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Cold, Comfort, Harm: The Snowfield

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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