'Tis the season
We cant all be blissfully happy in the holiday season. Just looking at things statistically, it doesnt work out. It turns out that thats much the same for our games, some of which Ive noticed have a particularly dim view of the end of the year.
From the games that play with irony, to the ones badly-written enough to miss the fact that theyve accidentally become hideously depressing, this is the definitive way to have the worst possible time with your thumbs this Christmas.
Hitman: Blood Money
Dress as Santa and deliver the gift of 5mm death. Blood Moneys You Better Watch Out mission is bleak Christmas as an artform, every little detail designed to depress. First you find Santa drunk. Then you discover the seedy Christmas porno shoot. Then you kill (at least) two men. Youll probably give a dog a strong dose of drugs at one point. Or hide a mine under the tree and ruin the party by adding an explosive beat to the Christmas choral soundtrack.
You dont even get the satisfaction of knowing youre on the right side of the Naughty List - the people youre working for are trying to cover up the fact that a senators son has accidentally killed a woman during a creative sexual tryst. Also, if you talk to the drunken Santa, you find out its currently April, which is somehow the most depressing thing of all.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
This brilliant little detective story comes with a twist - youre trying to solve your own murder from beyond the grave. It also takes place entirely on Christmas Eve, which lends the entire thing a distinctly dark air. Every single puzzle centres around someones sudden and violent death - from gunshot murders to horrifying traffic accidents in chicken restaurants - meaning this Christmas features horrific events at a rate of at least once an hour.
What really seals its bleak appeal is the plot point revolving around a Special Prison for political prisoners - one of whom you have to save from execution. Who schedules an execution for the evening of the 24th? Imagine the poor guards heading home to their families on Christmas morning, their glazed, impassive eyes cast over gifts that suddenly seem meaningless in the chilly shadow of career-mandated death. Would you like a drink? asks a kindly, worry-eyed wife. Just bring the bottle. And tell the kids to shut up.
Shenmues persistent calendar and clock should make Christmas a special time for beleaguered teenage kick-genius, Ryo - what surprises could this ludicrously well-detailed game throw our way for the happ-happiest season of all? Well, barring some falling snow and the appearance of a depressed Santa who tells Ryo hes too young to go out drinking, not a great deal.
Ryo just spends the day driving a forklift truck for hours, getting ambushed by bullies, then probably sitting inside an arcade playing video games and ignoring the outside world (which is a harrowing meta-narrative considering most of us did just that with Shenmue itself). And amidst all of this, Ryos still got the mystery of his fathers untimely death hanging over him.
James Pond 2: Robocod
On the outside, this is about as cheerily festive as they come - a game about climbing giant gumdrops to save penguins and liberating Santas workshop so that it may continue to make technicolour crap for children across the world. But theres something about it that troubles me. The original James Pond featured a fish with the abilities of a cool spy. Between that game and this, that same character has become a cyborg abomination.
What happened? Going by the titles Robocop joke, I can only surmise that Pond was shot to pieces by a gang of octopus bank robbers and rebuilt using the freshest technology. Considering he can extend his metal spine by many times its usual length, the only other option is that he had elective surgery that included being literally cut in half. The upshot either way is that he is now only part-fish, with the associated existential distress that would cause. Happy Christmas.
Condemned: Criminal Origins
Its unclear whether Condemned is actually set at Christmas, but it certainly presents an image of the festive season that is less than appealing. An early level has you travelling to Barts Department Store, a place where someones wish that it could be Christmas every day came true. The trees are standing, the decorations are up - it should be delightful. Unfortunately, that wish seems to have been granted by some kind of horrible Djinn.
Barts is a blasted wreck of a place, a combined squat and crack den full of homeless people gone mad. Homeless people you need to punch the very life out of to make your way to the serial killer who has framed you. And one dressed as a Santa Claus mannequin. This is Christmas gone sour. Learn from its mistakes, and never listen to a word 70s glam idiots, Wizzard sing again.
Hideo Kojimas oft-forgotten cyberpunk adventure game is set entirely at Christmas, even featuring a character dressing up as Santa for a festive disguise. Its the perfect mixture of historical interest and appropriate Yuletidery for any gaming fan in late December!
Well, as long as you can stomach a plot of bio-terror and ontological dread, coupled with questionable nudity, needful suicide and twitching, eviscerated dogs. And all the faces that get blown off. Get a mug of hot cocoa, put on a woolly jumper and prepare to feel pretty bad about things.
Elite Beat Agents
This classic rhythm-action game is often praised for its bittersweet Christmas level alone, in which a 7 year-old girl clings desperately to a promise her father made to come back home for Christmas - despite him dying months earlier in an unspecified accident. Its a story of hope - she convinces her mother to help decorate the house and, it seems, convinces his ghost to return.
But lets look at this realistically. This is a story in which three uninvited cheerleaders dance almost silently outside of the house where a mother is too emotionally shattered to break her childs desperate heart, while we see images of the little girl chasing after her fathers apparently uncaring spirit. Even if the ending, where he returns with the present she asked for, is taken literally, all thats been proved is their house is now haunted.
This PS2 disaster game begins at a Christmas party in an underground city celebrating its own magnificence at escaping from the cruel blue oppression of the sky. In a classic example of human folly, the city then floods, and you and your fellow self-important beings are put through an almost literal wringer as youre washed away by megacurrents, then squeezed through passages of broken rubble, presumably surrounded by the thousands of corpses of people whose hubris brought them only death.
Even if you get through it all, theres an ending in which the games main villain tells one of the protagonists that he loves her, which he thinks is weird because shes way too ugly for him - to which you can reply by kicking him off a cliff as air raid sirens sing plaintively in the distance. Classic Christmas fare.
Batman: Arkham Origins
An orphan driven mad by grief and an excess of money spends Christmas Eve being hunted by eight assassins, just because he likes to wear a silly suit and go gliding. If you dont attach the Batman moniker to that storyline, it switches from cool as heck to gut-wrenchingly upsetting.
Lets not forget that this story features several murders, the inception of the worlds worst-dressed terrorist, and even the ever-faithful Alfred thinks Bruce Wayne is a bit of a prick. Christmas is cancelled.
Look, everyone knows that Home Alone is messed up. Familial abandonment, two potential child-murderers and the burgeoning psychopathy of young Kevin all make for a film that doesnt scream holiday cheer when laid out in simple terms.
The various tie-in games follow a similar pattern. But the SNES version went further, asking you to not only avoid the Wet Bandits as you (inexplicably) move all of the McAllister parents valuables into the basement, but had the protagonist boy-child attacked by actual, no-fooling ghosts. Not only is he alone a Christmas, he now has to deal with the very real possibility that he too will spend eternity as a tortured phantasm.
Honourable Mention: Max Payne
Max Payne is definitely not set at a Christmas. Its spartan world is cold and angry, without a hint of environmental cheer, ironic or otherwise. That said, a game set amidst an endless blizzard that drapes the world in near-constant darkness, featuring a man topping himself up with mind-altering chemicals just to get by and featuring a game mechanic that makes everything feel really, really slow? Its clearly the gaming equivalent of that weird dead zone between Christmas and New Year. Sussed it.