Winter is coming, so it must be time to play Sang-Froid again

Years ago, one of my university lecturers told me that he didn’t really read much that he enjoyed anymore – I suspect he’d been marking one of my essays – but there was a line of poetry he had read the other day that he thought was phenomenal. He then said it out loud, and what I remember him saying was just part of a sentence, just this:

“In winter, when the wolves have nothing to eat but wind…”

I have not been able to track this line down since, so I’ve almost certainly gotten it wrong. What I will never forget, though, was the way he stressed those three main W words that give the thought its shape and force. Winter, wolves, wind. Each of these was pained, almost: bleached and pummeled tight by the ferocity of the cold as they left his mouth. I was transported by the impromptu performance. I still am. Thank you, Jan.

All of which is to say, winter is coming. The days are darkening earlier, the skies are low and grey at noon, and I’m doing all the normal winter things once more. I’m hunting in closets for gloves and scarves. I’m shutting the window in the room where I work at 4.30 each afternoon when my neighbours switch on their inflatable Christmas dinosaur which plays the same few bars of Santa Claus is Coming to Town on a loop, and I’m getting Sang-Froid: Tales of Werewolves back on my PC. Soon I too will have nothing to eat but wind.

Sang-Froid takes place in the December of 1858 in Canada, and it’s firmly a winter game rather than a Christmas game. On a lonely, isolated farm, the Devil himself has his eye on the embattled sister of two local lumberjacks. It’s a simple, rather stark premise, and what unfolds from it is a game of great structural invention and imagination. The core of Sang-Froid seems to expand outwards from the basic idea of tower defence, while the way the whole thing operates, particularly its sense of pace and place and its approach to enemy AI, always leaves me with a genuine sense of being stalked and circled by wild animals. Sang-Froid, then, belongs with that line of poetry my old lecturer told me, along with such strange, frosty classics as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Masefield’s magnificently weird Box of Delights. These are all stories where wild danger forever lurks in the firs, and where the teller has at least one foot in a snowdrift.

I say Sang-Froid is a tower defence game, but if you’re expecting a standard spin on the genre, you will be confused, and then, hopefully, delighted. Every day, you hover over a tactical map of your farm and the surrounding wilderness, placing traps and shoring up defences. This is because, every night, the Devil sends wolves and other monsters to attack you. Once your defences are set, however, you don’t just sit and wait and watch the wolves and monsters conga-lining their way towards you as your gadgets thin the ranks.

Instead, you have to get out there in the woods and snow and take the fight to the enemy yourself. This is because you’re always on the backfoot in Sang-Froid. Your traps can only ever do so much, and your plans will only ever be so successful, so with an axe and a rifle you have to rush around in the darkness and be the single roving element that leads to victory.

I’m simplifying things. Some traps are great. Nets filled with rocks which will drop on foes passing between them, for example, can take out two or three wolves at a time. But they need you to physically be there to place the shot to bring them down. You need to be there in person for them to work at all. Other traps, like the grabby bear-traps you often see in old cartoons, will do a certain amount of damage, but won’t be a total solution to your problems. Some traps are strong against certain foes and weak against others. And a lot of the stuff you place during the day aren’t really traps at all, but towers and ziplines to allow you to get around quicker, or bonfires to give you a bit more time before the enemies attack.

Sang-Froid was one of our games of the year in 2013.

It’s in bringing all this stuff together that Sang-Froid really sings. It gives you a lot of information upfront: you learn which wave enemies are attacking in, how many there will be and what types will be arriving, and you can even see the routes they’ll be taking each night. So your job is to get in there and mess with everything. Trap the routes your enemies follow, sure, but also work on luring them off their routes, with a shout, with things carried on the wind, and then bottleneck them, gather them in dead ends, lead them to wherever suits you the best to do them in.

This is great by itself, but it’s the enemies you face which make it all truly memorable. Simply put, Sang-Froid’s wolves and other midnight horrors are simply fascinating to play against again and again. They feel like genuine wild animals – predictable to a point but also driven by blood lust, prone to short-circuiting themselves when the frenzy kicks in.

In this respect, the game gets a lot of fun out of a mechanic called Fear Factor, which measures how scared your enemies are of you at any moment, and turns that into a counter which ticks down, showing you how long you have until they put their fear aside and attack. So they pace and circle, and you can see the first one who’s going to give in first and lunge highlighted with a special marker. In turn, you stand there and watch your foes, and keep distance from them not just in space but in terms of managing how long you have between their attacks. In the midst of these temporal gaps, consider the time you’ll need to reload your rifle, and the time you’ll need for your intimidating bellow to recharge. Consider your stamina, which controls how effective your melee attacks are and how often you can dodge. Consider all the traps you laid throughout the day and whether any of them are still available to be used.

Because that’s the final ingredient. This isn’t just a howling, wind-blasted world, but it’s one of encroaching scarcity too. Traps cost action points and also frequently money, and you never have much of either. You can win one night and emerge with all your resources gone, and most of your traps out of commission too: you survived but you’re still screwed. How screwed? It’s not rare for me to hit mid-game and find that I’m going into battle every night with two bullets tops, and little in the way of a back-up plan. Fear and rage and desperation – this is a game programmed for the limbic system.

Yes, all of this sounds gloriously horrible, which is what you want from a game about be intimidated in the dark wilds of 19th Century Canada. But that splinter of genuine wildness at the center of the game – its panting, sharp-toothed wolfiness – allows Sang-Froid to cast a singular spell on players. Few games are capable of leaving you feeling so thuddingly defeated: out of resources and out ot time and out of ideas, suffering economic and spatial collapse. But that animal intelligence that you feel in each encounter is just so fascinating to meddle with that it will always bring you back. Back to the dark and the ice. Back to the wolves.

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