First Winter (Retro Cold War Horror)

Wow it’s been so long I’ve played a game like this, and to see someone capture an era I actually lived so accurately just, uhhh… First Winter is a survival/puzzle horror mash from indie developer and programmer Dan Sanderson, whose previous work includes three titles prior to this, and who I assume probably lived in the 1980s. There’s no way he couldn’t, and if so, he’s a time traveler so accurate is his presentation of the decade and the feel of the technology. It reminds me of the first time I played Hell, deeply immersed in its bizarre world, until I realized it sucked. First Winter, actually does not suck, so that was a terrible transition into the next paragraph. Sorry Dan. Check out some of it below before I prattle on.

First Winter utilizes the Cold War era as its main inspiration, which is inviting because this is a greatly untapped area for horror. There’s not much notable out there connected to it, fight me on that, you’ll see. Here I’ll show you. It’s been occasionally used such as Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode (1988), but in horror not so much. The Cold War tends to be reduced to stereotypes, sometimes grotesque like in Command and Conquer: Red Alert (1996) with its silly Tesla tanks. Largely underutilized is the actual terror of that period, the things people actually feared and the potential ramifications of the ideological conflict that lasted for almost 50 years, including, especially, nuclear proliferation, power, and war. This is what First Winter relies on, and it does it so well you’ll ignore its only fault.

In First Winter you control an unknown individual, possibly a teenager, or young adult, perhaps older, who wakes up in their bedroom in the United States in the 1980s totally living the Rambo poster life. This is assumed based on clues in the game, primarily in your apartment. You’ve got film references and old technology like your boom box and the CRT television, which you see above. The graphics are purposefully old school, and look much like first-person survival and puzzle games of the early 1990s, such as The 7th Guest (1993). This atmosphere works quite well with the game’s theme, so how does play run?

Puzzles in First Winter are entirely situational, with clues hidden in various ways, such as one in Morse code later which was sick cool. For unexplained reasons, your character begins to go back and forth between the real world and some dream/nightmare realm of empty halls and dark passages that all connect to a submarine incident that leads to a nuclear missile launch after some tragedy on said sub. The story is never fully explained, instead the Cold War imagery is used to create a mood, and this is carried then through your actions. Particularly impressive are the way the game moves through reality and dream, connecting the real world to the submarine through this nameless, empty white demiplane between both with cassette players that discuss nuclear proliferation, dead bodies in sheets, and other tricks that had my kid shaking (I’m a good father, though, STFU). The suicide moment near the end was a good one, and the sound is just excellent overall with perfectly timed WTF moments and wonderful, incidental atmosphere. For example, the way Sanderson has the cassettes sound warped matches some of the scenes where the screen flickers and appears to melt as though affected by radiation was genius defined.

Similar to puzzle games that preceded it, First Winter largely only provides a single solution to all its problems as you connect yourself to its vague story. This in itself is expected of this type of game, and it’s designed with a fluidity that keeps the player-to-game connection high. However, as others have noted, its shortness is something of a weakness. In all, First Winter will take you perhaps no longer than 30 minutes to complete it. This was, as the programmer has clearly stated, intentional, but games of this type rely on length for their replay value. At least 2 hours is the norm. After you’ve completed this one, you’ll have little reason to try it again, and will instead wait on Sanderson’s next installment, which will hopefully, and likely, be longer. The only element of this game with replay factor is the “good” ending, which is hidden within the game. However, this is somewhat marred by the ability to only choose one clear path through the majority of play, and then you can simply repeat the final scene until you figure it out. Regardless, Sanderson has done a wonderful thing here with a largely unused theme, and he does it so well you probably won’t notice. For those of you with less time to enjoy this kind of thing, it’s definitely worth the small bit of cash he’s charging, so support this dude so I can see some more please.


First Winter Official Steam Page

Written by Stanley Stepanic

First Winter
Dan Sanderson (developer), danthaigames (publisher)
4.3 / 5