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ParserComp 2021: Snowhaven, August 2, 2021
A commonality between the successes of Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley, and Minecraft is that many of us, scattered across continents in thronging cities with a throbbing consciousness bleeding anxieties and responsibilities, desperately long for that quiet industriousness of the countryside, its serene solitude, that silent immersion in nature where simply being seems enough, where all our emotions and thoughts meld into a landscape teeming with its own self sufficient rhythms and vibrancies.
Snowhaven’s stripped down monochrome aesthetic produces this precise feeling, offering us several emotions that we can blend into a connection with the earth: joy, sadness, and terror. As the protagonist goes about harvesting ingredients for a stew, he reminisces about his past, his expected guest, and this tiny patch of earth where his memories reside in rivers, in trees, in boats, in graves. This isn’t just a jaunt through the woods to gather some berries, but a tour through your world, its happiness, its heartbreak. Pixelated scenes guide us through our journey as we constantly travel between seven locations, so that by the end even the player starts to recognize each little nook, what’s hidden in it, and what has happened here. Thus, the multiple playthroughs offered by Snowhaven really accentuates its charm, as we get to work on a new recipe much as the protagonist might, whirling through the seven screens about which we know every little thing, pausing only for a memory.
Unfortunately, only the first two playthroughs are available. The third playthrough, the Sinister version, is, rather evocatively, hidden behind a password, as if there is some terrible secret locked deep in the heart of the game. The game suggests that you can email the author for the code, but I don’t know, something about “email me to get into the secret Sinister part of the game” feels a bit intimidating.
This password protection for the third playthrough adds to Snowhaven’s sense of wobbliness. There’s some clunkiness when it comes to preparing ingredients; the list of commands suggests a HINT command, but it produces the result “This game doesn’t use hint.”; the help menu doesn’t list basically any of the necessary verbs besides the very basics, which seemed like the purpose of the menu; occasionally the game would double back on itself strangely, such as “You take a few carrots out of your store of frozen vegetables. You can’t do that.”, or telling me that “You can’t leave the cabin without soap” while moving me out of my cabin; and, speaking of soap, you’re given a brief quest to find some, so I went searching through the map to figure out where I could acquire soap, like maybe I can use the pine wood producing a good smell or get some mint maybe or even get some animal fat or whatever, only to realize I’m supposed to just type “find soap” in the cabin, which seems a bit like typing “solve puzzle.”
Despite these issues, the game has a charm that delicately threads the needle between its muted aesthetic and its emotive core. The writing helps with this, as each memory seems gently remembered, we get a soft black and white photo feeling of these experiences, and yet, just as the game threatens to be a little blurry and saccharine, it goes for the throat:
“You wish you had buried your wife in perfect condition, so you could imagine her eternally resting as the beautiful woman she was. But it took you days to find her body on the river bank. You have so many questions about those days that can never be answered. You can only hope she is resting peacefully.”
Snowhaven thus tries to capture the ambiguity of nature: we get nature as peaceful and beautiful, wandering through the forest with our dog to harvest some mint, but we also get nature as brutal and survivalistic, with you having to distract a bear so that you can hunt some rabbits, decapitate them, skin them, gut them, and cut them up. Likewise, the characters, without ever needing to speak, are filled with stories that seem to overtake them at every turn. The result of this Janusian uncertainty is that Snowhaven alternates between light and shadow like lying beneath a maple tree as the late autumn light dapples through the leaves.