At the end of what's been a terrible year, the Google Santa Tracker is the company's annual way of trying to spread some Christmas cheer, but its attempts to bring joy to the world may have missed the mark in one case.
Along with the Santa Tracker, Google has thrown in some simple and supposedly fun browser games, including Snowball Storm, in which you... fight to the death as a little elf against legions of endlessly-spawning rival elves, in a frozen wasteland, desperately struggling to avert your inevitable demise as you dodge snowball after snowball in a dance of festive death.
You can check out Snowball Storm here. It's a game of unending misery in which you can't win, or even succeed – you just try to survive. Remind you of anything? How about the entirety of 2020?
A royal battle
Snowball Storm is a battle royale, just like Fortnite, PUBG or hundreds of similar games. But there's something different about this one – it's the juxtaposition of festive themes with the actual content, in which your plucky elf must kill or be killed.
(And yes, your elves literally do die – when you're hit by an opponent's snowball your avatar keels over, and after a few moments their wraithlike form floats into the heavens, as they shuffle off this mortal coil while the unending war continues in the world below).
Elves are meant to be symbols of joy, not stone-cold killers. Presents are meant to be fun, not contain power-ups to help you kill other elves quicker. But now Santa's family is forced to fight to the death, and to no apparent end.
This year lockdown and a change to daily life has led us to hate the things we once loved. A lazy day at home isn't a treat but a punishment; social encounters are marred by laws and potential contaminations; even streaming services and gaming consoles are easy to hate when they're all you have. And apparently Christmas is no exception.
Most battle royale games end when there's one contender left, but in Snowball Storm, more elves keep spawning. Just like Covid-19 restrictions, there's no end to the misery here.
So once you've been dropped out of Santa's sleigh, abandoned by any semblance of a higher power, you're left alone and confused at the ends of the Earth, the only certainty being that it'll all be over before long.
Just a game
Snowball Storm doesn't make it clear if the other elves are AI opponents, or are being controlled by real people around the world.
But are people even real? Covid lockdown brings that into question. When was the last time you saw new people, not just recurring cast-member players in your life? Not since 2019, we'd bet. Real people don't exist anymore.
The controls for Snowball Storm are a bit confusing – sometimes double-tapping seems to throw a snowball, other times it doesn't. What do power-ups do? It's hard to say.
But the lack of control is just another symptom of the 2020-ness of the game, given that most of us have had little to no control this year. Nice work, Google.
The game really is a cutting adaptation of this year. There's only one real way to win – it's not to fight as hard as possible, it's to run and hide, letting the world and time flow over you and around you, until at some hypothetical point the madness ends.
The world very literally crumbles away in Snowball Storm – if you stand at the edge of the sea, you'll see the little hexagonal peninsulas shake then fall into the ocean.
And if the end does come, and you reach the end of the tunnel, you just have to press the 'reset' button and it all begins again. There's no end to Covid-19, and there's no end to the Snowball Storm.
No friends here
As a test, we decided to try a non-violent run of Snowball Storm, to see if we could make friends, and rekindle a little festive spirit.
Once we'd parachuted into the world, we stood by a nearby elf as they floated down nearby, waiting to see how they'd react. We didn't run, we didn't hide, we didn't prepare. We stood in a neutral position, waiting to make a new friend… they must have known that we meant them no harm.
As soon as the elf had landed, they turned around, threw a snowball at our face, and ran away. The last thing we saw was them sprinting for a present, and potential power-up, before our spirit left the plane.
Thanks, 2020, and thanks Google.
Snowball Storm is just a bit of light-hearted fun, and we're probably reading a bit too far into it. But given everything that's happened this year, we think we've got a license to be just a touch melodramatic.
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Tom Bedford was deputy phones editor on TechRadar until late 2022, having worked his way up from staff writer. Though he specialized in phones and tablets, he also took on other tech like electric scooters, smartwatches, fitness, mobile gaming and more. He is based in London, UK and now works for the entertainment site What To Watch.
He graduated in American Literature and Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia. Prior to working on TechRadar, he freelanced in tech, gaming and entertainment, and also spent many years working as a mixologist. He also currently works in film as a screenwriter, director and producer.