When chatting with my TPS brethren about the hypnotic effect and soothing quality of cold snow on the ground when wrapped up with a warm controller, they offered a tremendous amount of words, most of them strung together in a coherent fashion and many done so quite insightfully. Alarmed and ashamed at my inability to include all their wonderful quotes in the editorial proper, I have decided to collect and archive them here for the reading pleasure of the world and all its future progeny.
Oh, snow, in their own words…
Bitmob.com staff writer
For reasons I can’t explain, 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.
As for atmospherics, I think you’ve got to go with two games: Silent Hill and Max Payne. They just felt colder, grimmer, closer to death for having a steady, silent snowfall coming down… that chill in your bones, that unwilling slide into unconsciousness. These are two very different games, but both have a distinct “waking nightmare” vibe going on, and setting them in the dead of winter (as it were) really feeds into the dreamless, semi-delusional states both Max and Harry Mason find themselves in.
Sir Gordon Wheelmeier
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, because I always thought they felt sort of cheap after a while (after you’ve done a few, the hook there is just the same thing again and again), but I’d always feel rather accomplished after I would finish them.
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. 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. But does this sound familiar? You find your character sliding and skating around, with worthless footing or traction on every surface. Did I mention the bottomless pits or the native snow monsters that are just waiting to attack you in your helpless state, forcing you to start over at some distant checkpoint to repeat this Sisyphean task?
What I have liked are the games that use snow with either an atmospheric sense of building tension or for a legitimate gameplay purpose. For example, Metal Gear Solid, MGS4, and the Syphon Filter games managed to use snow to emphasize and heighten tension during some game sequences, as well as provide a true game mechanic – if you couldn’t see the enemy in the midst of a blizzard, chances were they couldn’t see you, either, unless you drew attention to yourself. The mountaintop level in Modern Warfare that has you sneaking into a heavily guarded base and escaping on snowmobile is truly breathtaking and so well-done, cinematically, that some Hollywood directors could learn some lessons in dramatic tension. But I think that what really defines snow, winter time, and the holidays the best, to me, is the SSX series. Like I said, I don’t really have experience with snow, but that franchise was just awesome and made me feel like I could take on any mountain in the world as long as I had a DJ, a board, and a crowd willing to watch me perform insane tricks just so I could gain bragging rights.
There are two games throughout history that leap out at me when I think of snow and videogames. The first is the classic Infocom text adventure The Lurking Horror, which takes place on a snowbound, fictional college campus (really, it was MIT), and the second is Metal Gear Solid.
The first time I played the original MGS on the PSX, it was at a time when I was considering my first move to Alaska. While I thought it was neat that it took place in the state that I was interested in (and knew very little about), I really didn’t pay that much attention to the setting, instead becoming enthralled with the varied gameplay and deep narrative.
Soon after I made the move to the 49th state, a coworker invited me over to his house to play through Metal Gear Solid with him (which we played on an original iMac with Connectix Virtual GameStation) a second time, and now that I was in Alaska and knew the game, I garnered a whole new appreciation for the setting this time around. I don’t think there was any time before or since then when I felt so immersed in an environment. The same cold winds and deep snows that covered the Fox Archipelago could be found right outside the window of my friend’s basement. When I’d leave his house to walk home in the sub-zero temperature, I imagined I could quell the shivering if only I could find some Diazepam lying on the ground. I empathized fully with how physically demanding it must have been for Snake to sneak around outside in these conditions.
Of course, it isn’t just my familiarity with the locale that makes MGS such an outstanding example of using snow in a game. 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 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.
Contrast this 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. Thankfully, that is a “feature” that seems to have faded from our collective gaming consciousness. Now we just need a modern, first-person version of The Lurking Horror so I can die happily snowbound!
My favorite is definitely Uncharted 2’s various Himalayan areas. 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.
Properly doing a snow/ice level is pretty damn huge. Yeah, it’s a pretty well-worn trope of games these days; if a game doesn’t have a fire level, a jungle level, a desert level, and a snow level, somehow people seem to think all the bases aren’t covered. To me, though, stumbling out into the snow is a huge part of changing up the pacing and tone of a game. When done right (Resistance 2 did some really cool particle-based snow, as well), it can make things more plodding and more desperate, and I really like that. Plus, snow levels are simultaneously comforting (who doesn’t love hearing that crunch?) and unnerving (it’s freezing – homeboy or homegirl is gonna die if they don’t get out of the elements), and I really dig that. Done well, they can be a tremendous asset to the immersion and hook of a game.
I love fighting games. I always have. I can honestly say it’s the first genre that ever really hooked me into videogames. You can blame Street Fighter II. I was at the perfect age when it was released in arcades; I was just old enough to be 100% enthralled. And I remember intently watching an older kid play all the way through and getting to Bison before getting his rear-end handed to him.
The love affair with fighting games continued all through my teenage years and into my 20s. I specifically bought an Xbox because of the fighting games that had come out for it. By this time, I was also a huge RPG fan, and, yes, Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind had recently come out for the system, but it had been Dead or Alive 3 that caught my eye. Later, other games would release and entertain me quite a bit, as well: Marvel vs. Capcom 2, Tao Feng, and Def Jam: Fight for NY. But like I said, it was Dead or Alive that did me in, and did so in spectacular fashion.
My cousin had purchased an Xbox and badly wanted to come to my parents’ house and hook it up to the “big screen” TV. (This was, of course, eight years ago, when “big screen” meant something else, but I digress.) With their permission, my cousin hooked up the system and promptly popped in DOA3. The next 24 hours flew by in a haze I cannot even begin to describe.
I had fallen in love – completely and totally, head over heels. The game was beautiful, visually. The next generation in gaming had arrived! The characters were bright but realistic, and dear God… they had texture! But even more, the fighting itself was superior to any game I’d played yet. There were no crazy fireballs or hurricane kicks; it was martial arts based on real martial arts (to some degree, at any rate). How clever! And, of course, there were the characters: ninja like Hayabusa and Kasumi, if you preferred the ladies; wrestlers Bass and his daughter, Tina, whose outfits didn’t leave anything to the imagination; even the big, hunky commando Bayman (whom I still have a crush on years later). But, most of all, there was Helena, with the flowing blond hair and graceful style I’d never seen before. She had me completely and instantly.
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. 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 are several other stages that offer a snowy setting, as well – the dojo and the cave, both of which are beautiful, as all the stages in DOA3 were. The cave even offers two “floors” of battling: you actually start outside and above the cave, and, if you manage to knock your opponent down the steep, snow-covered slope, you find yourselves in a cavern with icicles as big as you! But like I said, it’s the snowy stream that makes me think of winter the most – especially if you have selected Kasumi’s Santa outfit!