“Nothing awaits you. Just a broken radio, loneliness, and endless snow.” That’s how Ilia Mazo, the brains behind It’s Winter, introduces potential players to his game on Steam. That’s pretty blunt, even for a Muscovite—but he also isn’t far off the mark.
At the daring price of $9.99, you’ll get a game deliberately devoid of plot, purpose, or characters. It’s a sandbox re-creation of a lonely night spent in (and around) a khrushchyovka: one of the ugly, prefab complexes synonymous with mass housing in the USSR. It’s a work of “post-Soviet sad 3D,” he tells me, a sort of immersive exercise in melancholy.
Step into the shoes of your Soviet self, and you’ll find nearly everything’s interactive. The radio—should you manage to get it working—blares out a mix of industrial ambiance and Russian chanting. It’s Mazo singing. Despite a self-confessed lack of musical talent, he has composed and released three albums interwoven throughout the game.
And that’s not all. There’s also a short film, a poetry anthology, and an animated flipbook, each more sinister than the last. From my own middling experience with the region, none of this content gives any indication to setting. “You could be in Vyborg,” a Russian friend tells 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 era’s architectural apparatchiks. (Mazo, somewhat sheepishly, later confesses that the block is a clone of a friend’s home in Petrozavodsk.)
So there’s a smattering of ’60s-era furniture, a fridge stocked with food, and a shower to keep you occupied. Look in the right places, and you’ll even find a few disturbing clues as to the sort of state you’re in, mentally. It isn’t good. A half-eaten box of antidepressants, stashed under the sink. Notes to self, scrawled by hand in spidery Cyrillic.
For an indie vignette, this level of detail is absurd—you can rummage through your neighbor’s trash for indications about his life, or you can keep it simple and microwave a tomato. If you’re anything like myself, though, you’ll quickly tire of mucking around inside. The real draw lies in heading out into the night, and exploring the neighborhood in all its dystopian glory.
That’s about all It’s Winter offers—and, if you’re into that sort of thing, it hits the nail on the head. Playgrounds, stairwells, shopfronts … each scene is more derelict and depressing than the last. It’s ruin porn at its most primal—snapshots of a world that was, for so long, sealed off from Western eyes.
According to the game’s army of local fans, it’s the real deal. “It’s a very accurate representation of a typical Russian house, on a typical Russian street,” claims one player. “If you're from a First World country, play this game. Play it, embrace its atmosphere, and be happy that you weren't born into this cold, lifeless ghetto.”
That’s sort of the key to appreciating It’s Winter; it should rightly be viewed as a work of art rather than a game, a fleeting experience with life in the frozen north. According to internal statistics, even the more ardent fans maxed out at about two hours of gameplay. (There are always outliers, though: One player had clocked up a committed 36.3 hours.)
It’s Winter might be a little recherché, but it’s not the first of its kind. Walking sims, as they’re somewhat pejoratively known, are generally light-hearted and bizarre, like Dan Golding’s Untitled Goose Game. They can also be heavy-hitting: Take Mary Flanagan’s [domestic], a reconstruction of a house fire that the author experienced as a child. Or That Dragon, Cancer, an autobiographical game that recounts a parent’s experience watching as an infant son battles with the eponymous disease. It’s Winter sits squarely in the middle of these two camps—it’s definitely not that deep, but it does offer some opportunity for contemplation.
A big issue with games of this ilk is that they often struggle to maintain any sort of suspense. Sean Krankel, co-creator of Oxenfree, points to the challenge of creating “a game that feels like it has a threat, when the player can’t die.” It’s even harder when there are no characters, other than a few patrolling snowtractors.
Strangely enough, though, It’s Winter excels in this regard. Much like the signs of your crumbling mental fortitude, the odd sign of human activity is eerie when noticed. On one outing, I stumbled across a handheld sparkler, abandoned in the snow. It was lit—and, given the level of detail, I could see that must have been done recently. Yet I was all alone. Perhaps this was, to quote yet another reviewer, one of the “scenes that make your blood temperature drop 10 degrees.”
It’s Winter has been called a lot of things: “magic,” “tedium” and even “the world’s loneliest video game.” Mazo, though, balks at the latter suggestion—he tells me it was “never meant to be a game.”
“It’s a different world,” he insists. “You’ve been there before.”
Usually, I’m apt to dismiss this sort of talk as contemporary art bullshit. Later that night, though, as I glanced from my virtual apartment out over the courtyard, I realized he actually had a point—I felt a faint tug of nostalgia, recalling a similar streetscape I’d witnessed in my travels around Minsk. The green-and-white pharmacy (аптека) sign, glowing softly among the gray of the high-rises.
When you feel nostalgic about a place you’ve spent just two days, you know something weird’s going on. In German, you’d call it fernweh: a literal “far woe,” the opposite of homesickness. “It’s like one of those dreams,” one British player tells me by email, “in which you’re lost and alone, in a place you’ve never been.”
Whatever it is, it’s working. Despite humble artistic roots, the game’s been downloaded tens of thousands of times since its 2019 release—and, backed by hundreds of glowing reviews, it’s cemented its position as something of a cult hit, both inside and outside of Russia. Not bad for a simple walking sim—what one Salon writer once called “gaming’s most detested genre.”
“Why do you think the game is so popular?” I ask Mazo, though I don’t expect a straight answer. The man, after all, is a poet.
“It’s a way of letting people experience isolation,” he says, a “lesson in darkness.” Yet, at the same time, he hopes it shows people they’re not alone.
Some of this tracked with players I spoke to—many were diasporic Russians, and many others were struggling with the challenges of life under lockdown. Others, like myself, just like the Eastern bloc vibes—and wanted to dip their toes in the time-honored tradition of Russian melancholy.