Here’s a thing I bought recently. I’ve never been a collector, but recently felt a strange urge to acquire something for myself (and shelf) that had plenty of influence and meaning for me from my childhood, as well as having an influence on my career.
Mike Singleton’s Midwinter feels like the culmination of the innovative wild imagination of the bedroom coding era. But for a game released in 1989 it sits – snugly nestled – between the two worlds of that and accessible, standardised, RPG design.
My copy of Midwinter is notable for a few things, not least its classic big box design, but also its 5.25″ floppy disk format, the ones that were actually ‘floppy’ in addition to its more modern 3.5″ cousin. And while big manuals were commonplace for the era, this one is special. It includes information on the nature and creation of ice ages, a prominent theme within its world.
In the 1980s, environmental issues were starting to make headlines, with new terms entering the public consciousness, such as global warming, and the hole in the ozone layer. Midwinter takes note, and frames the warnings of climate change around a meteor disaster that causes massive global cooling and the onset of a second ice age. Its world is a snow-covered island, one of the few habitable places left on Earth, where its citizens, survivors of the disaster, have managed to cling on to life and lead a peaceful existence in harmony, for now.
Midwinter is vast, 160,000 square miles of snow covered terrain and all generated in 3D. For 1989 it was quite a feat. Braben and Bell’s Elite in 1984 had popularised the open world and Midwinter had taken it even further, into the realm of fully realised 3D terrain, painstakingly created over (according to the manual) ‘six man years’.
This towering achievement has the player skiing, sniping, driving, and hang gliding in order to take back control of your island, all to bring back peace from the machinations of maniacal despot General Masters, a man hell-bent on bringing the population under his control.
Ultimately your goal is to destroy the headquarters of Masters himself, but if the enemy army can capture all the heat mines (the only source of power for its citizens) on the island before you get there, it’s game over. To slow their advance you can sabotage warehouses, supplies, and fuel dumps in their path. You can destroy their vehicles, and if you’re lucky enough to kill an officer’s vehicle, all the men under them will desert, making their advance considerably slower. Strategically planning your next move can be done through careful observation of the in-game map, and through the help of the island’s citizens.
Initially you are restricted to playing as the protagonist, Captain Stark. But as you travel the land you meet with new characters who may, or may not, agree to help you. Each character is unique, with strengths in some skills and weaknesses in others. Each character also has relationships with others on the island and their relationships will determine how likely they are to join your cause. Using Captain Stark it is usually easy to convince fellow police officers to join with you, but try getting the master sniper Rudel on your side and he’ll probably snub you. But talk to him while playing as Davy Hart, Rudel’s young apprentice, and he’ll be more than willing to join.
It’s reminiscent of the systems in games like Jagged Alliance, where certain mercenaries are unwilling to work with others given their relationships.
Perhaps Midwinter’s most interesting feature though is that allows the player to control multiple characters within the same time frame. Within a two hour period the player can choose any character that has joined your cause, and have them perform actions in the world that will help thwart General Masters’ advance. These will usually be the kind of things that play to that character’s strengths. Every character has their own watch to keep track of the two hours of in-game time they have to do whatever they want before they must check in for a situation report. When they have used up those two hours they can’t do anything more. Switch to a different character then, if you have one, and use the same two hour timeframe. Once each character has used their time they all check in for a situation report, and only then are the next two hours freed up. In this way each character gets to perform actions within the same chunk of time, without the player having to try and juggle all their movements and actions at once, as if they were playing an RTS on a huge scale.
The method paradoxically feels like a real-time, turn-based system. You can live the real-time thrill of sniping, driving, and skiing, while also able to experience the depth of strategy and variety that comes from controlling multiple personalities. You can coordinate characters and mobilise them – in a method not too dissimilar from guerrilla warfare – to use actions that play to their strengths in order to maximise your damage to the enemy. It is almost necessary to use more characters too, as trying to hold back the enemy alone means you have to try and be in multiple places at once. With every character that joins you though, this job becomes exponentially easier.
Of course, if you spend too much time trying to gather people to your cause you may may have let the enemy advance too far. Gathering more people also requires more complexity, and more careful planning, and so a balance has to be struck.
It is a blend of the best parts of both systems. Today that setup could have been leveraged as a co-op multiplayer system, but in 1989 that wasn’t really possible. It’s a good case for how the restrictions on technology give birth to innovation.
Each time you start a new game you are placed in a different settlement, though never too close or too far from the enemy HQ, giving the game plenty of replayability and a more organic feel. It’s balanced enough that a player can take multiple legitimate options without feeling cheated. Want to try and rush it alone? You can. Want to try and hire better skiers and snipers this time than those great drivers you hired last time? Sure, experiment, see how things turn out. The system is balanced enough and flexible enough to warrant a use for many different strategies, and its huge world makes the options for strategy feel limitless. Each new game brings out its own emergent narrative, something I greatly appreciate in games
Mike Singleton sadly died of cancer in 2012 so we will never see his hand in any new games. There was a hotly talked-of remake back in 2015 (shown below, and built in Unity), but the project seems to have died out. I do feel like Midwinter, or at least its systems, is begging to be seen in some kind of modern version, maybe I’ll just have to start one myself.
Ultimately though, and if there is anything to be gained from this, Midwinter demonstrates that occasionally we can find value in playing older games, and discovering unique systems and mechanics that have otherwise been lost to gaming history.