Holy macaroni it's the final Five of the Best of the year! This is our weekly series where we sprinkle some love on the overlooked parts of games. We've talked about potions, caves, hands, shops, hubs, maps, mountains and many more. There's a Five of the Best archive if you fancy a butcher's.
Snow! I wonder about snow. Hardly any falls where I live so whenever it does, everyone gets very excited for it. The ugly grey concrete we see every day is hidden under a fluffy white blanket, as if to say, "Don't worry about all that stuff, unless of course you walk into it, but go out and do something else instead. Be with friends! Be with family! The trains don't bloody work anyway." So the country grinds to a halt and we all rush outside to slide down hills on sledges, baking trays, dustbin lids, plastic bags - anything we can find. There's no thought for safety as people plummet down, careering into people walking up - I once saw someone perform a whole impromptu somersault - and we all return home at the end of the day with bruises and a spot of hypothermia. It's a great day out.
So when I see snow in a video game, the same butterflies of excitement flutter around inside me. But I wonder, is it the same for those of you who live where it snows a lot? You must see so much you are sick of the sight of it. Do you like snow in games or does it give you nightmares? Do let me know!
Fortnite's always had a bit of Animal Crossing swirling around in its DNA, so it's no surprise, really, that it's so very good at winter. First your breath starts to mist in the air, and then one day you wake up and snow has fallen across the map. Lovely snow that crunches underfoot and that makes the island new again.
This island is always changing, but there's a purity to the fall of snow that makes it very special. It's not snowing because there's a movie tie-in looming or because everyone's about to get extra XP. It's snowing because it's winter. Lovely.
This is a sports game with an unparalleled sense of place. I don't remember the events or the moves and I struggle to recall all of the different winter activities you can switch between. What I remember is the mountain, the glorious scale and beauty of it, and the snow, powdery one minute, thick and crunchy the next, giving way to jutting spars of ice when you reach lower expanses.
Steep grabs you. You drop in for five minutes and end up spending an hour or two. And it's the snow that keeps you there, I think: beckoning you forward, making the landscape strange and exciting and romantic.
It's hard to think of Journey without thinking of sand, with those rounded dunes directing the eye and giving each minute or two a sense of occasion as you crest them and see what's next.
But the tail end of the game - once you're approaching the summit of the game's mountain - belongs to snow. And the snow is terrifying, whirling in and forming a sort of granular wall that you have to battle against. It's not a battle you can ultimately win, either - at least not in the traditional sense. Everybody who plays Journey remembers that moment of giving up, I think, that moment of collapsing in the drifts. How cold it still feels!
Red Dead Redemption 2
Forget horse testicles, the snow in Red Dead Redemption 2 is a-maz-ing. You leave footsteps as you crunch through it and plough furrows as you wade through piles thigh high. It's so satisfying.
But it's more than that, too - more than set dressing. The snow is almost a character. It's the wilds, alive, and the game is reminding you how inhospitable and impassable a place like North America can be. There's even a quest early on, in the survive-the-winter part of the game, where you see exactly what happens to a person like you who loses their horse in weather like this - which they can easily do because of unseen holes or dangers in the snow. A person like you gets stranded and freezes and dies.
Without your horse, Arthur Morgan, you ain't much.
The Long Dark doesn't have the most realistic snow (its stylised low-poly aesthetic somewhat puts pay to that), but it certainly has presence. It's picturesque, yes, but it's also an ever-present force of hostility, draining your life force through plummeting body temperatures and sodden clothes. And there's never an escape; you'll hear it in the relentless crunch of snow underfoot as you roam the unforgiving Canadian wilderness, see it in the staccato clouds of your own breath in the biting, post-apocalyptic air.
It's there in the languid dance of snowflakes in the morning light, and there as the weather turns, whipped into howling wall of fog and ice. And even the seeming safety of indoors can't mask its chill presence for long; snow drifts through broken windowpanes as you huddle against the dying embers of a makeshift fire, while the muffled rattle and bang of the elements serve as a constant reminder that your end is as inevitable as the cold, no matter how much you fight, no matter how much you run.