It was Christmas Eve and I’d just killed a man. And then another. And another. Next to my TV, a bauble hung from my family’s Christmas tree. “Peace on Earth,” the motto on it read. I glanced at it briefly before shooting another man in the face.
Videogames have always been a big part of the holidays for me. I inevitably and eagerly spent my time off from school or work by button-mashing. Until the last few years, though, I’d never really considered how incredibly inappropriate most videogames are for the holiday season. As my parents listened to carolers singing about goodwill to all humankind, I’d be jump-kicking as many humans as possible. Christmas cards on our mantle wished us joy and happiness. I spent hours wishing people would die, then killing them.
My virtual violence stands in stark contrast to my other, more festive holiday traditions. Since I was a little boy, I haven’t let a December pass without watching Scrooged, the claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer special and A Charlie Brown Christmas. Ignored for the rest of the year, my Merry Axemas and Muppets Christmas CDs suddenly become daily listening. I’ll probably read The Night Before Christmas, and my odds of attending a theatrical performance of A Christmas Carol are very high. Other media have clearly embraced the Christmas spirit. Why haven’t videogames?
At Christmas, we try to do right in the world, smile at strangers and reunite with family members. Classic stories like It’s a Wonderful Life, How the Grinch Stole Christmas and A Christmas Carol remind us people can be good. More than anything, Christmas is a time to believe in the cheesy ideals of peace and happiness that seem naïve the rest of the year. Could a videogame capture that spirit?
I started with the only Christmas-themed game released for a major console: Funcom’s 1994 game Daze Before Christmas for the Sega Genesis and Super Nintendo. Like many of the games I would play, Daze lets players control Santa Claus and takes some extreme liberties with the mythos surrounding the jolly, fat gift-giver. He wears his red-and-white suit and carries a sack, but also butt-stomps penguins to death and turns into the devil. Players move Santa through wintery 2-D environments and re-enact almost every cliché of the side-scrolling platformer genre, like double-jumping and token collecting. Some touches are nice and seasonal. The world map is an advent calendar. Three levels break from platforming to let you drop presents down chimneys while flying Santa’s sleigh. Mostly, though, the game’s Christmas connection is a stretch. Sure, you rescue elves, but Santa also shoots magic out of his hands and morphs into the demonic, invincible Anti-Claus when he drinks hot cocoa. Who knew?
Daze felt more like any generic 2-D platformer of the 16-bit era than a genuine Christmas game. So did my next choice, 2004’s Santa Claus Saves the Earth for the Game Boy Advance from developer Ivolgamus. Its dramatic title had me excited, but after a few minutes I could barely prevent myself from yawning. Trapped in a magic land by an evil fairy who doesn’t want kids to get any presents, I controlled Santa (again) in a side-scrolling platformer (again) and battled enemies blocking his progress (again). Swinging his sack to attack foes, Santa disintegrates if he touches them – a bit too traumatic for younger audiences. The thought of Santa dying chilled my heart in the same childlike way Optimus Prime’s death in the original Transformers movie numbed my soul for many months.
I quickly moved on to another disposable Game Boy Advance game, Santa Claus Jr. Advance by Neon Studios, released in Japan in 2002. Another side-scrolling platformer with double-jumping and collecting, Santa Jr.‘s gimmick is that you don’t play as Santa, but as a boy wearing the big man’s magical coat who must save Santa from an evil witch who hates Christmas. The lone highlight was a level-end screen showing Santa chilling on his sleigh and throwing what looks to be a gang sign.
Two PC side-scrollers offer animated-GIF-quality graphics and instantly forgettable gameplay. Kewlbox’s Adventure Elf from 2003 has more evil penguins plus unique obstacles like yellow snow, reindeer droppings and out-of-control fruitcakes. Christmas Tale, a 2002 release from Alive Games, has Santa solving puzzles by stacking presents and kicking around ice blocks. I installed and deleted both within five minutes.
2002’s Santa in Trouble from Joymania seems to be the lone 3-D, Christmas-themed platformer, but it plays as boringly as its 2-D counterparts. More a tech demo than a game, Trouble plunges you into a snowy world of floating platforms that Santa must double-jump to and from. Avoiding grumpy-looking trolls in sweaters and toques, Santa collects presents on his way to each level’s end while you listen to a MIDI music mix that’s 99-percent Christmas carols and, inexplicably, one percent “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Sure, all of these games are Christmas-themed, but none of them evokes any Christmas spirit. In Santa Claus Jr. you give presents to children located around each level, but it’s just a variation of the “find a whole bunch of things” mechanic from most platformers. I don’t particularly associate violence with Christmas, either, and most of these games involve monster killing, enemy destroying or animal crushing. Throw Santa into the mix as the one busting heads and we’ve strayed a long way from the warm and fuzzy feelings that old Saint Nick is supposed to symbolize.
Two other games – Soft Enterprises’ Christmas Carnage from 1994 and Fiendish Games’ Santa’s Gone Postal from 1999 – drag Santa’s good name even deeper through the mud. The former lets you blow open Mr. Claus’ stomach from a Space Invaders-style turret, while the latter puts you in the shoes of a hunter disguised as Kris Kringle who blasts bullets into crude polygonal elves and reindeer.
When I booted up the freeware game Santa Ride! I thought my hunt was over. Made in 2004 as an interactive holiday gift from Hungarian racing-game developer Invictus, it looked promising. You race Santa’s sleigh against a time limit through a 3-D course while collecting presents. A sequel from 2006 adds the even-more-Christmasy goal of delivering presents to certain houses on the track. Both have the best holiday ambiance of any game yet. The environments glow white with snow. Buildings are icicle-laden and merrily decorated with candy canes, colored lights and lawn ornaments. The games feel like racing through a town made of those ceramic “Christmas Village” collectibles that adorn your grandmother’s living room.
Unfortunately, they’re no fun to play. The controls are awful, and the races are over in a snap. Other than the awesome idea of Santa giving his trademark “Ho, ho, ho” with a press of the “H” key, the games are a wasted opportunity. Had Invictus developed the Santa Ride concept into a full release, they may have had the best Christmas game ever. A sleigh-ride simulator where you deliver presents to children would certainly fill a niche. (And it couldn’t have done worse than Invictus‘ other titles, which include the horrible Monster Garage game.)
Maybe it was too much to hope for an original, A+ Christmas title. I tried a couple of licensed Game Boy Advance games, but they were terrible. The Santa Clause 3 was just generic platforming with the occasional picture of Tim Allen in between levels. The game based on the movie Elf was dreadful. I regard the moments spent playing it among the worst in my life.
I moved on to titles that were holiday-themed re-skins or expansions of other games. They played like transparent attempts to cash in on the season by throwing in a couple candy canes and covering the ground with snow. Holiday Lemmings, Jazz Jackrabbit: Holiday Hare and The Sims 2: Holiday Party Pack seemed festive, but were emotionally hollow. Like the horrible He-Man Christmas special I watched as a kid, selling holiday levels for pre-existing games certainly captures the consumerism of Christmas, but not the spirit.
Some non-holiday titles like Bully and Animal Crossing offer seasonal content. People in World of Warcraft celebrate Winter Veil, a Christmas stand-in that can provide some holiday feelings amidst the usual monster-killing and dungeon-crawling. Residents of Second Life celebrate Christmas online, although a rain of festive penises may not be everyone’s definition of “merry.”
Still, I hadn’t found a dedicated Christmas game worthy of adding to my yearly traditions. I turned to the realm of casual gaming. I played Holly: A Christmas Tale and Christmasville, both mildly amusing holiday-themed games from the Where’s Waldo-esque hidden-object genre. I tried Santa’s Super Friends, where you match toy parts together. I dabbled with Believe in Sandy: Holiday Story, where you process orders for toy shop customers. A website called Santa’s Arcade offered some fleeting holiday fare with interesting premises (i.e. Christmas Zombie Defence and Pimp My Sleigh), but most were playable for only a few seconds before turning annoying. Nothing in the casual genres felt any more festive than a Christmas-themed word search or crossword puzzle.
I ended my quest disheartened. Given the task of creating a holiday title, developers just plugged generic gameplay into a superficial seasonal setting. They proved unable or unwilling to build something unique where the gameplay itself would evoke the Christmas spirit. Christmas isn’t about double-jumping between floating platforms, matching puzzles or killing bad guys. The conflicts involved during the holidays aren’t the external ones developers are used to. A Christmas game ought to make players feel happy, spend time with family and encourage an increased amount of caring about the world. For now, though, no game captures Christmas the way movies, music and literature do. Maybe the gamer generation is too ironic and cynical to embrace a game built around such earnest, idealistic feelings. For now, I’m still optimistic. Someday I’ll find a great Christmas game I can incorporate into my holiday traditions.
Chris LaVigne wishes Escapist readers all the best for the holidays. May your gift pile contain a high videogames-to-ugly-sweaters ratio.