Notes on New Ice York: Let’s Do Crimes!

New Ice York is a short adventure role-playing game by developer magicdweedoo. Set in a speculative near-future where New York City has mysteriously frozen over, the game follows the investigative efforts of a man we know only as “Detective”, and the city’s “Top Agent.” The game is reminiscent in structure to better-known works in the genre (EarthBound, Deus Ex, take your pick of any hard-boiled cyberpunk caper with an overworld map and a quest mechanic), but tonally it’s more at home with other, more self-aware RPGs like Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden, Chapter 1 of the Hoopz Barkley SaGa, Space Funeral, and Where They Cremate the Roadkill.

New Ice York is a deeply pessimistic game posing as a whimsical parody of police thrillers. The game’s premise is absurd and it’s loosely drawn in basically every respect, which is the most consistent thing about it. Everything, from the plotting to the character development to the game mechanics to the sketchy art style, is rendered broadly and messily, but with purpose. There’s a sense of controlled chaos to the feel of the game, coupled with a sardonic and very dark sense of humour that is at times inspired, at times nasty to the point of grim.

Chapter 1 takes place in the city of New Ice York, opening with our Detective awaking in his condo. The first thing to note is that everything here is a shade of blue; even the people are blue. Everything alive other than people appears to have frozen to death, and everything else is covered in frost and ice. Impossibly, life goes on. The pet store sputters to survive since all the pets are dead. The Italian restaurant run by the philandering Gustav still sells ice blocks presumably containing Italian food. People work out at the frozen gym and play pool at the frozen pool hall and do crack at the frozen crack den. The police still have time to chase down petty criminals and detain prisoners indefinitely, and our Detective has time to get involved in petty disputes while chasing down leads in the case of “who froze New York?”

Most of the game is top-down, save for the occasional mini-game or combat section which are usually first-person. The music, also done by  the developer, is playful but evocative. The roughly two-thirds of the game that takes place within the city are not just various shades of frigid blue, but the player-character walk speed and friction have clearly been adjusted to simulate the feeling of sliding on ice. It’s a small but remarkable detail that goes to show how deceptive New Ice York’s loose-handed aesthetic actually is. For a game that can be played in a few short hours (there is probably no shortage of people who can complete the game faster than I did), New Ice York is so richly and thoughtfully detailed that it becomes difficult to focus on any one thing, either visually or in terms of the plot. There is a plot, technically, but it’s a hot, surreal and nearly-inscrutable mess offering a pessimistic and occasionally funny worldview.

New Ice York presents itself as a light-hearted crime-solving romp with a bit of an edge, but the heart of the game is consumed with contempt and hostility. There is more than one reference in the game comparing New York to Hell, the most obvious being its central premise. Hell has not only frozen over, but this is the work of a shadowy villain that taunts our Detective. Much later in the game, the player must travel through a portal located in Hell. Instead of blue, the environment is a black void etched with a thin red pen. In other areas of the game, battle stages depict acts of traditional violence (bare-knuckle boxing, which our Detective seems to be supernaturally good at), but in Hell, enemies force the player to do simple math equations. I see quite a bit of thecatamites’s or Tales of Game’s’s influence in these moments, which balance ironic overtones with a bleak and brooding thematic throughline.

The clear economic and social distress experienced by the denizens of the city are contrasted with the very basic fact of the stupidity of their predicament. Institutions, and notably the police and prison (there is no court), still function, but are thoroughly corrupt and operate with impunity. The story is unraveling through the completion of interlocking objectives that are either presented as imperatives from the police chief, or as entreaties from civilians the player meets during their investigation (imagine if Doki Doki Planet were written by the Coen Brothers). At one point, the player is tasked by a crack dealer with making use of a network of trading holes found in various walls throughout the city. In doing so, they unwittingly help him traffic ingredients to a one-man illegal drug lab. To make the best of it, our Detective is then persuaded by his colleague to hide the drug in his landlady’s homewhere there happens to be a trading hole in the wallso that he can extort her for a key to a third floor condo he needs access to for investigative purposes. The landlady points out after the fact that all anyone needed to do to get the key was ask.

People are stupid and venal and cruel, and the whole game is drenched in bathos. People are also desperate and frustrated and victimized, and nobody escapes the orbit of all this corruption and institutional rot. Things are ridiculous and needlessly overcomplicated and everyone suffers for it except the people who ought to be suffering. These are salient impressions of modern life that are hard to confront without a thick layer of irony as a buffer, but beneath that lies a bottomless pit of hopelessness and political pessimism. This is a mood that’s easy to relate to, and it’s expressed artfully by New Ice York, but it can’t transform anything. It’s a dead end, and the game freely admits that.

On the other hand, not every crack at comedy or commentary lands, and various attempts at off-colour humour come off as more malicious than funny. The hospital, for example, where our Detective spends the beginning of chapter 2 after getting jumped by an unknown assailant, plays off Asian stereotypes. The entire staff of the hospital is Asian, and this is conveyed by them having names mocking Asian (specifically Chinese) languages, and by the hospital’s greeter, a woman who addresses the player the way a restaurant hostess from a racist old movie might greet customers. In other cases, like the sojourn at the crack den (a reference to a scene in EarthBound), the writing feels like it’s exploiting a particularly grotesque form of human misery for some very cheap laughs. I can’t claim to know the true intention behind some of these choices, but at best they read to me as cynical attempts to mine some serious problems so that the player doesn’t forget that New Ice York is a sordid, soul-deadened place.

Despite this, New Ice York manages to be charming and funny in some ways, deeply disturbing in others, and interesting to engage with on an aesthetic and narrative level. It’s a messy game, not without its flaws, but it feels artistically distinct and it succeeds at capturing impressions of everyday frustrations through the gameplay driving the story forward. It’s an aggressive, angry, snide game that mocks every step its main character takes, and on some level that mockery may be deserved. New Ice York is, generally-speaking, not a difficult game, but its brutality lies in how everything eventually unfolds. I do think this tendency becomes overwhelming at times, and I think that the hate can spew pointlessly in some cruel directions. But where the hate is pure, it’s good, and it’s engaged in a compelling and inventive way that is the strength of this medium, but for which there hardly exists a language with which to describe it.