Christmas Memories – pt4

SonicChristmas2

The penultimate Christmas Memories post goes to Alan Williamson, who discusses why Christmas Nights is held so dearly to his festive heart.

Alan Williamson – Editor of Five out of Ten magazine and split-screen.net

When Grahame asked me to write about my favourite Christmas game, the answer was obvious: Christmas NiGHTS for the Sega Saturn. I thought that it would be perfect for a Eurogamer retrospective article, and they agreed! You should go and read that first. Don’t worry, I’ll wait right here.

It’s difficult to write about one of your favouritegames. There are so many feelings, too much nostalgia: you need to uncouple what makes the game worth discussing from why you like it, and the distinction is not always obvious. Christmas NiGHTS is my favourite Christmas game simply because I played it every Christmas. But why is it a Christmas game worth discussing? – because it is Christmas.Christmas Nights_1

Many would argue, some ironically, that the best Christmas movie is Die Hard. That’s based of its setting rather than the embodiment of long-held cultural values, and because the juxtaposition of ultraviolence with a family holiday is funnier than most intentional Christmas comedies. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is old-fashioned by today’s standards of Seth Rogen and friends making nonchalant jokes about testicles, but it pokes fun at the crass commercialism and awkward in-fighting of your warring relatives in a way that John McClane and Hans Gruber never did. But we can connect any two memories together in the mind. Your favourite Christmas game could be anything you received for Christmas and enjoyed with your family – I could have picked Sonic the Hedgehog, Soul Calibur or Half-Life – but to me Christmas NiGHTS embodies the season, although not in the way you might expect.

Christmas NiGHTS is the festive season through the eyes of a child. It’s clad in tinsel and a million fairy lights. It is the endless looping of Jingle Bells. It’s Santa riding his sleigh. It’s opening a pile of presents as a reward for a perfunctory task. It is decoration slapped over the top of the ordinary, augmenting and disrupting normality, not set aside from it. Most people ‘go home’ for Christmas (I’m editing this from an airport lounge, waiting on a flight to Belfast) and likewise, Christmas NiGHTS just hangs a few baubles over the existing game. It’s familiar and comforting.

christmasNights3At the end of Christmas NiGHTS, the young protagonists Claris and Elliot are together, watching the Christmas lights being switched on in the town of Twin Seeds. It only occurred to me last week, while writing the retrospective, that NiGHTS has quite a dark story: these children escape into dreams as a way of conquering their real-life fears, but only because they’ve got no one else to turn to. NiGHTS is like the imaginary friend you once had: we’ve all wanted or needed a NiGHTS-like figure in our lives, especially as a child, when our families or ‘real’ friends did not entirely understand us. NiGHTS is a game about how imagination and fantasy can fill a void of loneliness, which is probably why I like it so much, since it sums up my life until I was sixteen. Unsurprisingly, the character of NiGHTS was inspired by Peter Pan, another classic character of juvenile fantasy. Both NiGHTS and Pan represent our desire to escape our mundane childhood existence of school and chores for something fantastical and adventurous.

Perhaps the reason we don’t see the children’s families at the end of Christmas NiGHTS because those families may not even be there. That expectation of family is something I project onto them. While writing the retrospective, I had to take care not to generalise my feelings about Christmas to everyone’s feelings: your idea of what constitutes Christmas is the product of experience, expectation and a not insubstantial amount of marketing. In fact, increasingly Christmas advertising has become an event in itself. Don’t worry, I’m not going to delve into the true meaning of Christmas – as an atheist, I just think it’s as good a time as any to take a holiday and spend time with your family. Also, who doesn’t love mince pies?

Yet despite the talk of family, Christmas NiGHTS is something you play alone. It doesn’t have multiplayer, or even multiple saves. It’s a solitary activity that I would play every Christmas, from scratch, in a yearly pilgrimage. It perfectly encapsulates the superficial vagaries that my childhood self thought were the essence of Christmas.

The reason why Christmas NiGHTS is my favourite Christmas game isn’t because it embodies the season as-is; it’s because it embodies the season as it was in my childhood memories. It takes me back to a time when it was just about presents, grandparents and selection boxes. It’s a crass, facile place, but also one where magic is still real – where purple jesters fly in your dreams and help you conquer your fears. When you’re twelve, dreams are what you want the world to be. When you’re twenty seven, dreams are what the world can never be, and so they merely become nostalgic memories. So you make some new games, like writing an article for your favourite website, and hope those come true instead.

Christmas NiGHTS represents a dream that never came true; the ghost of Christmas past. But it’s a dream worth cherishing.

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