By Jeroen Janssen, Joost Vandecasteele, Happy Volcano
What if "YOU DIED" appeared on your screen and you hadn't even started playing yet? What if after the end credits finally end, you’re asked to press "START"? What if death in a game wasn't just a "GAME OVER" screen, but a different dimension influenced by opinions about death – in fiction and in religion – all yours to explore?
Asking those questions about game narrative led us to the creation of a cold and otherwordly place. In Winter, death is the narrative, the setting, and the mechanic. It is represented viscerally in the game world as a circle of houses surrounding a forest. Each house is constructed by the distorted personal memories of the individual who wakes up inside it. The forest serves as a gathering place for the deceased – all of whom have died in the same second. The house and the forest are two stages of the game.
The main character is a young girl who has drowned following a troubling divorce between her parents. The entire game is about this one restless soul, but you never see her. Instead, you live in the one second between her life and her death – stretched for as long as the game lasts. In that one second while dying she must choose between life or death, between reuniting with her deceased father or continuing to live with her emotionally unstable mother. Every choice is equally difficult to make.
She begins dead. Or dying. Or dead. Your – or her – house is slowly filling up with snow that enters through the cracks of broken mirrors and television screen static. The snow is her death: an otherworldly representation of the cold water in which she drowned. She has to escape the house and find her way through a bizarre forest. In the forest, the girl finds traces of her own memories and those of other dead people: some reassuring, some scary.
As fans of indie horror, we are all familiar with the established clichés of haunted house walking simulators. But Winter isn't about horror. It's about the sobering fact of death and the choices that can alter a final state. Death is not a bunch of diary excerpts found in the cutlery drawer; not a spooky shivering lady in a white dress lurking in the corner. We wanted an unsettling exploration of a colourful purgatory created by the collective minds of everybody who has died in the same second.
It can be struggle to remove the horror element from a typical horror idea without making it less exciting. We knew from the beginning that we wanted a colorful visual style and game mechanic. The game world can be explored from an isometric viewpoint, from which only one tile of the game world is visible at a time. Each tile can be turned around for hidden clues. To enhance a feeling of a truly bizarre and unpredictable world, we kept the artwork reminiscent of a child’s pop-up book.
In Winter, different deaths animate different circumstances. We tried to show this by having everyone who arrives in the woods bring with them his or her final thoughts and belief system. Someone who dies a violent death can conjure up a dark and frightful area in the forest. Someone who dies peacefully, convinced of a heavenly afterlife, can experience his or her dying wish. In this dimension of death, everybody gets their own personal version.
The game Winter has the ambition to set a slow place by using a thoughtful inner monologue and beautiful graphics. So the player isn’t motivated by fear to move forward, but by a sense of wonder.
Winter is a narrative exploration game developed by Happy Volcano in cooperation with Flemish author Joost Vandecasteele. Winter will be released on desktop and mobile in Q1 of 2017. www.happyvolcano.com