Settings in games

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?

Maladroitly,
Machination

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7 thoughts on “Settings in games

  1. I think it’d be awesome to have the environment change with a character’s mood or emotions. For instance, your choices for good or ill could be reflected in the behavior of the NPCs (although that’s been done already), or even more subtle changes in weather, lighting, architecture, etc.
    In real life, your experience of the world changes as your beliefs change, even as your moods change. When you feel threatened, the world seems more hostile. The world seems brighter when you’re in a good mood than when you’re in a bad one.

    • Sounds like a natural application in game worlds. It certainly adds another level of immersion.

      You might even be able to combine it with foreshadowing… when something bad is about to happen, the environment changes subtly. The alleyway seems to loom around you, the lighting becomes more threatening, etc… Perhaps it could even be a method of subtly steering players towards or away from something.

  2. One game that really uses the Psychological Projection is Silent Hill. The whole setting is in the mind of the player,a madman. I feel like good horror games use this often since the most poignant monster is human flaws.

    A setting I thought had a lot of novelty was Darkened Skye. It wasn’t the best game ever, but the setting has always stuck with me. The game was about using Skittles as a source of magic and a lot of settings and quest lines were from Skittles commercials. It really took what seemed like a silly concept and made it novel and immersive with lines like “Jonah had a skittle, but he lost it in the belly of the whale.” (On another note, it did a great job with a female protagonist.)

  3. This is quite the topic you’re trying to tackle here. Games come in such broad types and flavors that we’re not going to find a unified model for good settings in games. Rather, the ideal scope and depth of the setting will be different depending on the game, and the setting ought to further the gameplay rather than being an end unto itself.

    For example, Super Mario World is a game which, I believe, had a nearly perfect setting for its gameplay. The visuals, sounds, interaction with the world, and bits of lore converged to create a whimsical, charming, and simple setting for the rather whimsical, charming, and simple gameplay mechanics of the title. There was no real immersion or change, and not too much novelty either, but plenty of character.

    On the other end of the spectrum, Bioshock painstakingly crafted a highly immersive environment with several novel and dynamic elements as well as a striking character. Or take a game like Fez, which to many is appealing in part because it feels like an old 16-bit game (it’s not novel), but still has great character and is extremely dynamic.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that the setting ought to be contextual to the scope of the product and be designed to supplement gameplay.

    As to your questions, I think that one game series which nailed setting down pat is “Portal.” The game mechanic was interesting and fun, but what made it so pleasurable (for me) was the context in which the game presented “thinking with portals.”

    A lot of games show incredible amounts of change, but I’d like to shout out for “Arcanum.” Your actions in the game tangibly affected both the large-scale plot and the small relationships you built with NPC’s, much like “Planescape Torment” or “Fallout.”

    And there are dozens of literary techniques you could apply, from info dumping to red herrings to tone and symbolism, much like you could with a film. Really, take your pick.

    • Thanks for pointing that out, because honestly, this post is an egregious overgeneralization of “all games” which is skewed towards the games that I’ve actually played.

      The good news is that whenever information is incomplete on the internet, there’s plenty of people willing to help fill in the gaps.

      Also, your blog is awesome.

  4. I’m crazy about the level design in Psychonauts, and it’s a great example of environmental storytelling since each world is generated from the life experience and personality of different characters. And since the levels are psychic playgrounds, they don’t have to follow any silly restrictions like the laws of physics!

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