Christmas. It's not only a holiday, but a mood, a memory. Movies ranging from It's A Wonderful Life to Home Alone capture that festive feeling. Video games, do not.
The fall season is typically when the gaming industry releases its most anticipated titles. Halo, Gears of War games and Uncharted games all get marquee fall releases, and none of the big games are Christmasy whatsoever.
Every fall and winter, there are typically one or two movies decked tinsel and twinkly lights. But whatever happened to the Christmas video game?
Some in the game industry are busy tackling other issues. "Let's solve crying in general before we tackle specific holiday tears," Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski tells Kotaku.
That isn't to say game studios are against the holidays. Developers have released holiday-themed add-ons for titles, something that Saturn game Nights helped pioneer with its disc-add-on Christmas Nights.
There were a handful of Christmas games designed for the Commodore 64, including titles like Special Delivery: Santa's Christmas Chaos or Frosty the Snowman. Even Snatcher, the Blade Runner-inspired thriller from Metal Gear creator Hideo Kojima, is set against Christmas. Animal Crossing games, which are meant to played all year 'round, include a Christmas-like holiday called Jingle.
But with all holiday games, there could be concern whether players will continue playing long after the ornaments are boxed away and the holiday is over. This past fall, game designer Tim Schafer and his studio Double Fine Productions released Costume Quest, an adventure game set during Halloween. "I could see some people worrying about sales dropping off after the holiday," Schafer tells Kotaku, "but I haven't seen that yet with Costume Quest... I suppose the safest bet might be to make a game that's not tied to a holiday, and then make holiday-themed DLC," adds Schafer. "Like Red Dead's Undead Nightmare."
Released days before Halloween, Undead Nightmare features the world of Red Dead Redemption populated with zombies. The game's developers described the title as a b-movie, like Billy The Kid vs. Dracula. Game designer and Rockstar honcho Sam Houser, however, isn't exactly sure a holiday theme would hold for a full game, explaining, "Maybe this is because a movie is a 100 minute experience and really captures the 'moment' and atmosphere of the season, whereas most of us are playing our games for extended periods." While Rockstar did put a Christmas-themed section in its game based on high school, Bully, Houser believes it might be hard to maintain that holiday feeling with a Santa Claus lead character after the holidays.
What are games missing? Holiday movies — Christmas movies, to be specific — are so much a part of the holiday experience. During December, people watch How The Grinch Stole Christmas as they sip eggnog, just as people watch horror movies and stuff their faces with candy around Halloween. "It would be really cool if Costume Quest had that same impact, and actually became part of someone's holiday tradition," says Schafer. "Like, 'Every year we carve pumpkins, play Costume Quest, and then TP a house.' That is the holy grail, or the Great Pumpkin, of holiday games." The holidays, Schafer says, offer a shared collection of experiences to pull from — that is, for those who celebrate the holiday. There are other restrictions, too. The hardest thing about doing a holiday game is that developers cannot miss their deadline. Otherwise, they'll miss the holiday!
The developers at Tokyo-base game studio Cave, a group that actually put some Christmas in one of their recent games, didn't mind if they missed their holiday. Heck, Christmas itself never really factored in. The studio's arcade shooter DeathSmiles II didn't aim to tackle Bleszinski's specific holiday tears, but rather, aimed to tackle large amounts of projectiles raining down on players. Like many of Cave's other games, DeathSmiles II is a bullet hell shooter, and the holiday theme is a backdrop, a backdrop that allows players to be transported at any time to Cave's version of Christmas.
DeathSmiles II is more akin to The Nightmare Before Christmas with a Halloween-meets-Christmas type vibe populated with bullet-hell-shooting Lolita girls in petticoats. The first Deathsmiles, which is already out in the US and coming to Europe, sported a Halloween setting. Recalls Cave producer Makoto Asada, "The next big holiday after that was Christmas, so that's what we went with." Tongue-placed-firmly-in-cheek, the last boss was even named "Satan Claws".
Missing Christmas by months, DeathSmiles II was released in spring. That was intentional, and the game was not delayed. "We had planned to release it in the Spring from the beginning," says Asada. "The dev time ran on schedule, and a Christmas release wasn't part of our plans." For Cave, holidays aren't necessarily tied to specific dates, but to snowy memories (or nightmares, in this case) that can be evoked even as the temperature is warming and moving into late spring. Christmas in May? Why not.