When I was a little kid, despite not growing up in a religious household, winter and Christmastime still held a large amount of magic to them. I lived in a river valley in NY state and so as soon as winter rolled around, so too did the frequent dustings and snow squalls and storms. Part of the fun of the holidays was how quiet and different everything seemed, like a spell had been cast over the entire corridor between the mountains.
Despite the fact that videogames have done such a good job simulating so many different kinds of environments and experiences, I didn’t feel like this particular type of space and time would ever be recreated in a team shooter of all things. The general aesthetic of most shooters tends to occupy something between gray, brown, and green, with an emphasis on combat, both active and continual. Overwatch’s winter holiday maps definitely skew “Christmas” but also genuinely convey the kind of magic that occupies my brain for all things cold and ice.
Not only does the game represent snowy climes regularly (Nepal is situated high in a mountain range, Watchpoint: Antarctica is post-blizzard) but in general, Overwatch’s environment design is far above a lot of games I’ve seen. It isn’t realism in the way that we’d see in a CryEngine demo, but rather a level of care manifested in textures, doodads, and other bits of set dressing; it’s a bespoke coziness that shorthands an idea about a place versus what it actually looks like. While this has gotten the Overwatch team into trouble due to inaccuracies and stereotypes about notable places, the work done on the actual “ground” to make it a space that players inhabit is done with a high level of artistry.
This care for place-setting comes through doubly so in the game’s holiday maps. Overwatch runs events throughout the year but gussies up a few of their maps in holiday decorations for Halloween, Christmas, and Lunar New Year. For Christmas in particular, Hanamura gets dressed in snow (even while the cherry blossoms are still out?), King’s Row is festooned with cheery lights, and finally, the latest map to be included, Blizzard World, becomes a theme park attraction akin to Disney’s Very Merry Christmas Party.
These little touches change spaces I’ve seen for thousands of hours now as an inveterate Overwatch player. They make me sit up and notice them again, as if for the first time. Whether it’s the way that the snow has been eddied gently into the layered roofs in Hanamura, the fact that you can faintly hear merriment behind the warm tavern windows in King’s Row, or that you can see little corners that the obvious snow machines in Blizzard World have been stuck into—all of these things add up to a particular kind of experience that I’ve felt or wanted to feel in real life. It is pleasing simulacra.
When these holiday maps come up in the endless rotation as I play, they give me that warm feeling of returning to a well-liked space. As someone who lives too far away to visit my family regularly, they have a sliver of that coziness that I imagine going home would feel like. It’s not quite nostalgia, as it never existed. While I could queue any of them up into a custom game to marinate in that emotion (and I do do this), it feels more special when they come up at random. All my friends and I cheer on voice chat whenever we pull a holiday map.
The fact that the team puts this much emphasis on bright, colorful spaces is a main reason why I’ve played a first-person team shooter for several years. Overwatch has never been traditional for the genre, in both gameplay and definitely design. If I had to do all of these games in the drab, war-torn spaces of so many other shooters, I don’t think I would stick with it very long. It’s true that I gravitate towards the fantastical and colorful, even in first person, preferring things like World of Warcraft or Firewatch. It is also scary to think that my investment in a form of fictional violence is entirely contingent on the set dressing. Demons exploding into gory pieces in Diablo III is fine, but even watching the marketing for something like The Division 2 is too much for me. Overwatch manages to strike a fine balance between killing people with guns and the vivid drama of team sports, mostly due to its goofy, cartoony aesthetic. Watching a war robot get pushed up into the air on a giant wall of ice has a Looney Tunes feel to it.
It’s hard to sink into the idea of killing when much of the event is couched in goofy cosmetics, a snowball fight mode, or seeing a light snowfall fill up the air in between a particularly heated team fight as you push a payload. I think this is the truest magic of Overwatch, which is to detract from the stress of a competitive game for even just a second as you notice how the light bounces off the snow, a snowman peeking from around a corner, a bough of holly hung just-so.
It may seem goofy but as someone who has gotten old enough to remember when there was more magic in snowfalls and holidays than anxiety about climate change, I will look towards video games like Overwatch to reproduce some of that feeling, even just for a moment, even as I’m calling out a Reaper in the backline or trying to help my team capture the objective.
Nico Deyo is a feminist media critic and freelance writer from the Midwest who thinks way too much about how good food tastes and how soft cats are.