Take our mittened hand and let Polygon’s Winter Games package for 2021 guide you through the playground of wintertime games — what’s great, what’s not, and what exciting features await you in the games coming out in February and March.
Winter means different things to different people around the world, but I grew up in Ohio and Kentucky. So for me, winter means riding sleds down huge hills, making snow angels, and staying home from school seemingly once a week due to snow days. Snow and ice defined my childhood when it came to winter, but video games may be the only experience of wintry weather for many people around the world.
Snow and ice are fascinating tools when it comes to game design; they have so many uses! A blizzard can obscure a character’s vision, adding tension to a scene. Ice may make a level slippery, so players have to adjust how they navigate the world. The cold may also sap energy, making it an environmental threat.
Or, maybe talented artists put some snow in a scene just because it’s pretty. There are no wrong answers here, outside of how ice was used in Ecco the Dolphin. That was wrong.
So with that, I’d like to present the 10 essential games that feature ice and/or snow in fascinating, noteworthy, or even just aesthetically pleasing ways. This includes examples in which snow actually ruined the game, or at least a chunk of it, in a way that became noteworthy.
If your favorite snow level isn’t on this list, let me know what it is in the comments; I’m always on the lookout for better powder in my entertainment.
Metal Gear Solid
There have been plenty of games with snow or ice before 1998’s Metal Gear Solid — anyone who has suffered through a slippery level in an NES-era game will tell you that — but Hideo Kojima & co. were one of the first teams to use snow in a way that didn’t just look good or change how long it took your character to stop. The snow in Metal Gear Solid actually impacted the stealth mechanics, which seems like an obvious addition these days, but felt like a huge jump forward in game design at the time.
Making footprints in the snow would give the guards a way to track you, even if seeing those marks didn’t necessarily set off an alarm by itself. This could be a weakness, since you had to make sure the guards couldn’t follow your footprints right to you, but you could also use it as a way to control their movement, getting them out of the way or just removing any guesswork from where they might go next.
It’s a downside that could be turned to your advantage, and it was one of the fun little design innovations that helped make Metal Gear Solid one of the best-loved games of the PlayStation era. Snow: It can straight-up kill you if you’re not careful.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Red Dead Redemption 2 tells a long, twisting story about a changing world that may not have much room for professional outlaws anymore. And that story begins in the snow.
But it’s not just any snow. The game’s opening scenes introduce us to a gang on the run after a job goes poorly, and a blizzard is yet another obstacle in their path. While the rest of Red Dead Redemption 2 features a temperature mechanic that forces you to dress appropriately if you’re going to adventure out in the cold, these moments are content to let the beautifully realized frigid environment speak for itself.
The characters are miserable and desperate, and the snow effects go a long way toward selling that reality. It’s handled so well I felt like I needed to get a coat to keep playing.
Every single Hoth level
George Lucas treated planets in Star Wars as if each one had a single biome, or at least made sure the important scenes from each location had a strong central idea. Which is why you have huge redwood trees on the moon of Endor — it’s a forest moon, as Admiral Ackbar helpfully tells us. Meanwhile, Hoth is a frozen hell where tauntauns freeze before they reach the first marker. It’s never quite explained what that means, or how far away the markers are, but it’s serious.
Hoth is apparently nothing but ice and snow as a planet, and the developers of Star Wars video games used to put a Hoth level in just about every game.
There’s a Hoth level in the NES Empire Strikes Back title.
And a Hoth level in Shadows of the Empire.
Hoth level in Rebel Assault? Of course!
A Hoth level in Rogue Squadron.
And a Hoth level in Rogue Squadron 2.
And a Hoth Level in the first Battlefront.
Battlefront 2? Oh yeah, there was a Hoth level.
This isn’t even scratching the surface. There are more Hoth levels than I’d care to count, but I can’t blame anyone for going back there one more time when making a Star Wars game. Everything about the Battle of Hoth was visually arresting, from the opening moments in the trench cut into the snow, to the first glimpse of the AT-ATs, to Luke Skywalker figuring out how to take them down with a tow cable. It’s perfect for games, and developers still don’t seem to be finished with trying to do it a little better.
Ferry Halim created a classic website of calming, beautiful games called Orisinal back in 2000, and it was one of the best places to find games with nonviolent themes and soothing music. It was magical, but the death of Flash means that the games can no longer be played, although some still exist as iOS apps.
This is currently the only tweet on the Orisinal account:
It's the end of 2020 and also the end of Flash Player.— Orisinal (@OrisinalGames) December 31, 2020
I still remember making my first Flash game, "Apple Season".
While the overall tone of Orisinal was peaceful and harmonious, Snow-bowling was oddly mean-spirited. There were happy people ice skating in front of you, and your challenge was to hit them with huge snowballs, thus ruining their day. And that’s it! Hit the contented skaters with your snowballs, see how many points you can get, and be mean for no reason while being surrounded by serenity. It was a weird tonal shift for the site, but I’ll never forget it.
Lost Planet was released in 2006, and it’s one of those rare third-person action games with solid production values that isn’t tied to any existing properties. The hero is a worker on a colonized planet called E.D.N. III, which is in the throes of a brutal ice age. It’s filled with creatures called Akrid that carry their own orange, glowing radiant energy, which is used almost like oil is in our time: It’s how just about everything that moves gets power. You kill the bugs, you get the energy, you stay alive.
Since people are no match for the giant, killer Akrid, Lost Planet introduces powered armor — guess what powers it — to even the odds a little bit. The story takes some bizarre twists and time jumps, but the fundamental design of the game shows the power of using cold well. You’re constantly losing energy when you’re out in the world, which keeps you from ever forgetting that you’re in a hostile environment that doesn’t give a shit about you or your survival. And the white of the game’s environments provides a wonderful contrast to the glowing red and orange of the Akrid.
The things that are supposed to be cold in the game look cold, and the things that are supposed to be hot look hot. Making everything temperature-based allowed Capcom to use a color palette that’s instantly understandable to just about anyone who plays it.
Lost Planet wasn’t a perfect game, but it proved there was still plenty of life left in the idea of using snow and ice as the primary environment for your game.
SkiFree was first released in 1991 as part of Microsoft Entertainment Pack 3, or at least, that’s what Wikipedia tells me. The reality is that I remember SkiFree just kinda being everywhere when I was growing up, including on school computers. These were the days when any game you found on a computer in class was a big deal, and every moment of SkiFree was seared into the brains of people who grew up around this time.
The point was simple: You use the arrow keys to ski down a hill, taking jumps, avoiding obstacles, and going as fast as possible. You can kinda win, I guess, in that at some point a mutant yeti eats you. I guess there’s just no way to survive a run? The creator of the game published this wonderful and breezy history of it, including his favorite piece of fan mail:
Date: Sun, 11 Feb 1996 11:28:22 -0400
Subject: ski free!
If this is the correct person, please tell me why the stupid fucking monster
comes out from nowhere and eats my main guy before he gets to the bottom of
the hill. Nothing personal, but this is Sunday morning & I really did not
like the idea of getting eaten by the monster this early. What I am really
trying to say is fix the program or stop making games for the likes of me,
who can’t win. Actually, you ruined my day. Have a nice one,
Anyway, you can play it again for yourself. It’s good for about five minutes’ worth of nostalgia before you realize you’re not a kid anymore and you probably have access to just about any game you want on any device because you’re an adult and the teachers can’t tell you to stop wasting time on computer games over and over, even though those “silly games” are the only thing getting you through most days.
It’s fine. School was fine.
One of the best things about AAA games is that with teams that big, and budgets that huge, features that may get pushed aside in smaller games are sometimes given much more care and attention. Such is the case with the ice cracking effect in Gears 5, which you can use to drop enemies down into the freezing water, killing them, before you get to watch the ice re-form. It looks, sounds, and feels amazing, and is another case of a developer using ice’s core characteristics as a mechanic.
Simultaneously amazed, delighted, and horrified at the amount of work that must have gone into this detail. https://t.co/lDBDPNtBab— Aaron San Filippo (@AeornFlippout) September 10, 2019
“This kind of feature, that is both a visual and gameplay focus, hits almost every discipline on our team,” campaign design director Matt Searcy told Polygon in an interview. “Design, animation, VFX, audio, and programmers are all involved in realizing the ice effect from the earliest gameplay prototype to the finished polished state.”
All that work, just for some cracking ice. It seems like a small thing, but when I started thinking about the use of ice and snow in games, this came into my head first. Sometimes it really is those little details that turn a good game into a great one.
SSX Tricky was basically SkiFree, but with snowboards instead of skis, and David Arquette instead of a yeti. So, basically, everything was upgraded.
The subsequent sequels kinda drove the series into the ground, but for two wonderful games, ending with Tricky, SSX just couldn’t be beat when it came to snow sports games of any kind. It was that good.
I mean heck, remember when the PlayStation 2 launched in the U.S. and the original SSX was pretty much the only good game for it? Which wasn’t even much of a problem, because buying a PS2 just for SSX would have been a fine investment in your future.
Rise of the Tomb Raider
It may be a little strange to have your snow effects be one of the larger draws of your game outside of the franchise itself, but 2016’s Rise of the Tomb Raider featured some of the best snow effects to date, and they still stand up when measured against newer games.
“This isn’t sarcastic, I’m actually floored by the snow,” one Steam commenter stated. “It’s the best I have ever seen. Being in PA and just going through that massive blizzard, it’s uncanny how they nailed it, from the way you walk in deep snow, to the trail you leave, even the powder that blows up in the wind as you walk.”
Like with Gears 5, snow this good doesn’t just happen — it takes a whole lot of time and effort. Even if the snow effects worked on their own, the designers also had to make sure that Lara Croft interacted with the snow in a way that felt real. No one walks on or through snow the same way they walk across anything else, and that presents its own challenges.
“Another challenge was Lara’s surroundings never affecting her. Lara could move through the world with ease, oblivious to what she was interacting with,” Mike Oliver, technical art director on Rise of the Tomb Raider, said in a blog post about the technology. “We rectified this by dynamically adjusting her movement rate and animation based on the depth of the deformation. Lara would now slow down and struggle through deep snow, grounding her in a believable world.”
Ecco the Dolphin
Spelunky creator Derek Yu explained the appeal of ice levels as a designer during a recent interview with Kotaku, and the points he made hint at where Ecco the Dolphin went so wrong with its Ice Zone:
And I have to be honest: I kind of feel like a lot of game designers add ice levels not particularly because they really like the slippery ice, but more because snowy, icy places—it’s just kind of a major biome in real life. I think it also brings with it a lot of colors we don’t often see in other biomes, and those are things we think about.
So to include it is to include a kind of variety that, in a way, is sort of hard to pass up, because it’s right there. People have certain expectations tied to it. Players implicitly understand what an ice-based world kind of means. You’re getting those expectations, those colors, those feelings for free. So I wouldn’t say that designers include them for the ice. I’d say the ice is maybe more of, like, sort of a side thing that just happens to come with the snowy or icy biome, which is the more interesting part for designers.
Ecco’s Ice Zone narrows the game’s experience to a series of thin passages, and likewise limits the places where you can leave or enter the water. It’s like someone made a bet that no one could make something as bad as a water level and an ice level combined, and then someone else won that bet by creating Ice Zone.
Just in case this wasn’t horrible enough, the zone is choked with enemies, which gave me similar claustrophobia to the water level from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on NES, with its ridiculous difficulty and lethal environment that required precise movements.
Ice Zone doesn’t take too long to finish if you know exactly what to do, which is a blessing, but it does remove just about everything that made Ecco the Dolphin such an enchanting game.
Which is probably the best lesson we can end this list on: If your ice level, or your snow effect, doesn’t serve some kind of practical purpose — if there isn’t a good “why” for it — it’s probably best to leave it out.
The opposite can be said for David Arquette, but that’s a completely different discussion.