Gamers Gain Insight Into Story Through Deliberately Chosen Video Game Locations
I’ve accepted that I’ll probably never explore an ancient tomb packed with traps and forbidden knowledge, but video games let me get close enough that the thrill and tension are real. My hands tremble as I try to solve a puzzle in Uncharted 4, knowing I could die if I do it wrong. The sight of a dragon swooping overhead in Dragon Age: Inquisition takes my breath away, not just because it’s fantastic, but because it’s stunning—these settings are as beautiful as they are important to a game’s story, supporting the plot visually and thematically.
Settings are more than window dressing—beyond the cool factor of something like Dark Souls’ Anor Londo or Mass Effect’s expansive galaxy, these locations contribute something important to the narrative scope.
Choices like location are deliberate, and asking why a game is set in a particular place can clue you in on revealing insights about how the game works as a whole, giving you new appreciation for depth of storytelling and tone.
Location Supports Folklore and Tradition Within Troll and I and The Witcher
Fantasy games are a popular genre, but they tend to adhere to the typical dragons and elves style of fantasy popularized by stories like Lord of the Rings. That’s not a bad thing—many of these games are excellent—but changing out some of the more English, Arthurian elements of these stories can make for unique spins on a familiar genre.
The upcoming game Troll and I uses its Scandinavian setting in this way. The setting is built into the story, which follows a young man named Otto and his troll friend as they attempt to evade hunters. Troll mythology is a large part of Scandinavian history, and deliberately choosing this location gives the game a sense of place and time that is both familiar and unique. Troll and I occurs after the end of World War II, making it just estranged enough from our modern day to keep things interesting without being so different that we feel confused. By setting the story in the past, you get a sense of isolation that supports both the folkloric connection and the complications of hunting and rescuing mythological creatures, which wouldn’t be possible in today’s world of satellite imaging and cell phones.
The Witcher series has a similar feeling. Based on a series of novels by Andrzej Sapkowski, the game series follows the adventures of Geralt, a slayer of supernatural creatures with more than a few extraordinary abilities of his own. While the series is set in a fictional kingdom, Sapkowski’s Polish heritage appears in some of the creatures that populate the world. While you have your standard mythical baddies, there are also ones unique to Polish folklore: plague maidens (or pesta in Scandinavian folklore) and botchlings (mylings in Scandinavian folklore, or drekavac, a similar creature in Slavic stories). Setting and heritage, in this case, create a world that is totally unique to the game, exposing gamers of all backgrounds to new forms of mythology that are carefully folded into the ones we already recognize.
Mass Effect and Skyrim Use Original Worldbuilding to Great Effect
Basing a setting in reality isn’t the only way to create a compelling world. In fact, some of our favorite game settings are created from scratch, an extension or reimagining with its own complex rules and cultures.
Mass Effect is one example of this—though it’s based in our galaxy, it takes place over a hundred years in the future after humans have discovered, warred, and sought diplomacy with several alien races. Now humanity has spread throughout the galaxy, interacting with beings of different backgrounds and technological achievements that frequently outshine our own. By basing the series in our galaxy, the game features a new look at familiar locations as well as an extrapolation of our future in which we’re key players, but not the stars. Its worldbuilding is so deliberate and complete that it feels like a real, functioning universe of its own with conflicts and stories that are similar to, but are not exactly, our own.
In The Elder Scrolls, the effect is similar. Tamriel is a fantasy world that pulls together many mythological sources, wraps them up in English-style castles with Nordic influences, and sets the story in another location with its own rules and unique, individual cultures. Populated by various races of humans and humanoids, Tamriel also has its own sets of gods and godlike beings, various religions, and power struggles that mirror our own with a few twists and turns. The setting is so detailed, spanning several games, that it truly does feel like its own place. Even with the fantasy elements, Tamriel’s internal consistency is so great that it feels real in a way many other fictional locations don’t achieve.
Never Alone Teaches and Inspires with Real-Life Culture
A game’s setting can also tell you something about its purpose and creation, as well. Games have often been made by culturally dominant groups—we mostly think of Japanese or American studios, but more games are beginning to expand upon that.
Never Alone is the creation of Upper One Games, a studio based in Alaska that works in tandem with Cook Inlet Tribal Council and members of the local native population. Through a partnership with the council and E-Line Games, the studio became the first indigenous-owned commercial game studio in the U.S. That background is important, because Never Alone uses Iñupiaq legends and language to tell the story of a young girl and her fox companion. Sprinkled throughout the game are references to Iñupiaq stories as well as educational videos that give the game context, creating a valuable teaching tool for those interested in expanding their knowledge of indigenous cultures and locations.
Game Settings and Locations Influence Story and Tone
Setting is essential, but not just because a game needs a place to make sense. Setting can influence the way a story takes shape as well as our perceptions of it; Troll and I’s Scandinavian setting is appropriate for its folkloric roots, just as Never Alone’s connection to Iñupiaq culture is crucial to appreciating its importance and story. Setting is more than just eye candy or extraneous story details—used effectively, a game’s world can enrich the experience of playing in exciting ways.
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