Save Point: Christmas Nights into Dreams

Well, heck. I just wrote about Nights into Dreams two months ago, but it’s late December as I sit down to write this, I’m home for the holidays, and all I want to think about is Christmas Nights into Dreams, the original game’s sampler pack from 1996. (Don’t worry. I promise I have some different thoughts on this one.)

Playing Christmas Nights is a family tradition, and it’s tradition that’s on my mind this week. More broadly, this time of year. Most years, I travel home to the Seattle area to spend time with friends and family during the winter holidays. This involves staying at my dad’s house for the majority of the trip, which means that at some point my dad will ask me, his adult daughter, “Do you want to play Christmas Nights?” Though I sometimes initially smile and shake my head, he unfailingly follows this up with, “It’s no trouble. I’ll set up the Sega Saturn for you,” and before I know it, there I am, holding the dusty controller in my hands, left thumb on the well-worn joystick.

Today my dad sits down next to me on the guest bed and watches me sail through the first level as Claris, one of the two playable characters. He watches Claris tumble through darkness to the level, Spring Valley, which has been decked out in snow and glass ornaments in alignment with the Christmas theme. He watches me steer her up the frosty hill and into the pavilion where Nights, the jester-like dream spirit, waits. The two characters merge, Claris taking on the physical form of Nights, and I take off, soaring through the snow-dazzled sky and loop-de-looping through enormous fir wreaths, drill-dashing monsters and wracking up points. Claris’s version of Spring Valley is identical in the original game but for the holiday decorations, so between the two editions, I have played this level probably, realistically, hundreds of times. I have been playing it for 21 years. Damn. If my relationship with this game were a person, it could drink.

I fly through Spring Valley automatically, reflexively. I know every dip and turn. My dad murmurs, “Muscle memory,” watching me swerve around projectiles I know will be spit from monster mouths, as they always are, as they always have been. Timed so precisely in this side-scrolling track that only contains so much. Muscle memory—I could do this with my eyes closed. It is as familiar as my dad’s house. Even more so—he’s lived in this place seven years. The game goes back farther than that. I have swooped through this circuit so many times.

What is it about tradition that appeals to me? Why do I find this so comforting? Why, when the boss can’t even touch me once, do I still draw enjoyment from this? 21 years—this friendship could drink. It could vote. It could have its own kid. Reliability? Predictability? The absence of surprises? Why is old tradition reassuring?

At the same time, it might not be fair to say the game goes unaltered year to year. In playing it just before sitting down to write this, I asked myself, “Why do you never play as Elliot? Why always Claris?” This is the first year I’ve critically examined this ritual, and stopping to think about it, I realized I hadn’t played as Elliot in ages. A fuzzy memory emerged of me as a child feeling frustrated because his version of Spring Valley was backwards or something, some betrayal of the contract of familiarity, routine. After swiftly finishing Claris’s four-part track with all “A” scores, I hesitantly switched to Elliot. To my surprise, his track wasn’t backwards—it was a completely different track, one not replicated in the normal edition of the game. I, the supposed master of this sampler, bumbled my way through with one A and three Bs. Then beat the same boss, which was, indeed, mirror-flipped, but otherwise identical to Claris’s. It wasn’t hard and it wasn’t frustrating. But it amused me since the whole reason I booted up the game was to reflect on the nature of tradition, of permanence, of the feelings that nestle in that.

Then there’s the “Open Your Presents” portion of the sampler, which also touches on the tension between reliability and divergence. In a memory game setup, the player clicks on different wrapped boxes bearing question marks that flip over to reveal different images. If you uncover two that match, you earn a prize (things like image galleries, music files, and so on). If not, they flip back over, and you must acquire new chances by replaying Spring Valley—either Claris’s or Elliot’s will do. As far as I know, the packages are ordered randomly, though of course the prizes themselves remain the same. The battery on our ancient Sega Saturn won’t let us save, so every time I play Christmas Nights, the matching game starts anew. I move the cursor, click, and hope. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose. This adds a little drama to my visits. Furthermore, there are certain boxes that contain images of Reala, Nights’s mortal enemy. If you click on Reala, your accumulated matching chances are erased—a kind of sudden death. When that snidely smiling clown face popped up today, accompanied by sinister music, my stomach still fell in the way it did when I was an aggravated tween. This, I suppose, can be part of tradition, too—the way it uproots us, unsettles. The way we sign up to be unsettled, knowingly. Even this, sometimes, can be comforting in its endurance—its steadfastness as something that remains over time. Frustration as muscle memory.

Every year I loop back to Seattle like Claris/Nights looping on a track. There are places I achingly want to see, reunions that make my heart light up. I revel in the similarity, take comfort in what goes unchanged. There are times when I feel like an infant who needs reassurance of object permanence—that the people I love will still be themselves, that I, too, will still be myself in their eyes. (I catch the predictable speed-increasing gusts and reach for the programmed gold rings, the ones I could grasp with my eyes shut.) At the same time, I revel in the newness—the breaks from tradition of who-is-doing-what. If my relationship with Christmas Nights were a human—a friend I could gather in a coat-and-scarf embrace—I would still be learning new things about it, as I am with real loved ones. I sat down to write about tradition but realize the actual insight here is that even the things we think we know best can turn and change and surprise us. That familiar touchstones are still intact, but it is arrogant to think they don’t move, that they can’t roll or crack open. That this tradition, written in pixels and air, requires my attention, my engagement.