograph, in fact, of one of the creators, or their relatives).
The pictures fall somewhere between police mug shot and passport photo: they look on impassively, like a jury, as you coax the character models into a pantomime of subsistence, probing the corners of a part-demolished house for food, bandages, wood and metal.
If and when those characters succumb – to sniper bullets, or to disease and deprivation – the only things about the portraits that change are the eyes: they close. The uneventfulness of this is quietly grotesque: in confronting you with loss, yet refusing to inject meaning, This War of Mine manages to stand apart both from titles that treat death as an opportunity for ghoulish spectacle, and to those that acknowledge it as little more than a blip among the bleeps and bloops.
The gameplay trailer for This War of Mine
Things do change for the victim's comrades, however, who must swallow their shock and grief and learn to make do with one fewer pair of hands – and one less mouth to feed. Perhaps there's a sense of guilty relief at the easing of pressure on supplies – it's difficult to say. In This War of Mine, a character's emotional state is subject to "hundreds" of influences, some of which may be deduced from profile pages, animations and the scraps of text monologue that bleed out as they roam their shell-shocked world.
There's great intensity to how these cowed, dog-eared entities think and feel. But all that is kept at a distance by the camera's X-ray vision, which slices buildings into anatomical slides on which human beings wriggle like amoeba; by the cruelty with which the game translates fear, sadness and hope into a question of (well-camouflaged) character resource bars; and by the use of visual filters that reduce faces and shadows to pools of cross-hatched static.
At once ground-down yet sensitive, This War of Mine's portrayal of psychological meltdown speaks to, yet rejects, the recent tradition of simulations that glamourise – or even fetishise – suffering and survival by inches; a tradition that, in some ways, transcends an older oeuvre of action games that are too power-mad to trifle with emotive nuance, and is, in other ways, a furtive escape from such subtleties. It's a phenomenon captured by 2013's Tomb Raider reboot, which ostentatiously stripped Lara Croft of her Teflon coating and turned her into an exaggeratedly vulnerable survivor. But I think it applies most to male characters, many of whom now resemble the burned-out veterans of a siege that's worn on far too long.
The old tentpole action heroes of the 1990s – Duke Nukem, BJ Blazkowicz, DOOM's battering ram of a space marine – were creatures of unproblematic bravado, secure behind their sunshades and grenade belts. They whole-heartedly embraced the centuries-old cliché that masculinity boils down to your ability to destroy or impose your will by force. The new breed are no less capable killers, but they're softer, more approachable – a product of the criticism of hyper-masculine slaughter machines, and of a greater demand for narratives that move us like the best films and TV shows.
The art of writing a male character seems to increasingly be that of translating such critiques into the protagonist's backstory, where they take the shape of irredeemable crimes and life-long doubts, infecting the previously glorious experience of battle. Thus BioShock Infinite's Booker DeWitt, a man who mechanically re-enacts atrocities he's unable to think about, and Joel from The Last of Us, a father turned wild-eyed father figure whose protective instincts spiral down into nihilistic violence.
Even the latest incarnations of long-established frontmen and franchises show signs of combat fatigue, ravaged by their years in the trenches. Wolfenstein: The New Order's Blazkowicz is a man-out-of-time with severe cranial trauma who uses breathing exercises to keep his cool between fire-fights. Halo's Master Chief, formerly a blank tablet propped on top of a mechanised muscle-suit, is apparently AWOL following a grievous personal loss in the fourth game. Arkham Asylum's Batman is a shattered orphan held together by a suit and what it symbolises. And Far Cry 3's Jason Brody is a vacuous bro who veers clumsily into the role of tribal alpha – a drunken latecomer to the Action Man party.
A provocative picture of the male-dominated action genre as a whole is offered by Starbreeze's wonderful, terribly sad Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, whose juvenile heroes brave the depths of a mountain range in search of a cure for their father's illness. The game is a pretty phallocentric affair – its womenfolk are either sirens to be feared, or saintly mums to be placed on a pedestal, and the plot is essentially a filial coming-of-age fable – but it also explores the fallout from hyper-macho conflict. One striking chapter sees you clambering around a giant's battleground, strewn with enormous, armour-plated torsos that wouldn't look out of place on the cover of God of War.
Backstories aside, developers have sought to answer – or at least acknowledge – criticism of video game machismo by embracing the idea that male bodies can be punished. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare's bloodshot, woozy first-person storytelling has conditioned peers to revel in the sight of pain and injury, ranging from Far Cry 2's dislocated fingers to Nathan Drake's wincing-away from nearby bullet impacts in the Uncharted series. It's a trend that works well for exponents of cutting-edge graphics tech, for whom affective portrayals in games are joined at the hip to fidelity. But it doesn't really alter anything. These characters are no longer entirely defined by their ability to kill, but they're still party to narratives about killing. Aggression gives way to flamboyant agony and stoicism, which just asserts another set of age-old masculine clichés at no real cost to the body count.
Boys, we all know, don't cry. Feelings are for the female and feminine. And yet, society increasingly expects men to articulate their feelings, rather than retreating behind a stiff upper lip – an inability to talk about private doubts and fears has been linked, after all, to a surge in anxiety and depression among young men in particular. Games that trade solely in the fleshy suffering of a hero offer a reprieve from that expectation, because there's no time for such "delicacies" when your entire world is a whirlpool of blood and sweat. The rest of the affective spectrum can go hang.
This War of Mine doesn't presume to resolve anything (in my experience, at least – the final build, on sale from the 14th of November, may differ). It's too preoccupied with the problem of endurance, its characters too busy scraping at piles of rafters or peering fearfully through keyholes to make sense of their own misery. The broad narrative is out of your hands: peace will come eventually, perhaps even before your supplies run out, but there's nothing you can do to hasten its onset.
It does, however, insist that you reckon with the messiness of feeling even as you punch your way up out of the rubble. The result is both a monument to the survivors of war, and a spotlight turned upon the anxieties of an art form that can no longer deal in death without compunction.
This War of Mine is released for PC, Mac, iOS and Android on the 14th of November.