The Role of Snow in Video Games

Frosty. The white stuff. Pow-pow. It’s that time of the year when snow can make things lovely and bright, festive and merry, or even cold and potentially deadly. At this moment, in many countries across the northern hemisphere, snow graces our streets and warms our hearts. It’s a great excuse to stay inside, lay by the fire and play through a massive backlog of video games. But snow also has a notable presence in many games themselves. It appears, often changing mechanics or affecting the story of any given game, but it almost always helps break up the monotony of less-powdery landscapes. We’ve already discussed some of the great Christmas moments in gaming, but here we go through some of the best uses of snow in video games – that means best graphics, best mechanics and best story uses of nature’s fluffiest precipitation. Enjoy and keep having a happy holiday while the season lasts!

Naughty Dog Nails the Look of Snow

Fluffy, powdery snow can be difficult for game developers to execute perfectly. There’s a very specific way that snow gives under trampling feet, pushes to the side as objects slide through it. It’s voluminous and ethereal, and it’s easy to tell when it just doesn’t look right. Luckily, Naughty Dog somehow managed to perfect snow back in 2009 with Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. The game is known for a great many things: a near perfectly paced story, amazing set pieces, knock-you-on-your-butt graphics, being better than the original in every conceivable way, and snow. Snow is so prevalent in Uncharted 2 that not only does the game begin in medias res with Nathan Drake unconscious on a train car dangling off a snow-peaked Himalayan cliff, this same scene is plastered right on the cover of the game, setting a tone for the entire adventure to come. Sure, the crew visits other breathtaking locales like the lush jungles of Borneo or the war-torn streets of Nepal, but these snowy mountains and the secrets that lay beneath set a cold and mysterious tone for the entire game. One of the first things the player notices about this snow is how it reacts to Nathan shuffling his way through it. It packs around his dragging feet, and the falling snow bends to the whim of the howling wind around it. The lighting works in tandem with these other effects to give it that ever-so-slightly-solid look, making it the most realistic snow gamers had seen up to that point.


The Last of Us, a game that’s absolutely about love, took the now-beloved Joel and Ellie across a post-apocalyptic American landscape. Both the original game and its single-player DLC Left Behind continued with Uncharted 2’s love of snow and included it a bit more sparingly – but the substance was even more impressive after Naughty Dog had extra time to fine-tune it. This go around, however, included a bit more of a mechanical pull with snow. Human enemies could see Ellie and Joel’s tracks in the snow-covered levels present in Colorado and Wyoming, and could be alerted to their presence because of it. During a blizzard, the storm would actually limit enemy’s range of vision (and, frankly, the player’s as well) in a beautiful, hectic flurry. There’s even an excellently executed sequence where Ellie hunts down a deer in a peaceful Colorado meadow, and the player can track it down much more easily if they keep tabs on its tracks, and after hitting it with an arrow, tracking it down using the red bloodstains it leaves behind. The snow in The Last of Us is gorgeous and unforgettable.


Naughty Dog continued to outdo themselves with snow even after their zombie masterpiece. Though Uncharted 3’s story forewent snow entirely and focused heavily on some magnificent sand, Uncharted 4 brought it back in style. Though all Uncharted games have a globe-trekking streak to them, none cover more ground than Uncharted 4. One of the many locales Drake and company visit during this adventure is the snow-flurried hills of Scotland. It’s has substantially less of the white stuff than Uncharted 2, but the amazing graphical base that Naughty Dog built seven years prior was brought back for a new generation, and it looked better than ever before. Drake’s foot tracks would linger, crunching under his boots and reacting just like snow should. If Naughty Dog decides to bring snow back for another round in The Last of Us Part II, expect to be amazed.

The Legend of Zelda Forces You to Respect the Snow

One of the first things you learn while playing Breath of the Wild is that weather dominates how Link progresses through this version of Hyrule. On the expertly designed Great Plateau, the player starts their journey and plays around with the game’s various mechanics. Link can find melee weapons and hit things with them, start fires and burn things with it, and he’ll freeze if he wanders aimlessly in the snow ill-prepared. Yes, Breath of the Wild is bizarrely realistic on various levels, but perhaps no level of realism surpasses its use of temperature. Any area covered in snow will quickly make Link shiver if he’s not properly dressed, hasn’t eaten any spicy food (okay, maybe that one’s less realistic) or isn’t carrying a lit torch or fire-based weapon to keep him warm. What’s more, higher peaks often preclude a colder atmosphere, and even more must be done to keep Link from losing health in these extremely cold areas. In such an area, maybe a jacket and torch combination would suffice, or maybe the player will need to buy a full set of warm gear to keep hypothermia away entirely. If they don’t, the snow and the cold will straight up kill Link. Mother nature isn’t messing around in Hyrule.


This cold, cold snow isn’t just a hazard, however. If Link is willing to whittle down his shield’s durability, he can simply snowboard down snowy hillsides in style. Sure, he can do this down grass and even hardened earth (though it’s definitely not advisable,) but snow causes the least amount of wear and tear on your defensive items. There’s little else in gaming more satisfying than jumping off a cliff while sliding on your shield, only to break your fall with a well-timed paraglider break midair. There are many great games that center on snowboarding and skiing as well, like the oft-neglected SSX series or the decently executed Steep games. This mechanic is a delightful surprise in an adventure game, but it’s not the first time Link’s cruised down a mountain on a makeshift snowboard.

Link has marched his way through snow in almost every Zelda game, but it felt grander and more elaborate than ever in Twilight Princess. The best dungeon in the game (and perhaps the whole series) is Snowpeak Ruins. To get there, Link passes through Zora’s Domain and braves a cold, snowy tundra infested with white wolfos and ice keese. As he makes his way higher and higher, however, he discovers a yeti named Yeto, a fun-loving giant who’s trying to put together a nice soup for his sick wife. You both jump on giant, frozen leaves and a snowboarding mini-game kicks in. Once the duo reaches the ruins, however, even more unexpected events occur. First off, these ruins aren’t nearly as ruinous as advertised: it’s really more of a massive, elaborate mansion filled with cannons and lots and lots of snow. As Link tracks down ingredients for Yeto’s soup, he manages to obtain one of the coolest weapons in the series: a massive, spiked ball and chain. It can crash through walls of ice and decimate enemies, whether Link spins it around his head or tosses it forward with incredible force. It’s an unforgettable dungeon filled with ingenious puzzles, and snow is its constant motif – though the place is cold and dangerous, it begets a comfortable home to the lovely yeti couple, and stands as an exceptionally memorable gaming experience.

Final Fantasy’s Snow Drives its Stories

SPOILERS AHEAD

There are few video game moments more iconic than the opening credit crawl of Final Fantasy VI for the Super Nintendo. The first five Final Fantasy games dabbled in futuristic technology from time to time, but they were largely confined to a high-fantasy backdrop. FF6 changed everything right from its beginning. The game opens to paragraphs of text explaining the events prior to FF6, where magic had been all but eliminated from the world and “iron, gunpowder, and steam” replaced it in a society run by technology. With this knowledge in mind, the game reveals two imperial soldiers named Biggs and Wedge (a common Final Fantasy nod to Star Wars) accompanied by a young girl with green hair staring into a dark abyss from a snow-covered ledge. The three are piloting magitek suits: mechanical, exoskeleton armor that imposes upon their dreary white surroundings. The girl has been forced to wear a mind-control device, and the group marches forward across a bleak, snowy field as the game’s opening credits roll behind them. This scene oozes coldness and despair, and is accompanied by the masterful soundtrack from Nobuo Uematsu. Snow, in this instance, sets the tone for a game that’s almost governed by undertones of depression and solitude.


This wasn’t Final Fantasy’s last rodeo using snow as a plot device, however. In the ubiquitous Final Fantasy VII, right after Aerith’s tragic death at the hands of Sephiroth, the party exits the ancient ruins and enter a desolate, snow-filled landscape. It’s the perfect setting for the player to segue into after Aerith’s untimely death. At first, it seems as if there’s nothing but snow and mountains, but the party soon finds Icicle Inn, a resort town that sees snow year-round. This constant snow isn’t due to its elevation, but rather its close proximity to the North Crater, which a meteor created thousands of years prior. The coziness of this town is juxtaposed by the barren lands surrounding it, and to elevate the player’s mood, a snowboarding mini-game is used to get Cloud and company down to the Great Glacier, a sprawling, snowy maze that disorients the player and causes them to feel lost and alone. Snow in Final Fantasy VII manages to run the player through a gamut of emotions, and its inclusion at this pivotal point in the game is no coincidence.

In Final Fantasy XV, Square Enix’s most recent mainline game in the series, a similar pivotal moment is accented by a snowy backdrop. Near the game’s end, after Ignis goes blind and the entire party seems to be at each other’s throats, a train winds through the countryside. The surroundings begin to grow as cold as the strained relationships of those on board, and a series of events leads to Noctis accidentally knocking Prompto off the speeding train’s hood. The group of three hits its low with the loss of Prompto, the proverbial ray of sunshine for the party throughout their adventure. Prompto’s story continues through some single-player DLC, and it naturally follows his side story in the snowy location that he ended up in after the hectic scene with Noctis. His is a story filled with solitude and isolation, and is further enhanced by its snow-filled scenery. Various other Final Fantasy games utilize snow for moments of loneliness and despair, and we don’t expect them to stop this tradition any time soon.


There you have it! Snow has held various roles throughout the short history of video games, from simply looking pretty to changing the way a game plays to impacting a game’s plot in dramatic ways. Snow has symbolized a great many things in books, films and TV for a very long time now, and video games have learned how to incorporate it in their own unique ways.

Are you happy with this list of snowy instances in video games? Annoyed we didn’t talk about I Am Setsuna or Snowboard Kids? Did we totally forget about Metal Gear Solid and pretty much every Mario game? Then by all means, take to the comments section! Then, if it’s not too cold, get out there and play in the snow! For all your news, reviews and more – keep your eyes on Hardcore Gamer.