The Christmas season values nothing that is important in video games. Where Christmas gives, video games take; where it symbolizes life, they advocate death. Games themed around the holiday are exemplary of this conflict: even in just appropriating symbols of the season, they function as video games as a casserole tastes whose ingredients are chosen only for their color. Controlling Santa or his elves has no standard in literature. Designing a game around them results in monstrosities twisted by nicety: the innocuous horrors of Santa Claus Saves the Earth or Elf Bowling. Destruction is their art and frustrated boredom is their result, heinously wrapped up in a holiday meant to instill peace and joy in its participants. In theory, the games that accomplish the holiday’s intentions would be the true torchbearers of the season, regardless of the symbols they appropriate for the purpose.
To that end, a stanza of Christmas spirit can be seen between the stylistic lines of the spiritual catharsis of Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing. Taking the holiday culture as a cluttered sum, Fallout 4 ingratiates itself to the season by virtue of stylistic cues, such as Bing Crosby music and 1950s couture. Even in the mix of melancholy and hedonism, Bioshock features a fair share of perverted joy-making that feels like a diabolical mix of old office parties and drunken holiday depressions and Auld Lang Syne.
But if the actual Christmas season could be rendered into interactive form, as Halloween has been, what would it look like?
Christmas is called a time of “giving,” but that word misaligns the season with a barely related emotion. The act of giving, if it is not tempered by value judgments, becomes random and unemotional: to give money to anyone, to select presents at random and give them to random strangers, doesn’t feel like the Christmastime we promise ourselves every year. This kind of giving is an action that is not the primary goal of Christmas, which is: to fill voids. What we give during this time of year we do so not to give anything to anyone, but because of the value it has to someone we care about, even if it is the broad, humanistic caring for a person on the street. This action has value to givers as an acknowledgement and repair of something in their universe which is lacking and which they love, as a randomized dispersal of all our treasures would not. Though it would require more effort in the giving, we do not embrace our enemies at Christmas time. We give our time and selves to those we treasure most.
Filling voids is not a common goal of video games. Interactive worlds rarely benefit from the player’s interaction with them, even if the goal is pure. Mario may rescue Princess Peach, but at the cost of exterminating the mushroom kingdom’s wildlife and murdering its royal family. The player saves the world in Dark Souls essentially by removing everything interesting from it. If a game is to feel like Christmas, the opposite must be true: the world must lack something for which the player’s presence is the only cure.
The reason that Katamari Damacy is the game I have played that feels most like Christmas is not that the swing-era tunes and literal gift-wrapped presents tangentially imply the season, but that it is the only game I know which is based around filling a universal, even moral, void and which does so for the joy of it.
The Unfinished Swan is an example of a game that uses its player to complete its world, but without any joy: its melancholy is childlike but worse for it. As you discover and create in that game, you feel lost, less like the solitude of creative ambitions than the untampered blanket of fear of losing sight of your mom at the supermarket. The game is lonely. Katamari Damacy is as singularly devoted to cheer as a Christmas card, and as conducive to the player’s ameliorating influence as most games are to the influence of its destruction.
The universe lacks stars in Katamari Damacy and the goal of rolling up corporate trash, berry bushes, skyscrapers, migrant workers, elephants, is to convert them back into those stars. The essential change Christmas makes in people is to convert all the over-corporatized trappings into a single day of joy using the values that emerge from them. Katamari is this transformation in a video game, with enemies and score reduced to a pile of industrial knick-knacks that must, somehow, be turned back into life.
The whole initiative of Katamari is to snowball things into feelings, to transform physical objects into a medium for filling the voids in the universe. It would be a stretch to call Katamari a Christmas game, but in a medium that is incompatible with the holiday, Katamari represents a rare and joyous energy. Your high score is less a personal accomplishment than an acknowledgment of your standard of beauty in the world. You gift your work back to a universe that needs it, even if its labyrinthine corporate narcissism doesn’t necessarily deserve it.
But that’s the marrow of the problem, isn’t it. Christmastime represents everything that the world casually forgets in all its other times. Most video games are exactly what we’ve earned with our penchants and our ignorance – you’ll always find me rejoicing, as though the realization marks a new holiday in itself, when I find one better than we are.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org