Let’s dive into game storytelling by looking at settings. In a brief search of the interwebs, I noticed a few definitions of a ‘good’ literary setting which resurfaced in every discussion. Setting needs to be more than just a backdrop to the plot. Let’s take a look at the literary fiction views about what makes a good setting:
- Immersion. The presentation is deep enough to truly allow you to envision yourself there.
- Novelty. Whether simply a different setting than we’ve seen before, or a familiar setting presented in a new way, it ought to tease our minds with original concepts.
- Personality. A setting should have a consistent mood, feel, and style to it. Some authors describe settings with human characteristics, even treating them like characters themselves.
- Change. An interesting setting isn’t static, (like a generic forest), but should be in some state of change. Even as subtle as night to day or summer to autumn will do. Better still are contextual changes, influenced by the larger whole of what’s going on in the world. Rich context shows the history of a place, and asks more questions than it answers.
There’s a few more common veins running through the discussions I saw, but these four were by far the most advocated by the literary crowd.
Now let’s take a look at how games are doing with settings. For the sake of not taking forever, I’m limiting my thoughts to just digital games.
- Immersion: Games can generally cop-out on this one. There’s a certain level of immersion that you get for free, just for being a game rather than a movie or book. Still, some game environments are more immerive than others, and there’s room for improvement. Generally, I’d say games do just fine in this category.
- Novelty: Arguable. On one hand, you typically get just about every possible spectrum of biome (both earthly and alien), climate and mood in a game. From rolling hills, to secret forests, to unholy caves deep in the earth. However, on the flip side most prolifically copy these ‘novel’ settings from one another, and chances are that any two fantasy games share a good 80% of settings. Some games do try to branch out, and succeed in either creating a unique atmosphere or presenting an old one in a novel way. I’d actually argue that games are steadily improving in novelty.
- Personality and Change: I have a few thoughts about these, based on the games I’ve played, but I’m actually more interested in hearing what you all have to say on these two points. Do you have examples of great “personality” and “change” in a game setting?
I’d love to see some literary setting techniques be applied to games someday. Here’s one for example:
- Pathetic Fallacy / Psychological Projection: ascribing a character’s traits to the environment around them. In literature we can simply describe these things. How might we do it in a game? Perhaps lightening or darkening the environment… trees appear denser, bushes appear spikier, lights on a computer terminal appear harsher. So far, there is virtually no effort to have the environment mood change with game characters, so perhaps there is some potential there?
What is the best setting you’re ever experienced in a game?
Have some great examples of environments with Personality and Change?
Any other literary techniques we could apply towards a game Setting?