Whenever I look out of the window to find that snow has covered the country like a carpet of white dung, my first thoughts are not of some bucolic childhood memory of sledges and snowmen. Nor does it bring to mind whimsical scenes from some classic Christmas movie, where snow is always brilliant white and accompanied by the sound of bells. No, for me, the sight of snow automatically takes me back to the hours I spent in 1989, hunched over my Amiga, carefully traversing a frozen island in Mike Singleton's brilliant Midwinter.
I don't really want to think about what that says about me, but what it says about Midwinter is abundantly clear. It's a truly seminal game, years ahead of its time in both ideas and technology, and one that has been rather criminally overlooked in recent years.
Midwinter was a product of one of those wonderful transition periods for the game industry, when the hardware moves forward and ingenious developers move in to see what's been made possible. If Midwinter were made today, marketing people would fall over themselves to smother it in sales-boosting bullet points, flagrantly throwing phrases like "cross genre" around and losing the meaning along the way.
Midwinter crossed genres, not because it seemed like a commercially shrewd way of covering lots of demographics, but because Singleton was literally discovering and reinventing genres as he went along. It's a pioneering piece of game design simply because nobody knew how to do this stuff.
Set in the future, following an Emmerich-scale global catastrophe that results in the planet being smothered in snow and ice, Midwinter takes place on a frostbitten island populated by a scattering of small dwellings and the ruthless armed forces of one General Masters. It's up to you, as John Stark of the Free Villages Police Force, to rally the inhabitants of the island into action against Masters, waging a guerrilla campaign to drive him out and secure your freedom by sabotaging factories, rescuing prisoners and crippling radio masts. It's the way you do this that makes Midwinter so memorable and so influential.
It's a first-person shooter. Oh, and a stealth game. It's also a free-roaming openworld adventure. And a social role-playing game, of sorts. None of these genres really existed back in 1989, or at least they didn't exist as the chart-topping behemoths we know today. Midwinter was, and still is, a unique creature; a priceless transitional specimen in the fossil record of gaming.
Exploration is the beating heart of the game, and you were able to wander the vast 160,000 square mile gameworld in numerous ways. Skis were the default mode of transport, a frankly terrifying experience that saw you scrunching up triangular peaks only to hurtle down the other side at 50mph. The Snow Wolf snowmobile was more secure, and the go-to option for rapidly covering the vast distances between locations, though its speed made it a risky choice on such uncertain terrain. Finally, and most daringly, you could use a hang glider to swoop down from the mountainous peaks.
All were capable of crashing horribly, which brings us to Midwinter's first memorable innovation. Injuries could cripple your limbs, which in turn would impact your abilities. Damaged legs made skiing a problem. Wounded arms made it harder to shoot straight. There were no medpacks in Midwinter, but time literally healed all wounds. Find a safe lodging and bed down, and even the most mangled limbs got better.
Unfortunately, time was a more precious resource than the spurious notion of "health". That's because, along with everything else, Midwinter was also a turn-based strategy game. The goal was to reach the other inhabitants of the island and recruit them to your cause. Once you had more characters on board you would synchronise watches and gameplay then revolved around controlling them in turn, in two hour chunks. So you'd control one character from 8am to 10am, then hop back in time to control the next character during the same timeframe. In this way, you manoeuvred and plotted the best way to beat Masters and his omnipresent army of snowmobiles and planes.
But even this wasn't as simple as it may sound. Cue Midwinter's next brilliant idea. The people on the island weren't anonymous avatars, but distinct personalities. Recruiting people meant understanding their lives and loyalties. Family members could rally each other quite easily, but other characters would distrust or even hate each other, for various reasons. Since certain characters had differing skillsets, this was a strategic choice rather than merely narrative.
Only Professor Kristiansen could operate the radio, for example, and he'd only join up if his grandson asked him. Other characters were better snipers, or could sustain more damage. Picking the right people for the job, and working out who you needed to win over in order to earn the trust of someone else, was all part of the challenge.
It all added up to a monster of a game, vast in ways that were then unheard of, and all rendered in chunky polygon 3D. It was fast as well, a far cry from the ponderous vistas of Freescape's Driller and Castle Master. The world might not have been full of things to see, but it felt real - a solid, tangible place where trees could splatter an unwary skier, and where a sniper's hands would shake if left too long.
Most of all, it's the sheer freedom that made Midwinter such an obsession for me. This was a game with no strict guidance and no linear corridors, just wide open snow-blasted plains and an end goal that was specific in nature but wonderfully open in execution. Of course, there were certainly things you could do, and people you could recruit, in a particular order for a more efficient journey through the game, but there was no punishment for forging your own path. Like most great games, it didn't drag the player through a predetermined story but gave you the space to make one up of your own, dictated by decisions and action rather than somebody else's script.
I discovered this myself, to my lasting joy, when I decided on a whim to see if I could sneak past the enemy and attack General Masters HQ single-handed. Which I did, successfully. I have no idea how I managed that - it seems like it should have been impossible - but, somehow, it worked. You could argue that allowing the player to circumnavigate pretty much every gameplay mechanism in the game was a sign of poor design, but for 16-year-old me it was a revelation that gave me a lifelong passion for open-ended freeform game design.
Others would pick up Midwinter's baton, refining and improving on its core ideas as processors got faster and graphics became sharper. Certainly, the Fallout series owes a huge debt to Midwinter, as does The Elder Scrolls. That most of Midwinter's best ideas are still considered fairly cutting edge and are integral to most action games today is a testament to just how far Mike Singleton's team pushed the boundaries of how games could be played, using hardware that was downright primitive by 2010 standards.
And what of the snow? Clearly, the snowy setting was chosen in part because it made the gameworld simpler and therefore easier to render at speed. But from necessity comes inspiration, and Midwinter turned technological weakness into atmospheric strength, creating a world that felt barren for a reason, a lonely and desolate place where the idea of finding people and bonding with them was a psychological need as well as a gameplay goal.
That chilly isolation was integral to Midwinter's ruthless immersion, which might explain why the desert-themed sequel, Flames of Freedom, didn't have quite the same allure. That's why, as I shuffle through the snow to the shops for last minute turkey condiments, in my head I'll be back on Midwinter Island, looking out for snowmobiles.