This pleasant open world skiing game hides nightmares at the edges of its map

I just started playing SNOW, a free-to-play open world winter sports game that left Early Access this month. There's skiing and snowboarding on two different mountains, challenges and multiplayer, X-Game events, and other activities.

It's fun, and while most of its features are part of the Ultimate Edition DLC that'll cost you $20, there's still a decent amount to do in the free version. As a beginner, I also appreciate the feature in SNOW that lets you rewind the last ten seconds of your run when you crash, so you can correct whatever mistake you made. Or, in my case, you can make a slightly different mistake.

There's a good tutorial that walks you through the basics of skiing, snowboarding, jumps, rail slides, flips, spins, grabs, and other tricks. Though the Steam page recommends a controller I found most of it works pretty well with mouse and keyboard.

But that's not all I found.

After some practice with free exploration on the beginner mountain, I decided to try some of the X-Game features, which include a half-pipe and a 'big air' jump. My first time over the jump I nailed a double backflip, as you can see above, but as I slowed myself down so I wouldn't collide with the fence, something felt a bit... off. 

At the bottom of the hill it looked like there was a sizable crowd watching. It makes sense: this is the X-Games. But there was something strange about them. I saw a gap in the fencing, so I squeezed past a snowmobile and into the crowd of onlookers, where I found... 

Them.

They are balloon men. Or, since they all have the same face, perhaps they are all the same balloon man. And oddly, the balloon man is not always a balloon man. From a distance, he is a cutout, flat and featureless, but when you get close he suddenly becomes a balloon.

He has a few different colors of balloon clothing but always the same face with the same expression. Who put him/them here? It's an attempt to fabricate a crowd but many of them are facing in the wrong direction. And there are so many of them/him. He goes on and on like an ocean.

I slowly drift through the crowd of silent balloon hims, appreciating at least that my skier has animations that make him appear to be looking around in confusion or horror. It feels like that scene in The Birds but instead of birds its weird-ass balloon dudes. What if they suddenly begin moving? What if they hold me down and inflate me and I become a balloon man too? A chilling thought.

The crowd goes on and on until I finally reach the back. I keep skiing away from the event, clearly out of bounds of the game's play area. I pass a tent with another small cluster of balloon figures in it, then ski out to a parking lot, past some buildings, and then down a highway.

The further I travel, the less detail there is in the world. Buildings begin to look like boxes with simple black squares for windows, cars look like identical cardboard cutouts. I ski down the highway for long minutes until I come across an airport.

I'm happy to see a plane, because maybe it means there's some way out of this strange open world, though I wonder if it's full of silent, smiling, staring balloon passengers. It doesn't matter: the planes are stuck in the ground and I can ski right through them anyway, ghost-like. As I travel down the runway, each plane I encounter is sunk a bit deeper into the pavement. Even my skis are starting to sink a bit.

I keep going, determined to escape this world. There are no more buildings this far out. No cars, no airplanes, just a line of pavement, the snow, some trees, and the approaching horizon. I occasionally do a couple of spins or hops. Look, this may be some frozen balloon purgatory but I still want to score some points. 

I encounter a cross-street, as one road is crudely laid across another. The new road just ends a few feet later, as it it has been clipped off by an enormous pair of scissors.

I continue. I hit an incline, and notice some odd ridges in the earth.

The ridges appear to be moving—but only when I move. When I stop, they fall still. I try to ski up and over them and they begin slowly churning as if trying to push me back down the hill, like the bottom edge of an escalator.

I can't climb the hill, so I try going around it. The incline smooths out and the ridges vanish, but then my world goes completely white. "Session Finished", the game bluntly informs me, showing me my scores. As punishment for my attempt to escape, and perhaps as a warning not to speak a word to anyone about the game's dark balloon curse, I'm treated to an image of myself faintly careening end over end in a white abyss.

The message is clear. Get back inside the fences, ignore the silent, inflatable watchers, go do some sick jumps and score some rad points. 

There is no escape from the open world of SNOW.