And Then the Whimper: The Snowfield

Gotcha! Because it *will* be jolly! Because up in that burnt-out house is Santa Claus! With a huge surplus of presents!

The opening scene. You can probably already tell that this will be one of Space-Biff!'s jollier posts.

You’d think, to hear some people talk,
_That lads go West with sobs and curses,
And sullen faces white as chalk,
_Hankering for wreathes and tombs and hearses.
—Siegfried Sassoon, “How to Die”

Here’s one for that strange cross-section of human beings who feel that a videogame can be more than just entertainment: The Snowfield by the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab (such a mouthful) does something that few games dare to attempt, and it pulls it off in fifteen minutes. It made me think. It made me sad. It made me shiver.

I’d recommend you play it before reading further. Once you have the Unity Web Player installed, you can play it right in your browser. Oh, and turn the volume up a bit.

I wasn't totally dishonest, so long as you accept sticks, rifles, and schnapps as gifts, and a frostbitten soldier as Santa Claus.

A few soldiers seek temporary warmth.

Are you sure you played it? If not, you’re only cheating yourself. Really, go back and give it a try. This is the last warning. Spoilers ahead.

Wasn’t that something?

Sure, it was a bit buggy, and some subtitles would have been a kindness (or even a passing introduction to German nouns like brief and gewehr), but I think the game’s roughness was one of its major successes in its stark presentation of the aftermath of a battlefield. I’ll explain.

On the topic of battle, Karl Marlantes wrote in his gripping novel Matterhorn, “Out in the bush, it’s first the bang and then the whimper.” Running with that, the games industry is in the business of producing the bang. That’s no surprise—activities like piling the bodies of fallen comrades or spending two hours bleeding to death probably don’t make salable games, and I’m not interested in criticizing those kinds of business decisions right now. But in an industry that sometimes feels as stale as it can be vibrant, it’s refreshing to see a game entirely about the whimper. I’m struggling to think of any other game that really deals with what goes on after the battle.

A wish for the developers: even if you insist on no subtitles and no English, please make the poor soldiers mutter "Brief!" or "Schnapps!" a bit louder.

Just some of the shocking aftermath of battle.

And that’s exactly what The Snowfield captures. The adrenaline is gone, as are most of the men you once stood shoulder to shoulder with, sharing warmth. Even worse, those few to have survived have forgotten themselves. Now they wander, fixated on details more pressing to their shattered minds than the cold.

This is one area in which the game’s jagged models and convulsive animations works to its benefit: I believe we half-expect a site of terrible carnage to be filled with angular shades, men transformed into mumbling scavengers or helpless babes. At one point I brought a soldier the letter he had been muttering about (or was it just any old letter, written by some other sweetheart to some other brave boy?). He stood there for a few seconds with the paper pressed to his face while I trembled and hoped to return to the warmth of the fire. He took so long that I turned away and began to head up to the bombed-out house where a few fellow soldiers had congregated. My conscience caught up to my numbness and I turned back to retrieve him. But he was gone, disappeared into the bitter grey. The gamer part of me was surprised at the discovery of a glitch, but the other part (the man freezing to death on a muddy slope) wasn’t surprised at all—just a bit more empty, and thinking how the disappearance of a ghost didn’t merit much evaluation anyway.

Everyone has hypothermia, but thankfully nobody has reached the paradoxical undressing stage.

Leading a comrade back to the house.

The folks who put this game together have some interesting things to say about its design. That’s all well and good, but I hope they realize what they have here. They’ve created something simultaneously uncompromising and hopeful, a game as willing to let me stumble through a trench until I pass out as it is to present me with shocking beauty and goodness. It’s a game in which otherworldly whispers fill your head and the groan of wood could be either the settling floorboards of home or the beckoning of a coffin. Maybe both? It’s easy to wax philosophical when it takes a hundred years to reach a spot mere yards away.

A friend and I have now given everyone in this game a nickname. This is "cross guy." When I first mentioned cross guy, my friend thought he was either angry or crucified. Fortunately, cross guy has not been crucified. As for whether or not he's angry, I cannot tell.

One of the farthest points from safety.

Bravo, GAMBIT Game Lab: You’ve made something entirely unique. If this group keeps producing games like this, they’re one to keep an eye on.

Posted on January 26, 2012, in Student and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. A great post, about a touching game/experiment. I’m glad I didn’t attempt it myself, I’m not sure I’d have been able to convey the sentiment and experience as well as that. Bravo, sir.

  2. The images shared in this post were so evocatively sad-beautiful that they deterred me from trying the scenario—because I could tell how it would make me sad, but with some nudging I decided to play. I was devastated when I couldn’t save them all. I’m still devastated. But it was gratifying to help others despite the cold hopelessness of it all. The aftermath indeed.

  3. I appreciate posts like this because it opens my eyes to games as an art form. It is great to discover meaning in places like this. Thanks for helping me to see it!

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