[We recently linked to a neat 'games as noir' article from TimeGate Studios level designer Steve Gaynor, who runs the Fullbright blog. For this article that he's kindly contributed to GameSetWatch, he passes along season's greetings in video game list form. And in a random/cool act of synchronicity, Ian Bogost's newly posted Gamasutra column is on a similar topic, but includes completely different games. Hurray!]

The Christmas season and the games industry go hand-in-hand: in the lead-up shopping frenzy, we're deluged by too many high-profile titles to count, all vying for schoolchildren's wishlists and suburban moms' pocketbooks.

Why then aren't there more games that bring the yuletide spirit into their virtual worlds? Gordon Freeman delivering gifts to the good little boys and girls of City 17? Mario and Bowser putting aside their differences and sharing cups of nog in front of a roaring fire? Not so much. But there are the rare exceptions that do feature tinsel, caroling and the whole nine yards, and in some great games to boot! So, as a way of spreading holiday cheer, I'd like to share a few of my favorite games that feature a Christmas-y setting:

Snatcher - Hideo Kojima's 16-bit adventure game was developed during that long gap between Metal Gear 2 and Solid, and released in the west on Sega CD. Its gameplay is staunchly point-and-click in the Sierra or Lucasarts tradition, with a little bit of Hogan's Alley thrown in every once in a while. The game is a transparent "homage" to Blade Runner, mixed with some Invasion of the Body Snatchers and a cornball anime veneer to top it all off.

It takes place in Neo Kobe after a catastrophic man-made disaster wiped out much of the world's population. Expats trapped in Japan turned Neo Kobe into a strange dystopian melting pot, and it's here that one Gillian Seed, blade runner junker agent extraordinaire and classic amnesiac video game protagonist carries out his mission of hunting down replicants bioroids that have gone rogue. It's also set during Christmas time, featuring decorations and holiday ads throughout the city, as well as Gillian's informant, Napoleon, who dresses up as a shopping mall Santa to hide in plain sight.

Skip to 6:15 for hot Santa informant action:



Bully - Rockstar's reform school saga depicts a year in the life of Jimmy Hopkins, a wayward kid trying to thrive in the dog-eat-dog social maze of Bullworth Academy. The game takes place during fall, winter, spring, and an "endless summer," beautifully realizing each season in turn. On Christmas day, Jimmy is called to the principal's office to receive a gift that his mother has sent him: a hilariously goofy reindeer sweater, which he's compelled to wear back to the dorms, being laughed at and scorned by his classmates the entire way. Really funny stuff.



Boogie Wings/The Great Ragtime Show - Data East released one crazy side-scrolling shooter back in '92, which tried all sorts of wild mechanics and paired them with a bizarre ragtime theme. In the game, the player pilots a Red Baron-esque biplane and flies left-to-right blowing up soldiers, tanks, cowboys, mobsters, and anything else unlucky enough to get in his way.

A couple things make the game unique: one is the free-swinging tow line that hangs from the plane, which the player can use to hook enemies and objects in the world, and fling them about at will. You can pick up tanks or bombs, then whirl the plane around in a circle to whip them at the opposition, causing a huge chain reaction of destruction. Or, you can sadistically pick up a poor unlucky soldier and send him sailing through the air for your own amusement. Another interesting aspect is that the player can hop out of the plane and run along the ground, or jump into jeeps, tanks, and other vehicles for a change of pace.

The game lets the player choose from five different themed levels, one of which is titled "Merry Merry Christmas." In it, the player flies through a city fully decked out for the holidays, shooting up Christmas trees, snowmen, and tossing mall Santas about with his tow line hook. At the end of the level, the player fights an enormous mechanical Santa who tosses crates at you from his sack of presents, and trades his Salvation Army hand bell for a flintlock pistol, all the while shouting out "MERRY CHRISTMAS," as if to taunt you. Either that or he's just having a really good time. Check out the video below for a midi-styled ragtime interpretation of "Joy to the World."



Hitman Blood Money - I'm a huge fan of the Hitman games, especially Blood Money, which took the series formula and executed it to absolute perfection. In one level, Agent 47 is sent to assassinate a wealthy pornography mogul and his playboy of a son, who have become political liabilities to a certain individual who has called upon your services. To do so, 47 drops in on the pornographer's "Christmas in July" celebration at his snowy cliffside abode in the mountains of Colorado, complete with a festive tree, Christmas lights, presents, and red latex outfits for the ladies in attendance. So, stalk the drunken Santa Claus into a nice secluded alcove, dispose of him quietly, steal his clothes, and enjoy our favorite chrome-domed assassin decked out as old Saint Nick. If there's one thing the Hitman series has always had, it's a strong undercurrent of dark humor.



Animal Crossing - Another game that takes place during every season, the month of December is especially cheery in the little town that lives inside your GameCube (or now, Wii.) Animals will graciously trade Christmas presents with the player, Nookington's features Christmas trees (and menorahs) all month long, snowmen start to pop up (and talk!), and blinking, festive lights cover all the trees in town. On Christmas eve, Jingle the red-suited reindeer will reward you with holiday-themed furniture if you can track him down as he makes his rounds.



Raw Danger! - I was recently turned on to Raw Danger! by the GameSetWatch rundown of "2007's Top 5 Overlooked Games." I picked it up, I've been playing it, and I love it. It's got no production values: it looks almost like a PS1 game, the translation is bad, and the voicework is even worse. But the actual design of the game-- the things you can do and the way you do them-- is outstandingly unique, fascinating and fun. It's an action adventure game that aims to provide tension, excitement, and a sense of "raw danger" without any sort of combat or hostile creatures whatsoever. The game's central dilemma is one of the rarest in games, Man versus Nature, and the designers find ways to engage the player simply through direct conflict with the environment itself, as you try to survive in a world that's crumbling around you.

The depth of character management is impressive: you gather items, juggle an inventory and equip new clothes and accessories to stave off hypothermia during the game's ongoing torrential flood, as well as pushing your relationship with various side characters this way and that via a wide range of dialogue options. The game even manages to be player-friendly and opposes the frustration factor by invisibly placing checkpoints before any spot where you're likely to be killed by some sort of sudden collapse or perilous situation.

The game is notable for being an extremely lo-fi production that commits itself to trying something out of the ordinary by engaging the player with other than shooting or swordplay, or even acrobatics and colorful platforming. The game's excitement and tension come from navigating a world that could come tumbling down at any minute, and figuring out how exactly you're going to get yourself out of the seemingly hopeless situation brought on by the disaster at hand. The narrative, though clumsily told, is intriguing for its structure: you play as up to six different characters in turn over the course of the game, and your actions as one character might impact, or even doom, another playable character down the line. To meet up with a female convict in the first character's story, then play that encounter from the convict's point of view during the second scenario is just super cool, and makes you reflect on your decision-making throughout the game, knowing it may come back to you in the end.

Anyway! The game is set during three long, arduous days, starting on Christmas eve 2010. The season comes into play as your first character is a waiter at a Christmas gala unveiling the new superdense underground metropolis, "Geo City." Vestiges of the season can help or hinder your progress, as at one point the player shimmies along a string of Christmas lights hanging above a raging torrent, and at another point an enormous shopping center Christmas tree can topple over and crush you if you're not careful. See the trailer below for hilarious comic timing, set off by the initial strings of "Jingle Bells."




So, if you need help getting in the spirit, try out something from this list! Now would be a particularly good time to start up a town in Animal Crossing, or to support the team at Irem who went out on a limb to bring us Raw Danger! Happy holidays!