Okay, I’ll admit it upfront: I love the snow.
I couldn’t tell you why, although I’m sure growing up in Cleveland has no small part in it, a place where Christmases truly are – thanks to that most magical of phrases, “lake-effect snow” – winter wonderlands. The silent, majestic beauty of these white landscapes, I’m sure, is another piece of the puzzle, as is the atmosphere and ambiance they generate when snuggled nicely in a warm (and warmly decorated) house. Indeed, despite the stress and the massive disruptions snow can cause, it is one of four absolutely indispensable elements to a holly, jolly holiday.
Another of these four essentials is, of course, videogames – it ain’t much of a Christmas if there isn’t at least one videogame tucked away in a stocking – and here, I’ve only recently noticed, the white fluffy stuff pops up again and again in my personal library of fondest gaming experiences: the race against the penguin in Super Mario 64, sneaking around Shadow Moses Island in Metal Gear Solid, running for my life in Silent Hill, beating the snot out of the Covenant on the “Terminal Moraine” map in Halo Wars (why is it that the snow maps are always the best in RTSes?). And my wife and I playing Animal Crossing, on both the GCN and DS, where the picture-perfect snowflakes on the screen matched the weather outside the frosted windows, still brings a smile to my face, even if the game series stopped doing so long ago.
And it is here, remarking on the simple fact of human existence that there are few phenomena as immediately atmospheric or instantly immersive – particularly in as immersive a medium as videogames – as a flurry of snow, that the thought occurred to me that it is perhaps I, having perhaps inhaled a bit too much salt that would coat everyone’s car after five minutes of driving on an icy Cleveland road, who was on the wrong side of the objective-subjective divide; maybe it was I who had warped reality, very much in an ActRaiser fashion (another solid use of winter-weather-as-atmosphere-builder, incidentally), and had created the Great Self-evident Snow Truth instead of merely observing and recording it. There was only one way to find out: turn to those fellow diehard, obsessive-compulsive gamers whose opinions I intimately and infinitely trusted – or merely grab the first person I came across here at the TPS offices – and ask for his input.
“For reasons I can’t explain,” Rus McLaughlin, a former freelancer with IGN and a current editor at Dan “Shoe” Hsu’s Bitmob.com, says in an eerily similar fashion, “I always loved Swords on Halo 3’s ‘Snowbound’ map. There’s nothing about ‘Snowbound’ that particularly lends itself to swordfighting – and the snow doesn’t have much impact on the game itself – but that never stopped me from cutting a bitch.”
While it was nice to know that I wasn’t the only one with a glacial fixation in the Haloverse, there was something more to it – or, at least, something to be more fully expounded upon. Dear Sam Bishop, ex-Podcast Beyond-er and the once and future king of TotalPlayStation, hit the conscious nail on the head a little more self-consciously. What does it for him, he positively enthused, was Uncharted 2’s Himalayan locales. “Naughty Dog is obviously absolute beasts when it comes to doing textures and complex environments, but what they really nailed was the look of snow drifts on actual physical objects. There’s a lot of that clumpy, bunched-up stuff that you only get in environments where there’s a ton of wind and a ton of snow dumping almost constantly. Seeing various walls in Tenzan’s village, for instance, with all those little tufts of snow just above the ground line, was really, really neat, and of course seeing the blizzard Drake ends up collapsing in was incredible, too. It just made you feel… cold.” It was at this point that his face turned blue and his teeth started to chatter, so I left him to his Snuggie and continued on my merry quest.
“When I think of snow in videogames, I think of the snowy stream stage in Dead or Alive 3. The wind is blowing and the snow is falling. The sky is grey and visibility passed the fighters is quite low,” Andy Curtiss, a news-and-JRPG-review-producing machine, said to me as I passed him in the hall. “You find yourself and your opponent fighting on the banks of a small stream or creek. The whole area is absolutely covered in snow. There’s even a tree down nearby, presumably because of the snow. It’s easy to imagine this little forest glade as beautiful in the spring time, but the winter has made it nothing but white. As you and your opponent square off, you find that the snow actually interacts with you as you’d imagine. Where you step, you leave footprints and begin to mash the snow down. When you jump, the powdery white stuff comes up with you in small clouds. Watching Tina body slam someone in a bikini makes me shiver just thinking about it.”
There truly is a technical aspect of beauty to it – recreating water in all of its states is no small feat, as any developer will easily attest to – and there are few things that tech-heads love to reveal in more than a computational display of mastery such as this. But doesn’t the rabbit hole go deeper than sheer and unadulterated aesthetics?
I rang up Aram Lecis, TPS’s Alaska correspondent (why it was deemed necessary to have a branch office in the 49th state, no one knows – but, then again, no one questions Mr. Bishop’s judgment), thinking that he might not only have a similar appreciation for the Great Snow Truth, but also a likely explanation for its self-evident existence. He immediately zeroed in on Metal Gear Solid as being “an outstanding example of using snow in a game.” He continued, “I don’t recall having seen another game at that point where characters would have vapor clouds coming out of their mouths in time with their breathing. The game also modeled your footprints, leaving tracks in the snow, and it wasn’t just a nice cosmetic touch: they could be used to bait enemy soldiers into following them while you hurriedly circled around to sneak up on them from behind and silently snapped their necks. The snowy environment was no longer just a setting and a background – it was now an integral part of the gameplay that added credibility to the rest of the tightly-wound story. Other games have certainly followed suit with making immersive winter environments, but I don’t think any of them will ever resonate with me as well as MGS did.” I can certainly and heartily agree with that.
But lest he seem to agree too much with his nerd brethren, Lecis-san then went on: “Contrast MGS with earlier uses of snow and ice in games, where the main function was to make extra-slippery sections in platformers that caused you to slide into pits or a Goomba and which made you restart the level. I hate the use of snow and ice in those games as much as I deplore the slippery sidewalks outside my house – they never contributed anything tangible to the games they were in and were much more a gimmick than any well-thought-out addition to the gameplay.”
“Personally, I haven’t had a lot of experience with snow, primarily because I grew up in areas that never got cold enough for that kind of weather. So the concept of snow, ice, slush, or whatever is somewhat foreign to me,” said Shaun Mason, a more-or-less behind-the-scenes guiding light and TotalPlayStation cheerleader here at the offices, when I related Aram’s comments to him. I found both him and Sir Gordon Wheelmeier, so called because of his origin from the very depths of Ye Olde English history, sitting in the so-called cafeteria. “But maybe that’s one of the reasons why I hate ice levels in countless platformers or action games – I’m not even going to attempt to list all of them, because the guilty parties know who they are.”
Sir Gordon couldn’t agree more. “I remember playing the platformers of old, where every one had at least one ice level, and you’d slip and slide everywhere, making jumps and dealing with enemies much trickier. I always hated seeing them when I’d first get to them.”
The three of them were, of course, right – there is a rich vein of frustration permeating the serene wistfulness of a snow-filled night, off-set by roasting chestnuts or not. Whether manifested in slippery gameplay mechanics or treacherous roads, it’s something that cannot be so easily overlooked, even if one has the same pair of frosted-yet-still-rose-tinted sledding goggles as do I.
And yet… not even Lord Wheelmeier can fully turn his back on the cascades of cool night air and strains of Christmas music, for he added, almost under his breath:
“But I’d always feel rather accomplished after I would finish them.”
This is, ultimately, I think, the saccharine-yet-erudite answer, the perfect combination of truism and epiphany. It’s in the contrast that the magic happens, and there is no more pervasive or potent conflict than in winter – staying warm while your avatar is cold; the brightness of the lights on the Christmas Tree that is plunged in the darkest depths of the year; and, of course, the extra challenges of a snow level that give way to a greater sense of connection to the environment and absorption into the world through the bond of gameplay (there is also, in the less-vicarious-and-more-visceral world of the animal kingdom, of course, the tension between hibernating or migrating and perishing). Indeed, this is the very heart of videogames, the give and take of immersion, the push and pull of drama. And this is the quintessential element of existence itself: it is in the contrast – and the division – between ourselves and others around us that we get to know who and what, if not necessarily why, we are (even if we tend to get lost in and subsumed by the multiplicity of these multiplicities), starting with the primal distinction between those who possess life and those, simply, who do not.
All of this is realized within the simple geometric beauty of a snowflake, whether comprised of pixels or constituted by atoms.
Well, at least for me.