“Nothing awaits you. Just a broken radio, loneliness and endless snow. This is how Ilia Mazo, the brains behind It’s winter, introduces his potential players to his game on Steam. It’s pretty brutal, even for a Muscovite, but he’s not far off the mark either.
At the daring price of $ 9.99, you’ll get a game that’s deliberately devoid of plot, purpose, or characters. It’s a sandbox recreation of a lonely night spent in (and around) a khrushchyovka: one of the ugly prefabricated complexes synonymous with mass housing in the USSR. It is a work of “sad post-Soviet 3D”, he tells me, a kind of immersive exercise in melancholy.
Put yourself in the shoes of your Soviet self and you’ll find almost everything is interactive. The radio – if you can get it to work – gives off a mix of industrial vibe and Russian chants. It’s Mazo singing. Despite an avowed lack of musical talent, he composed and released three albums intertwined throughout the game.
And that’s not all. There is also a short film, an anthology of poetry and an animated flipbook, each more sinister than the next. From my own average experience with the region, none of this content gives any indication of the setting. “You could be in Vyborg,” a Russian friend told me, “You could be in Vladivostok, or you could be anywhere in between.”
That’s sort of the point, I guess. Uniformity is the scar left by the architecture of the time apparatchiks. (Mazo, a little sheepish, later confesses that the block is a clone of a friend’s house in Petrozavodsk.)
So there is a handful of furniture from the 60s, a fridge stocked with food, and a shower to keep you occupied. Look in all the right places and you’ll even find some unsettling clues as to what type of state you find yourself in, mentally. It’s not good. A half-eaten box of antidepressants hidden under the sink. Notes to myself, hand scribbled in spider Cyrillic.
For an independent vignette, that level of detail is absurd: you can dig through your neighbor’s garbage for clues to their life, or you can keep it simple and microwave a tomato. If you’re like me, however, you’ll quickly tire of sneaking inside. The real draw lies in stepping out into the night and exploring the neighborhood in all its dystopian splendor.
That is just about everything It’s winter offer – and, if you’re into that sort of thing, it hits the nail on the head. Playgrounds, stairwells, storefronts… each scene is more abandoned and depressing than the last. It’s ruining porn at its most primitive – snapshots of a world that has been, for so long, isolated from the eyes of Westerners.
According to the game’s army of local fans, this is the real deal. “It’s a very accurate representation of a typical Russian house, on a typical Russian street,” says one player. “If you are from a first world country, play this game. Play it, enjoy its atmosphere and be happy that you were not born in this cold and lifeless ghetto.
It’s kind of the key to appreciating It’s winter; it should rightly be seen as a work of art rather than a game, a fleeting experience of life in the frozen north. According to internal stats, even the most ardent fans peaked at around two hours of playtime. (There are still outliers, though: One player had racked up a 36.3-hour engagement.)
It’s winter may be a bit fancy, but it’s not the first of its kind. Walk simulations, as they’re referred to a bit pejoratively, are generally light and weird, like Dan Golding’s. Untitled Goose Game. They can also be impactful: take that of Mary Flanagan [domestic], a reconstruction of a house fire that the author experienced in his childhood. Or This dragon, Cancer, an autobiographical game that tells the story of a parent’s experience watching a toddler son battle the disease of the same name. It’s winter sits squarely in the middle of these two camps – it’s certainly not that deep, but it does provide an opportunity for contemplation.