Christmas is for life, not just for Christmas
If Hallmark Christmas movies are always hammering one point home (aside from the fact that cute female elves on sabbatical will always run into a disaffected but good-at-heart businessman to fall in love with), it's that the spirit of Christmas is bigger and more important than any concrete, surface trappings.
And so it is with games. While some have Christmas settings - or the odd Christmas level, at least - the longer term nature of playing a game means that compared to films, they don't lend themselves as well to overt seasonality. But there is a solution. Evoke the feeling of Christmas without specifically being a Christmas game. You might not notice at first, but it happens in plenty of them. Loads of them, in fact. So I've collected together eight of the best, furtively festive offerings for your perusing pleasure. Forget those quickly-made, cash-in iOS efforts. Fire one of these up over the holidays, and you'll be ho-ho-hoing with the best of them*.
*The best of them being of course Santa. He is the best of all of us.
Batman: Arkham City
Is really Christmassy because: While not actually set during The Season (a point later emphasised when prequel/slightly inbred cousin Arkham Origins specifically set its procession of crime-fighting glitches on Christmas Eve), Arkham City feels exceptionally festive, despite all the grim-dark misery at play. I think it basically comes down to the fact that between the snow and the more colourful, Burton-esque bits of production design in the city-prison's centre, the whole thing frequently feels like Batman Returns. ie. The third-best Christmas film ever made, after Scrooged and Die Hard, and slightly above Gremlins.
In fact it's rather telling that Warner Montreal's more explicitly Christmassy prequel actually feels less so, despite all the baubles and tinsel on show. It could be a case of diminishing returns through repetition. That would be a shame. After all, the wintery themes in Origins were an important and committed design choice. Not just an excuse to reuse as many of City's assets as possible for a quick turnaround. Definitely not that. They were important.
Super Mario 64
Is really Christmassy because: Cool, Cool Mountain. The slightly alpine look of the whole level; all cosy, wooden huts, icicles, ski-lifts and mountain bridges, amplified to a delirious level of wholesome, festive joy by the jaunty, European vibe of the giddy accordion soundtrack. Also, coin collection noise = subliminal sleigh bells. Fact. Thats some smart dovetailing of aesthetics right there.
Though that shouldnt be a surprise. This is a Nintendo game, after all, and Nintendo is effectively the video game Disney. As such, winter stuff is automatically elevated to full-blown Christmas joy, and Christmas itself must be treated with all the benevolent magic of a friendly wizard with an infinite hospitality budget. This vibe, unsurprisingly, continues through pretty much all Mario snow levels from SM64 onwards.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Is really Christmassy because: The whole Snowpeak section of Twilight Princess is a 150% perfect, condensed evocation of a Christmassy day out in the snow. First of all there's the giddy fun of the snowboard ride down the mountain. That's your childhood afternoon's sledging, that is. Then there's your entry to Snowpeak ruins, and the discovery that it's not a traditional, abstract Zelda dungeon, but a cosy, family home complete with the most wonderful recreation of an open fire that video games (and in fact science itself) could possibly ever produce. That's your 'coming home to a warm sofa and a big mug of cocoa' moment.
Then there's the way the contrast is repeated, as the dungeons design demands that you frequently go out into the crisp, frosty grounds, before returning back inside. Nothing emphasises festive cosiness more than repeatedly going out into cold places and then back into warm places. And hey, you even get a present along the way. And what kid hasn't wanted a giant, wall-crushing flail for Christmas as some point? Lame kids. That's who.
Is really Christmassy because: Snow + festival atmosphere = Christmas, each and every time. Well, not every time. A freak blizzard around the main stage at a black metal fest wouldn't feel particularly Christmassy. Darkly epic, with all the terrible, Nordic majesty of a thousand '80s album covers, certainly. But not Christmassy.
But in SSX's case? When the festival vibe is that of a cool, fun community who seem to be permanently off work, hanging out and partying in an upbeat celebration of all things snow? With fireworks and neon standing in for fairy lights? Throw in a boys' choir/glockenspiel cover of N.E.R.D.'s Rock Star, and the picture is complete.
Final Fantasy VI
Is really Christmassy because: If it wasn't for the frequent imperial occupation and impending End of the World, Narshe would be the perfect, quiet Christmas getaway. It's small, it's unspoilt, its discrete, and good Lord is it a delightfully snug little place to hole up in. All those coal and log burners warming the place up, and filling the air with their soft billows of smoke and steam. The big, picturesque, eminently snowy mountains behind it, which frame the town beautifully, while also sheltering it from the worst of the northern storms.
And crucially, like all of Final Fantasy VI, Narshe is as steampunk as it gets. And as we all know, that puts it one step away from Victoriana, and therefor but two steps away from the most canonically Christmassy period in human history.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
Is really Christmassy because: Call it the consumerist death-trance of the human soul if you like, but the pre-Christmas trawl around the shops can be an integral ritual in the run-up to the main event. Pick the right day, leave you misanthropy at home, and the all-pervading glow of red-and-gold cheer emanating from those shop windows can really kickstart the excitable, fun loving spirit. If only by firing up the instinct that had you standing in games shops, ogling the Super Mario World demo for hours on end for much of that December when you were a kid.
The original Condemned understands the importance of all that. Thats why, despite not being set at Christmas, the Barts Department Store level inhabits a Christmas time-warp, the long-dilapidated shop having gone under during the festive period many years before, and still filled with the trappings of the happiest time of year. And murderous crack-heads. And human mannequins. And casually discarded firearms. Merry Christmas, everyone!
The Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim
Is really Christmassy because: The entire region of Skyrim is made of snow, fir trees, fires and roasting meat, and every third person you meet looks like young Santa. Also, Scandinavian accents. And there's that whole Christmas/skeletal dragon connection too.
What, you don't know that one? Seriously? You'll be telling me you've never heard of the Easter Unicycle Knight next. You big weirdo.
Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy
Is really Christmassy because: Just look at the state of Froenborg! Just look at it! The place is one big, inhabited Christmas cake, its buildings carved from the finest spiced sponge, its snow a veritable heaping of delicious, sweet icing. And thats before you even see it from the air.
Also note that although its technically ensconced within Russia, Level-5 gave Froenborg a distinctly cod-Scandinavian name regardless. That shows nothing but the studios tireless commitment to Christmassiness in the face oppressive, geographical logic. It matters to them, goddamn it. Theres a metaphor in there somewhere too, about how if Santa can be everywhere in one night, Christmas can as well. Or something. But probably definitely that.
Yule suggest more, yes?
I'm just going to jump straight to the request for comments here, because that desperate pun was all I could come up with for a headline, and I don't want to waste its meagre value by losing momentum.
And while you're here, have a look at some our other Christmas-themed features. Check out The 50 best Christmas movies of all time and The 12 best games to play at Christmas (those ones aren't Christmassy at all).