Cold, Comfort, Harm: The Snowfield

By Adam Smith on January 26th, 2012 at 2:10 pm.

trenches are a lot like corridors, I guess, but I wish more games were set in them

It’s quite warm here this morning for the first time in days and I was dangerously close to enjoying the sun’s gentle caress, which would be a terrible betrayal of mistress moon. Thankfully I keep a stock of chilly and chilling games behind glass for just such an eventuality and today I’ve broken out The Snowfield, from brainy chaps at the Singapore-MIT Gambit Game Lab, whose output we’ve covered previously. This third-person adventure runs in browsers through the magic of Unity and it’s quite conventional to play in some ways, though shot through with atmospheric and narrative weirdness. Best to play it rather than listen to me, or read a little more in the icy depths below.

In The Snowfield you are a lone soldier wandering the aftermath of a great battle. It is the dead of winter and you won’t last long in the cold. But you are not alone.

There you go. Survival is the task – survival from the cold and perhaps from whatever it is that’s keeping you company out there. Or perhaps not. You’ll have to play for yourself because I’m not spoiling that. What I will say is that snow has rarely felt more like the ashes of the dead. It’s all a bit grymbolic and unsettling.

Occasional graphical glitches detract from the well-worked aesthetics, although thinking back I’m not entirely sure they’re not intentional, though the experimental part of this experiment is in the design process rather than the style of play.

The Snowfield represents an attempt to make a simulation-based narrative game according to a special method for developing such games, a method designed to avoid the need for complex A.I. or massive content generation. The idea was not to relying on codified narrative theories or formulas – like three-act structures, etc. – but rather assume “what makes a good story” cannot be systematized and instead must be arrived at organically via extensive user testing.

What this appears to boil down to is creating a series of objects, characters and tableaux loosely tied to a theme, and then allowing people to interact with them in isolation, observing and studying the reaction to each element. With that feedback, the features are stitched together into a whole, which is The Snowfield. In a way, it seems like a form of improvisation based around spectator feedback, except with the elongated timescale necessary for game development. Maybe there’s a connection to Sleep Is Death in the thinking, although with a radically different approach?

I’ve enjoyed exploring this shell-shocked space but it’s hard to know exactly how “inverting the traditional relationship between Design and QA” has impacted on the process. Maybe it’s for the best if the design process doesn’t intrude on the player’s experience, like some sort of invisible guiding hand, but I am the kind of man who would unpick the threads on the whole world if he could find a loose end. Wander the snows. Seek the threads.

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29 Comments »

  1. Moist says:

    You should play Pathologic.

  2. Elmar Bijlsma says:

    Here is some spectator feedback: That trench is too big by a very large margin.

  3. Blackcompany says:

    Sounds interesting. New and innovative, which is something to be rewarded in gaming these days. Looking forward to giving it a whirl.
    .
    As a quick aside, things like this are the reason why RPS is bookmarked and added to my Speed DIal in Firefox, while many other gaming “news” sites are not. I generally find something new and inventive here, as opposed to more news about multiplayer shooter maps and other such drivel. RPS is a refreshing change of pace from mainstream gaming news and I am grateful for that.

  4. Parfe says:

    Please make so that when you click a link on your page, it will open in a different window :)

  5. Hoaxfish says:

    At least this one didn’t have velociraptors in it

  6. Hodge says:

    RPS: The only website where you’ll find Adam Smith decrying the invisible hand.

    • Adam Smith says:

      And one of the only websites where the readers would actually notice!

    • dysphemism says:

      My stars, but we RPS readers have had some nice things said about us this week. My ego approves.

      Also, I’m not an MIT student but I spend enough time there that I can’t help but notice the Game Lab news and flyers. Can’t wait to play this and see what it is they’ve been building in there.

  7. Adriaan says:

    My feet are particularly cold today. At least it will add to the immersion while playing this I think.

  8. Necroqubus says:

    This is The Thing ! Anyone ?

  9. Hydrogene says:

    This is quite creepy. And sad too. Nice to see some people exploring new ways with the medium.

  10. Inigo says:

    I wondered around throwing everything I could into the fire and then everything went white and then there were birds the end what do you mean the government’s cut all our funding

  11. Roxton says:

    Just wanted to show my appreciation for the title of this post. Well done.

  12. A-Scale says:

    I was able to save two men, and threw many things into the fire. Is there an endgame or do you just sit by the fire or die?

  13. Davee says:

    Took me three tries before I figured out what was needed to get some of the soldiers to safety – it would probably have taken more tries if I didn’t have some basic understanding of German. In the end I managed to save all but one. A small and simple game, yet strangely moving and sad.

    @ Mr. Smith: As I understand it; they were talking about building a story without having a predetermined, Shakespeare-like plot line. No invisible hand; the player makes the story by themselves, sandbox-style. They just threw out a scenario, watched what the players did, how they reacted to it and then improved/designed the rest of the game on that. And it makes sense – this is an interactive medium and what we just played was a very interactive, yet engaging story. It can become so much more involved when you see the results of your own choices.

  14. Alehr says:

    Definitely appreciated the item-based interaction. I still think that’s a great launching point into a new genre of procedural narratives (where ai can appear to be complex simply by scripting a list of reactions to objects, which richly interfere with other reactions of other characters).

    Kudos to the developers for trying this out, as I think it has incredible potential, but the current implementation doesn’t really do much for me.

  15. PointyShinyBurning says:

    I liked it, short but oddly affecting.

    Warning, spoiler alert:
    I got five soldiers inside and then got the ending screen. Is there something else to do that I missed?

  16. Tei says:

    This not worked for me. The movements is too limited, and moving freely is part of the joy in a videogame. But was nice to save these soldier, even that one that need a harmonica.

    It was not very potent, as a game art thingie.

  17. dmastri says:

    Pretentious. Boring.

    What makes this any different than the adventure games of yesteryear?

    Perhaps their design philosophy was unique and inspiring, but their final product felt dated.

  18. Shadowcat says:

    You can always count on Adam for a good title :)

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