As is the case with many video game websites, Team Twinfinite is spread out all over North America (with Henry being our sole Brit). We’ve got people in Miami, Houston, Arizona, LA…places where it pretty much never snows. I have to admit, it kind of boggled my mind to consider that after I looked out my window this morning.
Let’s get something straight; I love winter. I love it in real life, and I love it in my video games. World 6 of Super Mario Bros. 3, that snowmobile level in Modern Warfare 2, snowboarding in Final Fantasy VII, it’s all good. In celebration of another winter at Eaton Manor, I was thinking about doing an article referencing my favorite snow levels but a thanks to a quick Google search, I’ve learned that it would be more original to write about my favorite badass space marines or something. On the other hand, the deadline to have this article is looming and there isn’t a copy of Call of Duty: Ghosts sitting in my mailbox so it’s time to talk about snow, whether I want to or not.
Seriously though, I’m less interested in ‘snow levels’ per se than I am in worlds set in a snowy environment. There are a few games from the past which have used a winter setting to excellent effect. Max Payne is, at its heart, a game that has a ridiculous story, terrible voice acting, and one-note (albeit fun) gameplay. Its depiction however of a decrepit and corrupt New York brought to a standstill by a massive blizzard evokes a real sense of time and place. Dead Space 3 is a recent example of a game that does a decent job of this with its outdoor sections, but frankly it’s much more effective with its transitions between spacewalking and being on a ship.
Any discussion about snow-covered game worlds must surely touch upon Skyrim. This massive northern land has some of the most incredible mountains I’ve ever seen in a game. More importantly, this game captures the diversity of winter landscapes. Most games have mountains or snow fields, but it can encompass some very distinct types of topography. Anyone who lives or has lived in a place with cold winters understands the appeal of this season. It’s the feeling of trudging through the snow, bundling up, and finally reaching your destination. It’s getting into a warm building, taking off your jacket and gloves, and letting the warmth embrace you. Entering a Skyrim inn and seeing people huddled around a roaring fire is so well done that it makes me want to make hot chocolate just from playing.
The only real issue with Skyrim‘s snowy environment (and just about anything in an Elder Scrolls game for that matter) is that, as beautiful as it is, it’s all skin-deep. There isn’t any kind of gameplay advantage or disadvantage brought upon by weather so it all comes across as being somewhat shallow. Thankfully, there’s always a solution to this through the magic of modding.
One of the big effects of adding winter textures to a game, especially in years past, is that it makes things look better by masking graphical limitations. Remember when CGI movies were new back in the 1990s, and how big setpieces were framed at night or in the rain? The technology wasn’t quite at the point where it could stand up to scrutiny in daylight, so filmmakers needed to mask the artifice with weather effects. There was a similar philosophy behind adding snow to games from the past couple of generations, and it was certainly the case with Metal Gear Solid.
Let’s be honest for a second — With the benefit of hindsight and 15 years of progressive tech upgrades, Metal Gear Solid is a really awful looking game. Everything is blurry and it’s hard to make out backgrounds; classic PlayStation 1 in its pure ugliness. In spite of those limitations however, this is also one of the most stunningly atmospheric games I’ve ever played, and a big reason for that is in its attention to detail in how it presents the cold.
This was the first game that used winter as an actual gameplay mechanic. Beyond staying out of sight, you needed to be mindful of leaving tracks in the snow, your visible breath, and even sneezing from being out in the elements for too long. I’ll never forget the first time I was sneaking up on a guard to break his neck and I sneezed just before reaching him. The same goes for when I was taking too long fighting Vulcan Raven and my rations froze. The game had changed, and there was some management of time and resources that needed to be taken into account. Considering how revolutionary basic stealth gameplay seemed back in 1998, having these elements to consider was a mindblowing prospect. From Snake’s emergence out of the sea to his snowmobile escape, Metal Gear Solid is the best game I’ve ever played that portrays a snowy environment as one that truly matters.
The thing about doing winter correctly in a video game is that it’s about much more than just laying a white carpet over the game world, or lowering friction so the ground is slippery. Skyrim and Metal Gear Solid are excellent examples of video games that are able to capture the dichotomy between the beauty and danger of a silent winter’s night.