Project Winter lets you spectate a match as a translucent phantom version of your avatar, looking on as your teammates and opponents run away from grizzlies, call in a rescue chopper and scream “WeedKing is the Traitor!” into their headsets.
The effect of this moment in Other Ocean Interactive’s chilly survival game is like if, instead of having his existence erased from history, George Bailey lost on Survivor: Siberia but stuck around to haunt Boston Rob in a fluffy parka. The rest of the game, meanwhile, feels like an occasionally violent round of Mafia (the party game, not the 2K series) set at an abandoned ski resort.
Play begins inside a rustic cabin, where eight players spawn in full winter gear. From there, they’ll venture out into the dangerous wilderness that surrounds the lodge’s warm comfort. A grizzly bear lurks just a stone’s throw from the start. Wolves prowl on the outskirts of the map. Moose plod through the snow, docile until bothered. A time or two per game, blizzards kick up, pushing wise players back to the cabin.
The most interesting hazards that await in the world of Project Winter, however, are other players. While the game provides base level motivations—find and cook food, keep your health bar stable—the secret pursuit of overarching goals is Project Winter’s slowly pounding pulse.
Each of the eight players is designated a survivor or a traitor as the match begins, and each has hidden goals that will either benefit the group or slow the survivors’ progress. The traitors’ goal is to throw enough wrenches in the works that the survivors can’t escape (or to outlast the survivors with the help of hostile fauna and crafted weapons). The survivors’ goal, meanwhile, is to call in a helicopter to carry them to safety, or to weed out the traitors (again, bears and rifles are a big, if unpredictable, help in this regard).
The least interesting hazards, meanwhile, are the matchmaking and technical issues that keep this early access title a little rough around the edges. I’ve played considerably less of this game than I want to because finding a game has been frustratingly hit-or-miss. Sometimes I’ve loaded into a bustling interactive lobby, where five or six other players were passing the wait by throwing snowballs and cracking jokes on voice chat. Other times, I found myself in a vacant lobby that remained empty for upwards of five to 10 minutes. When this happened, I tabbed out and went to grind some endgame quests in Anthem. Say what you will about BioWare’s loot shooter; there are always people to play with.
Unlike any project released by a publishing behemoth like EA, Project Winter has a small community at this point. That’s fine; it’s still in early access, and the devs have made it clear that this version of the game won’t be finished for a few more months. But, the size of the player base has an interesting effect on the game’s meta (and, I say “interesting” because I’m not yet sure if it’s a good, bad or neutral thing).
Namely, people remember who you are. When I jumped back into the lobby after some Anthem grind time, another player recognized my name.
“Andrew King, you were waiting here an hour ago before I went to get lunch.”
Yes, dude in the Project Winter lobby, yes I was.
That example is innocuous. But, given that Project Winter is a social deception game, I could easily see this dynamic having long-term ramifications across many rounds in a small community of players. Remember the traitor that stabbed you and your friends in the back at the climax of a particularly heated round? Well, here they are in the lobby again. Do you trust them?
Obviously, you should trust them as much as anybody else. Traitor and survivor roles are divvied out by the game’s AI, not by the whims of Project Winter’s players. But, the fact that a grudge is irrational rarely keeps someone from holding it.
In my experience with the game so far, everyone I’ve encountered has handled this dynamic with maturity; they seem to realize that these are just the rules and betrayals and losses can’t be taken personally. However, I don’t see measures in place—not yet at least—to curb the toxicity that could potentially result from social deception mechanics going awry.
But, then again, the winter is long. We’ll see what fixes the team at Other Ocean bring when the game emerges from its early access hibernation in a few months.