Time Extend: Midwinter
Everyone who knows Midwinter knows it’s about scale. 160,000 square miles of explorable terrain. 32 playable characters who, in their fight for survival against a would-be dictator, can work solo or in coordination to create billions of possible strategic combinations. Snowmobiles, skis, hang-gliders and more at your disposal. A fleet of enemy craft that can be destroyed with missiles, grenades and well-placed sniper bullets. Or, equally devastatingly, can be picked at with cruel precision, gunning down generals and supply vehicles until the rest desert in desperation. Pilots, doctors and engineers serve vital roles, as do local civilians – frail old ladies and quick-thinking children able to use their innocent appearance to help the resistance. Even now, it would be a game whose scope would guarantee it attention. Released at the end of the 1980s, what it promised was barely imaginable. Playing it felt like time travel – a sneak peak at the blueprint that showed how games were going to be. It was then, and is now, an enormous accomplishment.
But everyone who plays Midwinter knows it’s about another kind of scale. Midwinter is one of the smallest games ever made. It’s intimate, overwhelming and above all human. It’s not that the number-crunching brandished on the back of the box isn’t important, it’s just that its function is the opposite of what you might expect. Midwinter isn’t designed to make the world feel big; it’s designed to make you feel small.
This human scale is apparent from the very first seconds. As John Stark, leader of the Free Villages Peace Force, you begin the game isolated, vulnerable, guilty and frightened. Midwinter Isle is the only world you’ve known. A bleak, ice-locked island, it’s home to a small community of survivors who, over decades of desperate and incremental struggle have built what may be the last human settlement after a meteor triggered a climatic cataclysm and froze much of the world. A second-generation islander, this is all you’ve known of humanity – hardy settlers who are just beginning to reap the rewards of taming the island’s volcanic heat source. As the world’s habitable regions were eroded by the ice and rumours of Midwinter’s success spread, successive groups of refugees have found their way here by boat, and the steadily expanding population has brought discord and rivalry in the place of the old-time frontier spirit. As the island’s chief of police, your job was to maintain order. Instead, wanting to avoid conflict, you turned a blind eye. Now, word has reached you that one of the newcomers has amassed an army on the island’s southern peninsula. His goal domination, his method force. War has come to the island, and you have the responsibility of stopping it.
But while the game’s set-up puts you in the position of a hero, it doesn’t give you tools to match the job. Stark is desperately, despicably human. In most games, your responsibility to save the day is born from the fact that you’re the person who has the power to – whether it’s due to how fast you can run or how high you can jump, your Mjolnir armour or your Master Sword. In Midwinter, great power doesn’t create great responsibility, nor does great responsibility create great power. Stopping this invasion is simply Stark’s job, and he’s given no extra tools to do it. He has his skis, his rifle, his fitness and his friends. Standing in the open, trying to absorb that the attack has begun and all lines of communication are broken, the throb of the approaching enemy vehicles gives him one choice: run.