Some games are just December games. When the air turns biting, I hear their siren song in my bones. They Are Billions. Frostpunk. Phoenix Point. Factorio. None of them are exactly what you would call a Christmas-y game. In fact, they're all pretty bleak and threatening in tone. But they're also amazingly comforting.
Just imagine: sitting down in your favourite chair, electric heat pad on your back, cat on your lap, mug of hot chocolate or coffee by your side. Legions of undead roiling at the gates, trying to break through your cosy little town's defences. Ahhhhh. It's Christmas.
It's not a new idea, obviously. Cosiness and menace go hand in hand. What's more comforting than cladding yourself in the armour of a warm blanket, and sitting down to watch a familiar horror film on a rainy evening? There's some serious catharsis to be found in going through a simulation of some stressful or terrifying situation, before remembering that none of it is real, and you're safe and sound at home. Nothing is cosier than realising that, oh, no serial killers or eldritch creatures are after you. Just regular horrors, like the cost of Christmas gifts.
And honestly, what better time than Christmas to invite a little touch of menace into our lives? As long as it's just a taste, the barest diaphanous caress of our primal survival instincts. And then we resurface! And we're greeted with the glowing warmth of an upcoming Christmas. Here in England at least, Christmas is more or less the quintessential feeling of coming together and hunkering down against the elements, like a band of hunter-gatherers sitting about a roaring campfire to outlast a raging storm. What a perfect time for cosiness with a touch of menace.
I first noticed it with They Are Billions, I think. Developers Numantian Games probably counted on this very phenomenon, seeing as they released their zombie-infested RTS game in Early Access in December of 2017. From that year onwards, I always associated They Are Billions with Christmas. Despite the bleak atmosphere, the punishing difficulty, the near-constant sense of threat... it was ultimately a very comforting game. Each attempt tasks you with slowly building a sprawling town out of nothing - an inherently cosy prospect - and insulating it on all sides from external forces that wish to tear down what you've built. It plays out in real-time, but there's a pause button, to give you some respite, and turn it into less of a reaction tester and more of a cerebral strategy game. Even when the zombie hordes eventually break in and seep through your town like a melange of unattractive fluids spreading along a lateral flow test (ugh, sorry, I tried to find the most odious analogy possible here), something about the inevitability of defeat is quite comforting as well.
After several years of associating They Are Billions with Christmas, I've come to realise that without that touch of menace, it just wouldn't be the same. And I realised that the same is true of a whole host of games that I love to play specifically as the end of the year nears. I've even picked up a couple of new ones this year. Project Zomboid is one of them. It's very similar to They Are Billions, really - you're starting from nothing, slowly and systematically carving out a life and a place worth living in, and trying desperately to survive against the relentless threat of nearby undead. Again, that combination of cosiness and threat makes it an immediate go-to game to play during the Christmas period.
The other new addition to this list is Elden Ring, which I've been aching to return to for months now. Christmas is the perfect time for it. All FromSoft games are pretty dark and grim, and I doubt I need to tell you that it's menacing in places. But it's also a very slow-paced, open-ended game which gives a huge amount of time and freedom to the player to just... do whatever they like, and the exact pace they want. That makes for a seriously comforting experience, despite the immense challenge and the horror of the various Lovecraftian creatures you face in that game.
You might think the phenomenon would extend to pure horror games, and for a lot of people that might be true. For me? Not so much. I'm not a big player of horror games in the first place. I could well understand the cosiness of settling down with a blanket and a Stephen King novel or a cult-classic horror movie. But there's an extra degree of separation in reading a scary book or watching a scary film that means it doesn't affect me too deeply. With horror games, you're expected to do stuff yourself. That's a little too much for my anxiety. There isn't room to feel cosy. But non-horror games with just a touch of horror or threat? That hits the sweet spot for me.
Maybe it's just me. Maybe the idea of inviting a bit of grimness into Christmas is unforgivably perverse, and everyone else wants to surround themselves with games like Stardew Valley or Animal Crossing. Inoffensive games which just give you a nice, wholesome time befitting of the Christmas season. I'd perfectly understand that. But I'm willing to bet I'm not the only one who breaks out the chilly, desolate games when Christmas nears.
So tell me, friends. Which cosy but menacing games do you like to play when the weather turns chill and the bearded fat man starts to force his way inexorably down your chimney?