The relaxing radio music cuts to a report of a Russian Attack Submarine off course in the pacific. You’re sitting in your living room as the muddy audio of the TV drones on, and now anxiety starkly washes over you.
Is it just another false alarm? Will anything come out of it this time?
(Content Warning: Doomsday scenarios and the associated nihilistic topics.)
First Winter is a follow-up to the experimental horror piece Pacific by Dan Sanderson, a lo-fi exploration of the uneasy tension that plagued many during the Cold War era. Cutting from the comfortable apartment of the protagonist, we jump onboard a rogue soviet nuclear sub currently taking on water, murderously intent on completing its fatal mission. As the story progresses, it becomes harder to make the distinction between the protagonist’s reality, a heroic apocalypse-averting fantasy, or the overwhelming guilt and fear of a foreign policy induced panic attack.
Guilt, in particular, is an often overlooked component of the emotions involved when faced with such an existential threat, “If I had only made different choices, maybe I would be in the position to de-escalate the stand off”, “If I had advocated to friends, family, and my community for a more loving and understanding world, maybe this wouldn’t be necessary”, “Did I prepare enough for the outcomes? Is there any way I could even ensure the survival of myself, let alone my loved ones?”
If this sounds familiar, it is. Even in the aftermath of the Cold War and the supposed ideal outcome of the triumph of market-oriented democratic republics over the former Soviet states, a miasma still lingered in new, more unpredictable forms. These were the ideas of rogue weapons leaked from defunct states, actors of terror dragging major political powers and civilian centers into obscure sociopolitical rivalries in small countries, and the possibility of social unrest in the West as it begins to reject the foundations of peaceful discourse. Due in no small part to this, the 1990s were far from ideal in the West despite the overwhelming message of world peace echoed from corporate sponsors eager to flatten the capital landscape to ensure maximum proliferation of goods into fledgling proto-democracies popping up globally.
And it’s this very economic boom, bolstered by unearned optimism that produced the high gear shift into a notoriously wasteful consumer oriented mindset, pollution be damned. During the Vietnam era, there was a heightened awareness of what unrestrained corporate powers were doing to the environment, the idea that citizens had a vested national interest in protecting the fragile ecology we knew was under constant threat of nuclear winter and toxic waste. When the whole world’s fate is at the hands of two extremely powerful political figures, the outcome seems so easy to avoid, after all if we can just convince them to get along, things might be OK.
And it’s First Winter’s hallucinations of a mission to stop the catastrophe that illustrates this strongly. Ripped away from a 2D Platformer on your Commodore 64, you’re suddenly placed within inches of the control panel for the submarine’s warheads, hacking off a man’s arm with a fire axe in order to bypass a thumb-print scanner door and stop the culprit determined to push the world past the point of no return. It’s a comforting fantasy in a way, the idea that despite how precarious the fate of the world may be, in the hands of one individual, that there may be someone who could stop them single-handedly.
In our contemporary era, we equally play up such heroic day-dreaming; the idea that if we just stopped eating meat, or rode an electric car or bicycle to work, that we too might be able to stop our currently looming climate disaster. The reality of the situation is vastly more terrifying beyond human comprehension, not unlike the true nature of nuclear standoffs.
And this is the underlying thesis of First Winter, that despite the best efforts of well-intentioned individuals and the successful evasion of a single crisis, we will still wake up in our beds sweating with fear. We are traumatized by pre-recorded tapes explaining the mundane reasoning of escalatory strategy and retaliatory responses in warfare, the knowledge that more often than not, it’s forces beyond our control that determine the possibility of annihilation. It is no wonder that we would cling to fairy tales, rather than face the long up-hill climb of uncertainty in the face of a multi-faceted, multi-level problem where we are all the culprits, yet none of us are personally responsible.
So click off the lights, sit down at your computer, and hope for the best.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice