So I got you a present.
In a year of disconnection and virtual everything, I can’t help but think about distance and the ways in which it defined our relationships this year. This goes doubly for the first Christmas where most of us, many for the first time ever, won’t be going home. What does it mean to make Christmas for oneself, when the usual impetus for all the traditions is missing? Or when it’s a half a country away?
I’m not sure, but it gets me thinking about Christmas Music again.
The thing is, I’ve never really felt a connection to Christmas music. Part of growing up as a non-religious person in a very religious, medium-small town meant always feeling disengaged from these gigantic community gatherings as a kid, then later, as an adult, avoiding them entirely. It’s not that I don’t like the music – some of it is gorgeous, some of it is, um, Santa Baby – but the appeal sort of evaporates the further you get from the source material. I grew up going to Sunday School, but I don’t go anymore. So for as wonderful as the season and the tradition and the gift-giving are, there’s always going to be a disconnect there, deep down inside, when it comes time to sing the carols. It’s a disconnect that defines my relationship to that town. It likely always will.
As a weird, solitary kid, I needed to find other ways to bridge the gap.
So I retreated into video games. And as an adult I really only visit ‘home’ a couple times a year – and Christmas is the only night I ever spend in my old bedroom. It’s the same room where I used to spend countless hours in front of my little tv, blasting through Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger and every Zelda game, especially around winter break. I may have grown up in a boring suburb, but I lived in the worlds inside my tv. Somewhere along the way those virtual worlds imprinted on my real one: they became a kind of home, too.
It turns out that relationship extends to Christmas.
So when it comes time for holiday music, I don’t think of Silent Night and Coventry Carol. My mind goes to Snowpeak and Coerthas, and a thousand, identical ‘ice worlds’ in 90’s platforming games. I think of Ronfaure Forest and Terra trudging through the snow in her Magitek armor to get to Narshe. I go to Baur’s Reach and Celeste Mountain, and I feel at home. I can’t help it, it’s who I am. It’s the world I made for myself when the real one didn’t fit right. It felt like Christmas, and it still does.
I mean it helps that I’m also a massive, irreparable dork.
So this Christmas, or really this winter season in general, I’ve got a present for you. It’s an hour and a half of the places I go when it’s winter time, the music that evokes the season so much more powerfully than Jingle Bells or whatever ever could. Some of it is chiptune, much is orchestral, and a great deal is an emerging genre called Digital Fusion that I can’t wait to watch evolve. If some of it seems lonely or sad, that’s alright too.
In a year in which everything and everyone is disjointed and distanced, the worlds we create for ourselves – ones that feel like home – are more important than ever. We’ve all been living in virtual spaces for the last year: come visit mine during this very strange winter. I’d love to have you.
May your holidays be bright and safe, and your internet connection be stable.
Oh PS: This playlist doubles as the Steam Sale Recommendation Thread. Sale’s on now, so go get ’em, tiger:
Undertale: the generation-defining alternative RPG that launched a thousand ships
Celeste: the greatest platformer of the last decade, and a heart-stopping, beautiful story of self-discovery
Stardew Valley: the greatest Harvest Moon game ever made
Into the Breach: chess for 1, and a case-study in how to make a functionally perfect puzzle game
Final Fantasy XI: the second greatest Final Fantasy MMO ever made, a definitive experience
World of Final Fantasy: a love letter from Final Fantasy to itself, surprisingly fun, very silly
Skies of Arcadia: the great, lost Dreamcast sky-pirate epic, a valid reason to get an emulator
Hollow Knight: the greatest, saddest Metroidvania ever made, a compulsory play
Final Fantasy VII: Final Fantasy VII
Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: the most melodramatic and controversial mainline Zelda, brilliant
Akumajo Dracula X Gekka no Nocturne: better known as Symphony of the Night, compulsory
Chrono Trigger: genuinely the finest game in its style ever made, with art by Akira Toriyama
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: a game based on a movie based on a comic, a killer party play
Final Fantasy XIV: the best Final Fantasy MMO, genuinely addictive
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle: a suspiciously excellent XCOM game featuring Mario
Wargroove: you’re worse at Advance Wars than you think you are
Ikenfell: Vancouver made witching school RPG that does NOT feature transphobia
Octopath Traveller: a very weird, very interesting retro-futurist jrpg
Slime Rancher: the most therapeutic experience in gaming
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: better than you’ve heard
The Secret of Mana: the original, classic jrpg-action title, recently revamped
Ori and the Will of the Wisps: a heartbreakingly beautiful platformer, released this year
Bastion: the debut, definitive title from Supergiant, of Hades fame