Sunday, January 29, 2012

In the Bleak of Winter: The Snowfield

There are certain kinds of games that warm my heart, even when their atmosphere is chilling my bones. The Snowfield is one of them. Everything about it makes me feel cold, vulnerable, and depressed as I wander through the stifling aftermath of a recent battlefield, clutching my wounds and fearful of freezing to death as I try to help the grieving and wounded soldiers around me. And yet there's something ever-so-slightly optimistic about it that, in the end, lifts me up from the grim bleakness that I feel from playing it.

Made by students of the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, The Snowfield is really more of an experiment in video game design than it is an actual "game." It's an interactive experience with a primary goal/objective that you can fail to complete (and thus die), much like any other game, but its general presentation and mechanics might be a turn-off for some. But if you're the kind of person who values and appreciates atmosphere, then this is one you don't want to miss. It's free and can be played here, in your browser with the Unity Web Player plug-in. More of my thoughts after the jump.

This is one of those games that's generally best if you go into it blind. Figuring out the mechanics for myself, and interpreting what was going on and what I had to do was a large part of what made the game enjoyable, for me, so trust me when I say you might be better off if you not read the rest of this article until after you've given The Snowfield a shot for yourself. If you can't figure things out, then I might have some tips and advice for you below.

Your main goal is to bring other soldiers back to the warmth of the fireplace in a ruined building. Some of them will automatically follow you once you get close, but others won't go until you bring them a certain item. You move around with the WASD keys, and use an on-screen cursor to interact with things in the environment. The game ends when you've brought everyone back to the fire, or if you freeze to death in the process. 

It's a very simple premise that may not be much of a compelling reason to play the game, but the atmosphere is very successful at immersing you while also evoking some kind of emotional response. 

The graphics are relatively simple (characters are designed out of "blocks" much like early endeavors in 3D rendering), and yet they can be genuinely horrifying. In fact, their crude simplicity may be the very reason the images are so haunting. You look over the battlefield and you don't see a melodramatic scene of death and suffering; you just see dead bodies slowly being buried by falling snow, as survivors wander among the dead, some crying in despair while others just huddle for warmth. It's all fairly subtle which makes for a more poignant experience.

The ambient audio does a nice job of complimenting the simplistic visuals. The only steady sound in the game is that of your feet crunching against the snow, and of the wind blowing against your shivering body. In the background you can hear soldiers wailing in pain, some of them mumbling incoherently at the devastation before them. You walk into the ruined building and the fire crackles vibrantly, while a slightly somber musical track of long string chords plays over top (the only background music in the game). One character plays a harmonica next to the fireplace, which is itself a nice tune that conveys a special emotion that lies directly between hopefulness and despair. 

The cold is a constant threat in the Snowfield, one that feels very genuine and real---more real than all of the death and destruction from the battle, perhaps. As you wander around outside, the edges of the screen frost up, obscuring your vision. The longer you stay outside, the worse it gets, until the screen starts to crack from the extreme cold. Your character doubles over on himself and walks slower the colder he gets, and if you stay out too long, you fall over on the ground and the screen fades to white. The risk of freezing to death makes you feel vulnerable and adds an extra imperative to your actions in the game, without becoming tedious, either.

The atmospheric effect of this is quite a success, even if there are lapses in the voice acting (some characters repeat the exact same lines over and over again) and in the animation (whenever a character switches from one animation to another, he fades out for a brief moment and then fades back into the new position). Lots of other games have tried to convey the horrors of war through moments like these, walking among the dead in the aftermath of a great battle, but few have been this salient for me. As Adam Smith wrote for Rock Paper Shotgun, (and I wish I'd thought of this because it's such a perfect description): "snow has rarely felt more like the ashes of the dead." 

Once you're in the game, you have three basic choices of what to do: you can wander around looking for soldiers to bring back to the fireplace; you can explore out towards the horizon in search of whatever outside help you might find; or you can just sit and warm your bones beside the fire, listening to the cries and wails of the dying soldiers outside. Only the first two will bring about an actual ending (I think), but there's a surprising finality even to just sitting by the fireplace.

My number one criticism with The Snowfield is that your main goal is pretty vague and unclear. You have to stumble around and guess at what you're supposed to be doing for a while, and it's not until a second playthrough that it's even possible to connect the dots conclusively. You start out facing the ruined house, so you approach it and notice another soldier sitting next to the tree. You get close to him, and he stands up, but you can't do anything to interact with him. So you continue to the house and realize he's following you, and he sits down next to the fireplace. 

You figure "ok, maybe I'm supposed to bring more soldiers to the fireplace," but then others don't follow you around; they just stand in place saying the same thing over and over again. The instructions told you that you can pick up and drop items, as well as give them to other characters, so you pick up a nearby object and hand it to them, and they just drop it on floor without much suggestion as to why. So then you wander around until you die or give up trying. It doesn't do much to hook your interests when you're not sure why things are happening and what you're doing wrong or supposed to be doing.

Next is the fact that these are apparently German soldiers (most likely from WWI, given the nearby trench) who speak in German. Some of the characters wail out lines like "aaahh nein!" ("oh no") and "was ist passiert? Ich versteh es nicht!" ("what happened? I don't understand,") just for the sake of ambiance, but other characters request specific items in German

Fortunately, the majority of things they ask for are cognates (words that are basically the same in both English and German), like whiskey and harmonica, but their heavy German accents can make it hard to understand what they're saying. I studied German for eight years (nearly a minor at the university level), and even I struggled to figure out what some of them were saying. It's especially tricky when one guy just says "Brief" over and over again (I wasn't exactly sure that was it until a few minutes later), which means "letter." Sure enough there's a piece of paper lying on the ground somewhere, but it's difficult to connect this stuff logically unless you know German. 

My only other minor nitpick is that I wish you interacted with the environment in a different way than with a disembodied cursor. It breaks the immersion slightly when you have a big arrow on the screen moving independently from your character, so it might have been nice just to map the interaction in a less intrusive way.

Once you reach an ending screen, you watch a brief animation of red birds flying over a green pasture, equal to the number of soldiers you saved. This scene basically symbolizes spring and life, to me, which is a stark juxtaposition to the death and misery you experience in the actual game. This is that optimistic element that ultimately lifts me out of the depression I felt from the game. I can't articulate exactly what it is, but there's a sense of camaraderie as you help your fellow soldiers, and that ending conveys a sense of optimism that even in the worst of times, there's something to look forward to, and that your humble efforts in the wake of the battle really saved lives and left a positive impact on the world. 

I also want to mention that The Snowfield reminds me a lot of the final scene in the British sitcom Blackadder Goes Forth, a comedy series set in WWI about British soldiers coming up with cunning plans to get out of "going over the top" and out of the trenches into certain death. In the series finale, they submit to the futility of war in an emotional charge over the top as they all get slaughtered in the first few seconds. It's a stark contrast to the light-hearted, care-free comedy the series was known for. The way that The Snowfields cuts to the green field reminds me of Blackadder cutting to the poppy field at the very end.

Here's the clip if you're interested. Included just because of its relevance. Playing The Snowfield is kind of like playing this moment, and it's worth watching even if you have no intention of playing The Snowfield. 

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