Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?
It’s Christmas today, the annual celebration that asks us to contemplate what really matters in life, i.e., humanity’s decades-long obsession with murdering Santa Claus, the hateful present elf who spends his immortal days judging us, subdividing the species into the naughty and the nice, and just generally being a ho-ho-horrible stain on the planet he lords over from his lair sitting literally atop the globe. Luckily (and, really, we’re always saying this) video games exist, which means that we can translate a few of our anti-Santa urges into action this holiday season. As such, we dipped into the roiling idea vat that is the Steam bargain shelf to pull out all the hottest Santa-based games, most of which at least offer the opportunity to see Jolly Old Saint Nick spill his metaphorical bowl full of jelly out on the cold, unfeeling snow.
Lest we be totally buried in Yuletide joy, though, we did set a few rules for this roundup. First, the games had to be cheap (because nobody wants to have to have a holly jolly HR meeting about our efforts to expense a $45 bundle of Santa-themed puzzle games for this dumb What Are You Playing? bit). They couldn’t be in VR, because, as much as we’d love to get up close and personal with Santa Sling, Santa Simulator, and other fine Virtual Santa products, we just don’t have the hardware to do them justice. And they had to be—and this is always an issue when you get into the cheaper side of Steam offerings—not super horny, which eliminated such anime-ish offerings as Sakura Santa, Santa Girls, Strip Black Jack—Santa Babe, Bring Me A Man Santa, and, of course, Santa’s Big Sack, the game that dares to ask in its Steam marketing copy, “Are you a simp for Santa?”
Anyway, here’s what we came up with, so let’s dive in. The fat man has it coming.
MIDI loop of “Jingle Bells”? Only on the victory screen, but it slaps.
Have you ever asked yourself: “What if Fortnite took place on a single square of land, on which burly men fight with katanas to become the next Santa Claus after the previous one died in a fiery sleigh wreck?” If so, this game is for you. Did you make this game? It’s upsetting to imagine that multiple people would ask themselves a question that spawned this particularly violent and gritty take on The Santa Clause.
MIDI loop of “Jingle Bells”? Constantly.
“Oh, neat,” you say to yourself, “A lo-fi Christmas-themed take on Metal Gear.” “Wait,” you ask yourself a few minutes later, “Why does Santa have ‘sleep dust’ to knock unruly children out? Did that old lady just wake up and shoot Santa dead? Why are their land mines? Oh god, Dracula’s here, and he’s mad about his presents!” An emotional rollercoaster, riveting, would not miss.
Price: $1.99 expansion for the free Kyle Is Famous
MIDI loop of “Jingle Bells”? Tragically absent
A paid expansion to John Szymanski’s immensely odd text-based game Kyle Is Famous, KIS starts with the titular Kyle expelling dozens of hideous, flesh-consuming elves from his body, and only gets stranger from there. Will you put the people in Kyle-Santa’s life on the naughty or nice list? Will you create a wide variety of apocalypses by causing reindeer and presents to come bursting out of Kyle’s neck? Will you be usurped as the true symbol of Christmas by a woman having a severe allergic reaction to all this damn elf dander? Only time will tell, dear reader. The choice… is yours.
Price: Free, with paid DLC
MIDI loop of “Jingle Bells”? No, but the main battle theme is a pretty kickass take on “Away In A Manger.”
We’ll be honest here: We were a little worried that this freeware RPGMaker title might violate our “no horny” rule, what with the non-regulation length of Mrs. Santa’s skirt. Still, the actual content is wholesome enough—give or take a risqué joke about “snowballs” here or there—as Mrs. Santa descends into an ice-filled cavern to return the North Pole’s toys so Santa can get them out to the people on time. (Last night was “eggnog night,” so he needs his rest—especially since his relationship with the much younger-looking Mrs. Santa is a very literal May-December romance.) Bonus points for giving Mrs. S an attack called “Season’s Beatings” to kick the shit out of the thieves with a little Yuletide flair.
MIDI loop of “Jingle Bells”? No MIDI here; this is the game where you play “Jingle Bells,” in the metal stylings it was always destined to achieve.
The premise of Santa Rockstar is simple: A generic metal guy finds Santa dead after crashing his sleigh (a shockingly recurring motif in these games), and becomes the new Santa by hooking his electric guitar into the old dead elf’s corpse and thrashing away. Then you spread the Christmas spirit by, uh, playing Guitar Hero, except on a computer keyboard, and with metal takes on “Hark The Herald Angels Sing.” (You can hook up a USB Guitar Hero guitar for more “authentic” holiday shredding, though.) Also, the reindeer all have earrings now, which is, indeed, very metal.
MIDI loop of “Jingle Bells”? We don’t actually know what Christmas song the game’s sole track is trying to be, but we do know this: It’s about 30 seconds long, it is extremely irritating, and it will keep looping until either you or it is dead.
The most interesting thing about this extremely simple holiday-themed platformer is the way it outlines the underlying tensions of the supposedly peaceful North Pole, as the forces of winter—reindeer, ice, and a snowman with a bad case of pervert face—attempt to stop their ostensible master, a butterfingered Santa, from picking up all his dropped toys and getting them to a series of inexplicable free-standing chimneys. A harrowing portrait of class conflict among the gift-giving masses.
MIDI loop of “Jingle Bells”? Right on the title screen!
Look: Should I have eaten Santa’s Christmas cookies, which had clearly been left out for him? Probably not. Does that justify him hiding in my bathroom, jumpscaring me, and then dragging me to some sort of boxy Christmas maze where I can hear him running behind me at all times, waiting to actually, genuinely scare the shit out of me with a second jumpscare? I would argue that this was an over-reaction, Santa. Stop playing Slender, take some anger management classes, and let’s try again next Christmas.
MIDI loop of “Jingle Bells”? Somehow, implausibly: No.
A very simple-box pushing game, Santa’s Workshop has two notable features: A rosy-cheeked version of Santa who appears to have been ordered directly from a Precious Moments catalog, and a player avatar that is, bizarrely, a snowflake. How is the snowflake pushing the toy cars and candy you’re being forced to hump around into boxes? Is it a different snowflake in each level, hooked into some sort of ice crystal hivemind? Does Santa have dark powers over the ice and winds, or is the snowflake getting paid for this shit? These are the questions that keep us up at night.
MIDI loop of “Jingle Bells”? Oh, you’d better believe it—because nothing says “Let’s shoot Santa in his testicles” like a hard-rock loop of “Jingle Bells”
Look, nobody’s saying that it’s fun to take aim on a horde of rampaging Santas, pull the trigger, and then get lovingly rendered, Sniper Elite-esque kill shots showing you all the damage that you’ve done to Santa’s liver, brains, or lungs—that would be sociopathic. But it is kind of satisfying. (Even if you have to kill, way, way too many Santas—the singular “the” in the title being a pointed misnomer—to get your hands on any of the game’s really top tier Claus-killing equipment.)
MIDI loop of “Jingle Bells”? Enthusiastically so. Unrelentingly, unrepentantly, perversely so.
How did Santa get his hands on zombie technology? Why do his zombie elves hate Christmas? Why do these penguins look like they’re blazed out of their minds? None of these questions are answered in this infuriatingly slow tower defense game, even if the idea of unleashing “Rudolph’s Rage” to kill a bunch of zombie elves with a laser does have a certain, bloody, holiday-themed je ne sais quoi.
MIDI loop of “Jingle Bells”? None! In fact, the game’s music is kind of uniformly pleasant.
One of the pleasures of doing one of these big roundups of tiny, largely unseen games is that you hit the occasional gem or two. Santacraft isn’t amazing—it’s essentially a winter-themed riff on games like Don’t Starve or Forager—but it is suffused in pixel-art charm and a nice sense of gentleness. Not all Santas must die, apparently: Some can co-exist with nature. A hard lesson to internalize, but a wholesome one, nevertheless.