Welcome back to AVQ&A (Gameological edition), where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Instead of telling you all about our favorite games (because we already did that) the Gameological staff is using its year-end Q&A to talk about something less superlative but no less timely. Here’s the question from Gameological assistant editor Matt Gerardi:
For me, video games and the holiday season will be forever entwined. Many of my strongest Christmas memories involve tearing open cartridge-shaped packages and spending the next week basking in the glow of my new goodies. It’s a perfect time to play, after all, as the long break provides plenty of time to steep yourself in an epic or build up muscle memory as you master a tricky action title. What are your favorite games to play over the holidays?
For me, the holidays have always been, and still are, a time to tackle the huge games—various Zeldas, Final Fantasy VII, Oblivion, Skyrim, and the Mass Effects. It’s really amazing to me, now that I think about it, how little this ritual has changed over the years—a race to finish these enormous titles before real life intrudes once again. This year will be no different. I’ve put about 15 hours into Dragon Age: Inquisition, and clearly there are many, many hours to go. In December, I’ll be flying across the country, back to my ancestral homeland of New Jersey, and I’ll be bringing my PlayStation 4 with me. Amid the countless repeat viewings of Christmas Vacation, A Christmas Story, and Call Me Bwana (don’t ask), putting on an extra 10 pounds in egg nog weight, and catching up with my friends at one of two townie bars, I’ll otherwise be holed up in the same room I was at this time 20 years ago, binge playing a different game on a different system but essentially channeling my 14-year-old self. It’s a comforting thought.
Unlike music, there are very few games that I conceptually associate with winter and the holidays. I love the snow stages in games like Donkey Kong Country, but I don’t break them out around Thanksgiving and Christmastime as a rule. There are, however, games that conjure up the feelings of familial warmth and help me brace against the cold and dark of winter, because I received them as gifts way back when. Like clockwork around this time of year, I’m drawn back to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. Those early levels, joining up with Grant the pirate or Sypha the sorceress, don’t look especially like Christmas, but playing that game after Christmas back in 1991 tied it inextricably to the season. Even when I play it in the heart of summer, Castlevania III still makes it feel like it’s snowing outside.
MMOs are the highlight of my holiday gaming. Part of that definitely comes from Blizzard’s tendency to release its World Of Warcraft games in November or December, but I’ve also used my time off to delve into Star Wars: The Old Republic and The Secret World. Having a lot of free time makes it much easier to commit the hours needed for long raids and quest chains, and it’s always easy to find people looking to do exactly the same thing. Those games have also provided me with a convenient way to chat with my friends when we’ve scattered for the holidays. Who needs a phone call when you can catch up while also upgrading your gear?
Sure, growing up, I’d just binge on whatever games Santa had left under the tree. But in recent years, I find myself spending the holidays on games where I build something—usually SimCity or Civilization, but in a pinch I’ll settle for less intense build-it-and-you-shall-win fare like A Kingdom For Keflings. I love relaxing with family at the end of the year, but after a few days I inevitably get antsy, because I’m not making something. I can’t help it. Since I’m not about to sit down and write on New Year’s Eve, I scratch my itch by building, say, a new bedroom community in my years-old SimCity 4 rendition of the greater New York metro area. That sort of game lets me keep relaxing while I trick my brain into believing that I’m productive.
I’ve got five nephews, so nearly all of my time spent playing games during the holidays includes at least one of them. With the younger ones, I stick to local multiplayer games, which often means a heavy dose of Skylanders or whatever Lego-branded game has just come out. The oldest, Aaron, is the best Call Of Duty player I’ve ever seen (he’s considered turning pro), so sometimes I just sit back in awe and watch him pile up ridiculously high body counts in multiplayer matches. Interestingly enough, my once-COD obsessed nephew Aiden (whom I previously referenced in a Gameological column) has since moved on from video games and now pounds on drums instead of buttons.
Over the holidays, I like to play something simple and familiar, with bonus points awarded for holiday-appropriate themes, like the power of friendship and good unambiguously triumphing over evil. That’s why almost every year I crack open the original Kingdom Hearts when the temperature heads below zero. Before the series became obsessed with its own pointlessly elaborate lore, it was a simple, kid-friendly tale of a boy trying to rescue his friends and rubbing elbows with the Disney pantheon in the process. The simple combat, cartoony graphics, catchy music, and shameless sentimentality make it the perfect complement for a big wool blanket and a cup of hot chocolate.
It’s simple but lasting: chess. We celebrated Thanksgiving at my grandparents’ house in the Chicago suburbs every year, and when I was a little kid, my uncle used to come. (He has since stopped, because he has to take care of his 15 cats—I’m not even kidding.) He was a chess prodigy who, as a kid, competed professionally and would always have some words of wisdom to impart upon me so I could continue beating up my younger relatives based on skill and brute force. Right around the time I was in high school, he stopped coming and, unrelated, started teaching improv comedy to lawyers. My cousins insisted on the annual chess game despite his absence, using the really old pieces my grandparents had acquired, which included a king with a long robe and knights that were regal but cracked due to a fundamental design flaw. I play chess a bunch of other times of the year, but the feeling of staring at a board, under a hot lamp, reminds me of doing the same thing next to a roaring fire in a basement full of Confederate Civil War memorabilia.
It used to be my holiday tradition to sink ungodly hours into whichever role-playing game I requested from Santa/my dad/myself. I would burrito myself in a blanket and remain in front of the TV until school or work dislodged me. But since I participated in that blackest of magic that transformed all my free time and expendable income into a small human being, I’m no longer able to ignore the obligations of the real world to such a satisfying degree. But my kid is just now becoming interested in video games, and it’s fun finding games we can enjoy together, even if that means I need to realign my tastes a bit. Nothing forces you to reflect on the ubiquity of violence in video games like poring over your Steam catalog, making a mental inventory of all the games you own that can traumatize a 5-year-old with a non-stop kaleidoscope of decapitations and eviscerations. But we’ve been enjoying Psychonauts as well as the Castle Of Illusion remake. My solo RPG binges are becoming family platformer binges, and I think this year one of the Lego games will be a fine introduction to this new tradition.
I can bundle up under blankets and dig in for day-long adventures any weekend I feel like shirking my adult responsibilities. The Winter Holiday Season™ is the one time of the year my friends and family are expected to gather in somebody’s living room and all be indoor kids together, often with mugs of hot cocoa, so this time of year is when I turn to my shelf of board games. We’ve got a lot of options. My sisters are fond of Blokus. I’m a proponent of Avalon. But the one my family consistently rallies around is Wise And Otherwise. Balderdash for proverbs, it’s faux-worldly focus on ridiculous yet totally real expressions is perfect for a family that includes ivy league, state school, and art grads, with plenty of opportunity to goof and be goofed alike. I might introduce Fibbage this year, which is basically the same game only with smartphones instead of Trivial Pursuit-style cards. Less chance of cocoa-related complications that way.
When I was younger, the holidays were new console season. We didn’t have a lot of money in my family to spend on video games, but my parents and grandparents would always try to spring for the new hotness on Christmas. So for me, holidays were always about unboxing and investigating, and then usually the abject disappointment of launch titles. Not so with the GameCube, which I got a year after its release. That’s why every year about this time I get the urge to do what I did then, what any good kid would have done: ditch my family to play Super Mario Sunshine all afternoon. I’ve never lived anywhere particularly frigid, but there’s a wonderful escapism in visiting the tropical Isle Delfino (and its strange, alternate universe where Mario and Bowser speak full lines of dialogue) while the chestnuts are a-roasting. I spent hours that Christmas wandering around Sunshine’s bright, cheerful world, squirreling out secrets and practicing my Jackie Chan wall kicks. Sunshine has become the black sheep among 3-D Mario games, with its weird water jet-pack and its punishing difficulty, but Mario and his FLUDD will always be welcome at my holiday table.