Sunday, 25 January 2009

Setting games in the here and now

Games seem to have a distinct reluctance to use present-day settings.
I find this slightly strange really. Think about how many movies there are which are set very clearly in the time at which they were filmed. Now think about games. Hm, okay, we have 'Grand Theft Auto', er...
Admittedly most games don't involve huge amounts of mundane everyday detail, which is what tends to make the setting clear. So if a game is like 'Mercenaries' and set in a warzone, it's quite hard to tell. Still, most games are set in fantasy lands, in the past, the future or an alternate past or future (or even an alternate present!).
If you consider that the lifespan of a game is often shorter than the lifespan of a film, due to quickly evolving technology, and that people don't mind if a film is clearly set when it was made, it makes you wonder really. It generally takes about ten years for something to begin to feel like it's not up-to-date fashion, dialect and technology wise as far as setting and dialogue go. Do we play ten year old games much? Not that often, really. What ten year old games do I play? The odd 'Final Fantasy' on the PSX when feeling nostalgic, maybe a little 'Master of Orion II', 'Baldur's Gate 2', perhaps. So of all the thousands and thousands of games that have come out and I've played, very few I still play now.
The only games which frequently go out of their way to be up to the minute and are very aware they will date are sports games.
Why not assume people mostly won't be playing my games in 5 years time, and the few who are probably won't care if it's dated? After all, I would still watch a ten or twenty year old film and enjoy the film, understanding that it is set in the time in which it was made. Maybe not every film from that period would be worth watching, but the good ones stand up to this day.

Something I heard said of 'Wallace and Gromit' is that "If you want to make something universal, make it very specific". Wallace and Gromit are clearly situated in Lancashire (Preston, in fact, though they never say they are, look at the backgrounds, the fact that Nick Park is from Preston and that in a short it was shown that Wallace supports Preston NE Football club!) in a nostalgic and rose-tinted 1950s-ish time. Does this mean that people who have never been to the North of England can't relate to them or find them funny? Aparently not.

Games seem reluctant, generally, to use a setting that's simply a realistic representation of the place in which they were made. I can't think of a game that takes place in contemporary britain. Well, maybe one or two may have some representation of central London, now I think about it. London isn't really the same as typical suburban England though.

Many of the comics I've been looking at for inspiration on gamer/alt/geek culture are very clearly set in everyday urban or suburban life.
Scary Go Round is set in the present day, and, in fact, practically in real time. The characters celebrate christmas and new year at those times of year, and their ages aren't frozen in time. The setting is present day Lancashire (though the specific town is fictional), reflected in the fashion, speech and technology of their surroundings. This makes the surreal happenings, like robots and ghosts, more engaging, because they are juxtaposed against a mundane setting.
Scott Pilgrim, similarly, is set in modern day Canada, and even in a specific, real city, Toronto. Many of the locations used are real places. The fashion, like SGR, reflects contemporary urban indie fashion. Again, surrealism is used. In Scott Pilgrim, video game logic is applied to the real world quite often. Energy drinks give +1 to 'will' and Scott gets showered with small change for defeating enemies, as well as being able to 'counter reverse' punches and level up.

So, setting a game in a clear representation of present day England, then adding surreal elements, may lead to a more distinctive look and feel and an engaging story.

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