We’re getting sick of the same settings over and over. World War II. The modern day Middle East. Tolkien-esque medieval fantasy. Been there, done that. So that’s why this week’s reveal that Assassin’s Creed III will be taking place during the American Revolution came as such a refreshing breath of fresh air. Think about it for a moment. Can you even name another game set in America circa 1776?
It’s amazing how a simple change in location can invigorate so much excitement about an upcoming title. So, for this week’s Sunday Sound-Off, we asked our writers what oft-neglected settings need more representation in the video game front. The result was our collection of the times and places that we really want to see more of instead of the same old surroundings repackaged into a new game. Are you listening, developers?
Creighton Olsen – Pre-History
Dinosaur games, man. Whatever happened to those? Last time I got lost in the virtual Triassic (ok, it was the year 4122…don’t get picky) I was 12. While not everyone thought that hard-gelled, spiky hair was the balls back then, one thing that we can all agree on is that a modern dinosaur game would kick ass.
I love Skyrim. I’m currently on my 4th alt and slaying a fire-breathing dragon still makes me pitch a little tent. Something about stabbing a humongous lizard that wants to eat you gives me a thrill like no other. The lynchpin of Skyrim would make such an easy transition to dinosaurs. A large portion of the gaming base were once 8 year old boys – why has no game company seized the opportunity to let us relive that experience? I firmly believe that a well-made dinosaur game would fly off the shelves like a flock of archeopteryx.
So what would you want from a modern dino game? We’ve seen mediocre dino games as a moneymaking scheme, obvious franchise ripoff, or educational fun-venture- how do you want to interact with beasts from other eras? Personally, if I could impale a Utahraptor on my 7th grade hairdo, I’d call it a win.
After the advent of Skyrim’s setting, game studios will be hard-pressed to compete in the open world arena. I propose that developers consider focusing on the opposite extreme with games set in enclosed structures or grand architectural spaces such as mansions or castles. Making the game setting integral rather than an accessory to gameplay leads to great successes like Luigi’s Mansion or Ico.
As Portal demonstrated, dividing tasks by minimalistic rooms can be a successful formula. Focusing on gameplay over eye candy, particularly if the gaming system is limited by technology (*cough* Wii), is an effective method of engaging gamers.
Enclosed structures are especially suited to horror genres. Obscuring enemies with shadowy walls and furniture works well for building paranoia. DOOM, Dead Space and similar games would not have had the same psychological effect out in the open.
The 1930′s Chicago mafia-type setting is criminally (hee hee) underused. It seems like every game in that setting is a shooter like the aptly named Mafia series or the awful Made Man, but they always have stories about territory expansion and competing forces who slaughter each other in that bid. You know what that sounds like? A freakin’ strategy game. Why aren’t there more mafia-themed strategy games? The elements are all right there for one! And not one of the classic RTS types like StarCraft but one of those involved Paradox style ones like Europa Universalis or Victoria.
Imagine this: you play the role of a Don as he commands his forces across his side of the city. You have to send forces around and take control of shops to generate revenue and fund your army of goons, with which you defend and claim territory. Aside from your basic goons, you get made men who are your heavy hitters, hitmen who can operate covertly, enforcers who you use to collect revenue more efficiently, lawyers to protect you from legal hassles, etc. You have enemies in the other mafia families around you, compete for expansion with other Dons in your family (like Rome: Total War’s allied Roman factions), and fend off the police and legal issues. Let’s not forget keeping the media about it all under wraps.
Really, if you can make a strategy game as complex and involved as Hearts of Iron in a setting as overdone as World War II, how hard would it be to make something like that for 1930′s Chicago? This is the sort of thing that writes itself, people.
Rome an’ Steampunk ar guid airt to set a video game, but it seems thay cannae be arsed wi bonnie Scotland neither, ken?
If you don’t speak Scottish, I was making the point that besides the Demoman, Scotland rarely even appears in video games, much less exists as a setting. Dear Esther was one recent title which was set in Scotland, but you wouldn’t have known it (at least for me, because I totally missed the broad side of the barn).
Lately, it seems as though the only people in video games with Scottish accents are dwarves. But there’s more to Scotland than moors, alcohol, and bushy red beards. Just to dodge the hackneyed idea everyone must have just had, I’m not going to say we need a game featuring Scottish warriors waving about claymores and decapitating one another, either. Rather, I think what gaming needs is an introduction to the Black Watch, the military team that I think could give the FPS genre a bagpipe wake-up call.
Think of the Black Watch as a Scottish Seal Team Six, with three-hundred years of additional baddassery. Potential conflicts in which to place them? They fought against the US in the American Revolution, against France during the Napoleonic Wars, and in Africa during the Boer Wars. The kicker? I’m not done, these are just the conflicts during which they were still required to wear kilts. The Black Watch also served in both World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and Iraq. They’re a military team which carries the spirit of Scotland and embodies a lot of things about their culture and heritage, and most Americans haven’t even heard of them.
Also, it might just be me, but I’m sick of fighting for the cause of ‘MERICA. The motivations of soldiers in games like Call of Duty and Battlefield always seem to be “We gotta do it, because we need to protect FREEDOM!” It just seems wrong to pitch a game to consumers which paints their soldiers as anything less than a team of plastic patriots. Scotland is different. Putting the player in the shoes of a soldier from an unfamiliar country forces them to open their minds to a difference in perspective. It would also give writers enough breathing room to give a first-person shooter a worthwhile story to fit its campaign. It’s a huge political no-no to create a game in which the main character of a war game is not an absolutely angelic patriot, but from the Scottish, it’s pretty much expected that he’s going to have a bit of color.
So there’s no specific reason the game has to be set embedded among the Scottish Black Watch. But, to rephrase an old quote, sure, the United States military was great, but the Scottish did all the same things in a kilt.
Johanna Armstrong – China
One location that I think is sorely underrepresented is the whole of China. Unless you’re playing a global RTS-kind of game, you hardly ever see China. Or any part of East Asia that isn’t Japan. China is the cradle of East Asian civilization and you’d be hard-pressed to find a big AAA title that takes place there, outside of the newest rehashed Dynasty Warriors sequel.
The country’s history is just begging to be made into a video game. They have an entire period of about 250 years known as the Warring States Period. There’s the Boxer Rebellion, the Opium War, the Sino-Japanese War and the Second Sino-Japanese War, and you might have forgotten that they were in World War II as well, all of which were full of spies, rebellions, and heroes; Chinese historical literature is rife with tales of hired assassins, ghostly women who take the shape of foxes, mythical creatures like the Phoenix, dragons for every element, demons, even a beast called Xiezhi/Xiecai which is a creature of justice that gores liars with its horn.
You even have the Ballad of Mulan, the woman warrior who takes her father’s place to fight in a war for 12 years. There’s a Tang Dynasty story about a girl named Nie Yin Niang who is taken from her family at 10 years of age to be trained as an assassin in the mountains. Both of them would make awesome leads in a Chinese-set game. Journey to the West (aka: Monkey) could be made into a game franchise with all the stuff that happens in the book, the main character Xuanzong has to try to escape monsters wanting to obtain immortality by eating his flesh!
Everyone loves the open world of Skyrim, the cute village in Zelda, but the most underrated setting for a game is that of the Japanese Shrine. Yes, it’s just a single building, but anyone who has played Pocky & Rocky know the genius of setting a game within the confines of a shrine. They’re a portal to another dimension. They attract mischief, mystique, and spirits. While most shrines look similar on the outside, the interior can vary dramatically from one to another. For instance, some shrines honor the raccoon spirit, Rocky, while others act as conduits to the dead.
The art of the shrine has gone unappreciated far too long. They still exist today in almost every culture to some capacity, but they’re not celebrated and honored like they should be. Any game exploring the concept of death or spectral spirits should absolutely be set inside a shrine. Just imagine how amazing it would be to travel from shrine to shrine, each one different depending on the spirit being honored. Maybe you play as a raccoon or a girl. I dunno, I’m just spit balling.
While many games are boasting large open worlds with infinite quests and towns to explore, let’s dial that back a bit. Let’s go back to our roots, to shrines. Instead of a bland, yet large, world, why not provide players with a shrine that burns with personality? I’m crossing my fingers that Shrine Explorer is unveiled at next week’s GDC.