For many players, when the loading screen opens on a scene generously blanketed in white, they greet it with a sigh of despair like taking a cold dagger to the heart. Yet like Santa loves a mince pie, I love a snow level! My heart is full of warmth for these icy treasures. Cosy up with a Coffee Revs festive drink and we’ll skate through some reasons why. Bare with me on this one (or should I say…brrrr with me!)
The silence of snowfall can stop time on a winter’s night, and a snow level can recreate this sense of entering an almost liminal space. Little effects that come with a snow level’s design can immerse a player completely, from the frosty breath and footprints in the snow to reflections in the ice and glitter bouncing off of a glacier. Snow levels have always seen the addition of extra details for the player to appreciate throughout the evolution of 3D graphics.
Snow levels can be totally harrowing, but this doesn’t mean that they are not brilliantly so. This is seen at its best in Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 2. Their recreation of the wintry Tibetan mountains at the roof of the world plays host to not only one of gaming’s most iconic opening sequences, but also later some of the most dramatic lighting ever seen in games. In chapter 15, Train Wrecked, the screen becomes awash with blues and whites as a harsh blizzard intensifies. But among this blares the hot orange explosions of train wreckage fires which act as beacons, guiding your way to the end of the level. Drake clings to life, and we cling to the controller, pushing him forwards through the unforgiving blizzard and feeling the bite of every snow flurry.
The presence of snowfall in a game always has an additional purpose, and has been used in various ways in games over the years. Snow can communicate playfulness (like the Winter Isle town of Yule, home of the adorable yeti-like people in Ni No Kuni) or, more commonly, emphasise themes of isolation in narrative storytelling through sheer cold.
A snow level is a statement. It adds another dimension to the utility of environment in games narrative, arguably more so than other types of level design. It is a more direct communication to the player: we want you to feel isolated; we want you to feel like you are in uncharted territory; we want you to really look at this environment we have created. A game which achieves all of this in spectacular style is Horizon Zero Dawn’s DLC expansion, The Frozen Wilds. The region may be drenched in snow, but this expansion is full of colour and character in its environment, storytelling and cast. The snow is a blank canvas which the many wonderful factors of the expansion reflect off of.
Elsewhere in the likes of Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, the inclusion of Snowpoint City and its seasonal weather at that time also portrayed a milestone in the development of the franchise, and showcased the exploration of what else Pokémon could do with implementing regional and seasonal weather into game design.
Let’s not forget that wintry regions bring with them a delightful array of weird and wonderful wintry creatures! We’ve all ran sideways down High Hrothgar to get away from Frost Trolls and Frostbite Spiders whilst climbing the Seven Thousand Steps in Skyrim.
Lastly, not a lot makes me happier than seeing my favourite characters wrapped up in a new winter outfit. I mean just look at Mario in the Snow Kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey. Come on! Tell me his little hood isn’t melting your frozen heart!