Effects of cold in games

It’s finally winter where I live. We don’t have that much of snow yet, but it’s cold. And that got me thinking, how cold is represented in games and what kinds of effects it has. A note however, I haven’t played Long Dark, which looks like having tons of things to do with cold environments and effects of cold. All the cool material there I sadly can’t cover here. How cold exactly affects to gameplay is very dependent on the game. On a platformer, cold might create slippery ice that makes moving difficult, but on a grand strategy game it could affect morale and combat effectiveness of the troops. In this post, I’m giving a cursory look on how different games treat coldness and ponder what else could be done.

Environmental effects

Cold and water make ice. And slippery ice has been staple environment since Ice Climber and Mario 2. Run one direction and you’ll keep sliding that direction even after stopping running. This is probably the most common effect of cold in games.

Variation of this is ground or water freezing over during the gameplay. Sometimes this is a nuisance, sometimes a clever way to modify your surroundings in order to proceed in game. In Creativerse, water starts freezing when it gets cold enough. This can be used to build frozen bridges across water. In Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse one character can cast spell that freezes water. This makes some river areas much easier to play, as you don’t have to fight the current.

Sometimes these effects are used as a obstacle that the player must overcome in order to proceed. Both Metal Geral Solid and BioShock has frozen obstacles that player needs to clear in order to gain access behind them. In Metal Gear Solid this is done with C4 explosive, which curiously will only damage the ice, but nothing surrounding it. In BioShock the solution lies in using Incinerate plasmid.

Sometimes cold is accompanied with snow, like in already mentioned Metal Gear Solid, where player can lure guards by clever usage of their footprints. And in NES version of Duck Tales, you could get stuck on snow if you tried to pogo-jump on it.

So there are lots of different ways cold affects environment. It alters it and the alterations can be either helpful or not to the player. Sometimes the alterations can be both good and bad for player, like footprints in snow that guards can track to find them, but which can also used to lure them around the level. Many of the environmental effects are about granting or denying access to specific region, until a tool or method is discovered to alter the situation. There are many more effects that could still be incorporated in games (they might already have been of course, I can’t claim to know each and every game in detail:

  • extremely cold snow sound different when walked on, making sneaking difficult
  • cold materials, especially some plastics are brittle and prone to shattering (well, Sub Zero has this as a finishing move though)
  • flowing water that partly freezes and starts overflowing and freezing all over the place

Effects on characters

Frozen character is a common example on effects of cold. Mario 3 features monsters that have been encased in ice and can be thawed with fire. There are couple quite clever puzzles around this theme in the ice world, where player needs to thaw specific monsters and then hit P block, in order to reach a secret area.

Many games allows freezing characters by using some skill or device, like freeze ray in Spelunky or Sub-Zero’s ice blast in Mortal Kombat. Effect is usually temporary. Frozen character can’t dodge or move and may even be suspectiple for extra damage.

What I haven’t seen in games are biological effects of cold. First character starts to experience discomfort that might lead into drop in morale if exposure is long enough. Fingers and toes start to feel numb and operating items becomes difficult. Breathing in extreme cold is hard and may even be painful, moreso if under physical strain. Body also starts to use up more energy, which leads to increased need of food and water. One could probably build a pretty neat game around these effects (remember, I haven’t played Long Dark, so I don’t know if these are already there). Crusader Kings II model some of these effects on a large scale: waging a war in winter is difficult, but a leader with Winter Soldier trait excels there.

Effects on equipment

Cold doesn’t only affect to environment and characters, but also on their equipment. Cars and other vehicles don’t start well if the engine is completely cold (in fact, starting engine cold might even damage it, since the oil isn’t lubricating correctly). Canteens and rations freeze and need to be thawed before they can be used (this was done in one of the Metal Gear games). Plastic turns brittle and can shatter on impact. All kinds of optics are trickier to operate, since operator has to make sure that they don’t accidentally breath on them, causing them to either fog or frost over.

I tried to think some positive effects cold would have on equipment, but couldn’t come up with any. There probably are some though.


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