[Gaming] Winter and Holiday Music in Video Games

Winter is my favorite season of the year. While I might prefer spring and autumn in terms of temperatures, in temperament, it’s all about winter. Despite the poor traffic conditions, people complaining about the cold, and having to put my ride in the garage the few times every winter that it actually snows or ices up enough to warrant it, I find more peace in the winter months than any other time of the year. Ironically, I tend to be more depressed around the winter holidays because I can never spend time with family or friends for various reasons, mostly due to work and all of them living so far away. Still, winter is when my favorite constellation Orion the hunter marches high in the night sky, so all is well.

When it comes to the video games I play, winter-themed zones and holiday events tend to resonate with me in some fashion. Aside from the blue-tinged snow and ice covering the landscape, I find there is an overall tone to much of the music that game composers use for their winter areas. Whether you’re roaming Hoth in Star Wars the Old Republic, flying through Dun Morogh or Dragonblight in World of Warcraft, or trying not to fall into the deadly abyss outside Snowhead Temple in Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, there seems to be an aural commonality to the themes used in these areas. Some of my favorites are pieces that play in Belusran Winter Field from the game Aion. To me, there is a kind of serenity to these places and it’s mostly due to the music.

Now I’m not a musician, so my impressions are from someone who merely knows what she likes and only occasionally why that might be. Certainly, you won’t find any music theory coming out of me beyond the basic layman’s appreciation for the art form. Most of the wintry music I notice focuses on a single stately melody featuring piano, harp, or a flute. The melodies tend to be slow and elegant. With the addition of hollow wind sounds in the background, like in the Ice Cavern of Legend of Zelda Ocarina of Time, it often completes the imagery of a bleak and desolate area.

While not entirely meant to be a winter seasonal theme, the primary zone theme in Frostfire Ridge in WoW‘s Warlords of Draenor xpac hits on this as well. That theme is called ‘Magnificent Desolation’, and its composer Russell Brower once said during a performance at Gamescom that he named the song after Buzz Aldrin’s remarks upon setting foot on the Moon, calling the lunar landscape a magnificent desolation. Frostfire Ridge certainly warrants the homage. Brower also hit that particular nail on the head almost a decade ago with the opening and closing riffs in the theme to Wrath of the Lich King, since of course most of the action is set on the continent of Northrend, a most inhospitable land on Azeroth.

While other holidays get their own music, I keep finding myself gravitating to the ones around winter holidays in-game as well. One of my utterly favorite composers, WildStar‘s Jeff Kurtenacker, did winter arrangements of both faction’s capitals’ themes, making them these grand traditional holiday themes with jingle bells in the background, sweeping French horns, churchbell chimes, the whole nine yards. Of course, WildStar‘s winter holiday event is all about consumerism rather than a more sentimental form of holiday, so his department store commercial music with a pulp sci-fi twist was utterly perfect for it. EverQuest II also went with altering their theme music in Frostfell, mixing it in with some traditional RL Christmas tunes like ‘Jingle Bells’.

For the first time, even World of Warcraft got into the new holiday music thing this year. In their two main holiday hubs, Ironforge and Orgrimmar, and also the Greench’s cave where people go to save Metzen the Reindeer (*sniffle*), players who hang around can hear one of several variants of the same tune. It’s a soft melody that invokes the spirit of the season, whether the lead in each variant is a chorus, cello, piano, or woodwind. I find each variant to be rather peaceful and reflective, and in a holiday season where my mother spent much of the week before Christmas in the hospital with pneumonia, somehow it was the thing I needed the most.

Without realizing it, all of these wonderful composers who write music for the snow-covered landscapes in their games, they all get me. I look forward to hearing these pieces of winter and holiday music, and any new ones in future games, with quiet anticipation.