My grandma had these paintings everywhere, these scenes of Victorian Christmas. Currier & Ives, Norman Rockwell, everything, up in frames and on those silly round plates with art on them. There were lots of snowy churches and horse-drawn sleighs with freshly hacked pine trees strapped to them. Men in tall hats and women in bonnets singing Christmas carols, either looking way too excited or slightly terrifying with perfectly round mouths and monstrous wax faces. She had these miniature villages, too, and she laid them out every year. A sheet of cotton went on the bottom, which was supposed to be snow. Then all kinds of little houses and churches and stores, all lit up from inside, all of them with snow on the roofs.
Everything was an ideal of an ideal. What it taught me, from a young age, was that Christmas was supposed to look a certain way. I grew up to be really bitter and cynical when I realized that life didn't work that way. Winter didn't always mean cold or snow and sometimes, if things didn't go right, Christmas ended up being just another day.
That didn't mean I lost that naive, idealistic part of me. I just learned to channel it differently.
Video games help.
This year, I thought I'd share a few titles with pretty winter scenery, or at the very least, bone-chilling cold, for those of you that need some idealized holiday cheer. So grab a mug of cider, wassail, or Southern Comfort Gingerbread Spice, and let's have our own idealized holiday.
1. Final Fantasy XIV: Heavensward
If you made it through the main storyline of Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, you'll have access to Heavensward, which contains some truly gorgeous winter scenery. Snowflakes drift through the air most days as you make your chilly way around on your solemn business. Grand, organ-infused music accompanies you through the cold stone streets and up to the higher reaches of the soaring Gothic city, the Holy See of Ishgard. The city itself is grim, but all the elements of its presentation set your spirit flying. Even if you haven't gone through the long questline and unlocked the Holy See, there are still parts of Coerthas that are available to you, all colder than your ex's heart. The area around Camp Dragonhead is all miles of lush, snowy drifts. And you've heard me harp before on how realistic the scenery in Final Fantasy XIV is. It's winter at its finest.
2. Icewind Dale I + II (or the Enhanced Edition)
The wintertime classic for more than a decade. Icewind Dale's atmosphere is second to none, and just turning the game on, hearing the somber music, and finding yourself in the frozen dale is enough to get you shivering and send you running for a coat. And since the game doesn't lack for excitement (you know of what I speak - the game has more combat than your in-laws' Christmas parties), you'll find yourself getting warm again really fast.
It's no secret that the harsh home of the Nords is a wintertime standby. For one thing, you can be whoever you want, from Geralt of Rivia to a cute anime girl with completely unrealistic clothing and weapons. But more to the point, huge swaths of Skyrim languish in the grip of winter, from the frozen, nightmare-haunted Dawnstar, to the tooth-chattering ancient city of Windhelm, to the icy cliffs of Winterhold on the edge of the world. Vanilla Skyrim made winter a really bland, indifferent affair, but mods like Wet and Cold and Frostfall turn these frozen reaches deadly by adding hypothermia and other survival mechanics. You better pile on the layers, Dragonborn. You'll catch your death out there.
4. The Witcher III
While most of the territory in the Witcher III is pleasantly mild, the islands of Skellige are a bit chillier. The city of Kaer Trolde gets its fair share of snow, and you'll find yourself enduring some of it during your travels in the northern isles. There's also a way to make White Orchard...well...white. Using the Dev Console mod and entering a certain command turns the starting zone into winter!
5. Heroine's Quest
This brutal game sets you waist-deep in snow, inserts hunger and survival mechanics, and sits back while you fight for your life in a terrible northern winter. Inspired by the point-and-click Sierra classics of old (like Quest for Glory), our heroine is given greater challenges and forced not only to survive, but to answer the call of the jarl of Jarnvidr and put an end to the cataclysmic deep freeze. The Hero of Spielburg had it easy.
6. Pillars of Eternity: The White March
I haven't personally played this one yet (I'm hoping to really soon) but if The White March is anything like the rest of PoE, the atmosphere will deliver not only a cold winter, but a gloomy, deep, and emotionally stirring one as well.
7. Guild Wars I + II
The Guild Wars series is chock full of winter zones. A huge chunk of Guild Wars I is dedicated to winter; the Shiverpeak Mountains delivers snowy cold to you in more ways than you can possibly imagine. In Guild Wars 2, you can level all the way to at least 40 before ever setting foot outside a snow drift. Both games have a holiday celebration to get you in the mood, and the sequel's icy zones are littered with houses and castles so you can warm your bones beside sputtering, smoky fires. These games each contain entire winter kingdoms. You could spend your entire season here.
8. Lord of the Rings Online
(image courtesy of Arnhelm_of_Rohan on lotro.com)
The aging MMO hasn't stood the test of time very well, but it's still going. The Misty Mountains are as snowy and hostile as ever, and you'll squint your way through blizzards on the way to Goblin-Town. Forochel, Middle Earth's arctic zone, is even bigger. Get up there and get stuck for a while, like King Arvedui of Arthedain did a long time ago. Just don't go in the water. It'll kill you, just like it killed him.
LOTRO also features a yearly winter festival in a cozy little town and countryside devoted specifically to the festivities. Wintertime mounts are usually available, and the gorgeous blue-and-snowflake barding is truly memorable.
9. Dragon Age: Inquisition
All the angry controversy aside, this game features some of the most picturesque winter scenery in any game, suitable to cool even the hottest temper. You start in the cozy town of Haven, really just a ramshackle collection of houses and other structures that have sprung up around the temple there. This is where the Inquisition forms. I found myself so enamored with the gentle snow and pastel skies that I was reluctant to go on, but Skyhold is lovely too. Step outside onto the balcony of your own personal quarters and gaze into the snowy passes. Feel the snowy wind chilling your arms. It's gorgeous.
Not all the best holiday games are RPG's, either. There's a few on my personal list I enjoy having around this time of year.
The beginning of the game sees you running into Kazakh City through blowing snow, killing all the way. As Strider Hiryu, you'll get to spend quite a while enjoying the cheery winter wind and drifting flakes as you dart around, chopping Grandmaster Meio's minions to bits. And yes, if you're wondering, this is the successor to the NES original from 1989, and this one plays so much better.
Assassin's Creed: Rogue
Red is such a lovely color, and it goes so nicely with white. As Shay Patrick Cormac, join the Templars in style and set sail into the harsh North Atlantic. The game carries over all the naval mechanics from previous entries in the series, only this time you get to do all of it while ramming icebergs and trying not to freeze in the deadly cold water. It's not bad if you don't mind UPlay but definitely get it on sale!
Also, don't forget Assassin's Creed III. A snow-covered Colonial Massachusetts is a lovely place to spend the holidays, especially with the cheerful tavern music. It's so pretty that you may not even mind the bulky, clumsy gameplay.
If your weather has been anything like most of December has been where I live, don't despair. Your holiday doesn't need to be a disgusting humid morass.
Let's go. Winter adventures await!
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