A novel, original setting may not always be a direct path to mainstream success, but it can help to elevate an average game to an interesting one, and a good game to a classic.
The entries in this list represent areas (geographical, conceptual and historical) that haven’t yet had a fair airing in the wonderful world of videogames.
The Paleolithic Era
I can’t have been the only person to watch Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams and fantasise about the potential for a game based around early human history. The period in which mankind developed stone tools, art, technology and religion should be ripe for the kind of exploratory possibilities offered by games.
Themes of danger, survival and discovery are inherent to these distant times, and the difficulties with establishing precise, historical facts about the era leave it wide open for some creative narrative embellishment.
Inside The Human Body
For a while, this concept was all the rage in speculative science-fiction. It was adopted by film for Fantastic Voyage in 1966 and the lighter Innerspace in 1987 (plus Osmosis Jones in 2001), but games don’t seem to have explored the full potential of bodily adventures just yet. Yes, there was a 1980s attempt to do Fantastic Voyage for the 8-bit computers of the time but, well, .
The body not only provides a ready-made, intriguing map that could look astonishing with the right art direction, but also has some fairly obvious points of conflict (disease, mental disorder) to be overcome. Zombie Cow’s (now Size Five) Privates came close, but kept matters strictly below the belt.
A regular inclusion in global strategy games, of course, but it’s time the world’s biggest democracy had a game to call its own. Aside from the 1800s-based Champion of the Raj for the Amiga, I can’t think of any other titles that have given substantial time to the country. Much as I loved Deus Ex: Human Revolution, it was sad to learn that an early concept for the title had a city hub set in India, before it had to be cut to meet scaled down development needs.
A futuristic look at Mumbai could’ve been every bit as fascinating as the re-imagined version of Detroit that appeared in the final game. Like every country, India has intriguing issues of class, power-relations and economics that make fine material for storytelling.
World War One
Its bigger, noisier brother World War Two gets all the attention (possibly because the Nazis make such terrific bad guys), but a few people have had a go at World War One games in the past and it could be time for another attempt. Those previous efforts have tended to be flight titles (Knights of the Sky, Wings) which keep the action well above the horror of the trenches, or something like Necrovision which kept the WW1 theme for about ten minutes before throwing zombies and vampires into the mix.
The usual dismissal for a game set in 1914-1917 is that trench warfare would be difficult to recreate as a game. I agree; but if the addictive tedium of MMO grinding could be successfully combined with the in-vogue difficulty of Dark Souls and a spot of Survival Horror, you might just have the main components for a recreation of life in the trenches.
God is the ultimate final boss (or is that Death, I’m not sure). If you think Angels are a bit too boring for videogames, have a read of this from the Book of Ezekiel: “And every one had four faces, and every one had four wings. And their feet were straight feet; and the sole of their feet was like the sole of a calf’s foot”. Bonkers, and utterly brilliant.
But setting your game in heaven doesn’t just give you access to some wonderfully inventive Biblical stuff, it also provides a great explanation for all that ‘game logic’ players are often troubled by. Why isn’t your character allowed to perform Action X? Because God isn’t allowing it, and he makes up the rules. already showed us the fruits of plundering the Dead Sea Scrolls for inspiration, so let’s see what developers can do with the Judeo-Christian afterlife.
Literature That Isn’t Tom Clancy
Aside from a couple of isolated releases (Clive Barker comes to mind), Tom Clancy is the only author to really splash his name all over videogames. Still, there’s no good reason (well, except publishing rights I suppose) for the mining of books to begin and end with him. I’m holding out for the day when some daring visionary will release an existentialist RPG based on the writings of Albert Camus, where choice is your only moral compass in a world of absurdity and the ultimate goal is to live an ‘authentic’ life.
Or maybe Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground could be re-imagined as a pseudo-adventure game where you have to construct and execute an elaborate plan to bump into a military officer on a busy street (although the ending to this sequence might be a bit of an anticlimax). You see, it doesn’t all have to be thwarting terrorists and saving America.
The first one, that is; 1789-1799. The overthrow of the French monarchy. The storming of the Bastille. Robespierre and the Jacobins. The rise of Napoleon. This era has it all. When rumours circulated a couple of years ago about a possible Assassin’s Creed 3 set in revolutionary France, I was struck by how perfect that idea seemed.
A period-appropriate recreation of Paris would be absolutely ideal for the kind of parkour antics popularised by the series, and there’s a bounty of real historical characters to draw from too (much like the Medici in Assassin’s Creed 2). Not only that, but there aren’t nearly enough games about fermenting and pulling off a revolution. Fable III is about the only recent title I can recall addressing this topic, and that attempt was far too tepid.
Games have given us profuse jungles, barren wastelands and vast deserts, but few of them have tackled gigantic expanses of snow and ice. Once again we have to delve back into the 1980s to find an example of a title prepared to make the dangerous trip to Antarctica. Konami’s Antarctic Adventure wasn’t quite the gruelling game of survival and exploration that I’d favour for the location, but I guess a third-person fish-catching title where you play as a happy penguin works too. Either way, ice flows, glaciers and base camps are just begging to be used again.
Nope, L.A. Noire doesn’t quite count. Sorry. For all its positives (and there were enough for us to include it in our ), the game didn’t seem to entirely “get” the noir setting. If you want a detailed argument for this, Richard Cobbett states it very well (and at length) .
So, outside of Team Bondi’s entry, what does that leave us with? Well, there’s by Microsphere and Discworld Noir, but the former is rather old and the latter was more Discworld hijinks than ‘true’ noir. For a genre as rich as this, that’s not nearly enough. What I want is the hardboiled, inner monologue of a Philip Marlowe; the kind of narration and dialogue that would demand the hiring of a Humphrey Bogart sound-a-like. I want stark light and shadow contrasts, dubious dames in need of help and dirty cops in bed with even dirtier gambling joints.
Frankly, I’m not going to be satisfied until I’m playing a character with lines as perfect as “You know, you’re the second guy I’ve met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail”.
The Original Settings Yet To Be Released
I know, I know, this is a bit of a cop-out for a tenth entry. But here’s the point; every as-yet-unimagined setting is a classic game in waiting. It could be the next which, yes, borrows a few inspirations from reality but turns them into a land where a blind guy tossing explosive squirrels from atop a huge dinosaur-like creature is not the most bizarre thing you saw in the last ten minutes.
Or it’s the next Grim Fandango, telling a delightful tale of the afterlife in the language of the Mexican Day of the Dead (and, now that I think about, making a major claim for the ‘noir’ title with its second chapter). While I’d love to see games set in, or based around, any of the locations and concepts above, what excites me even more are the ones with settings I can’t yet even begin to imagine.
Images: Paintings from the Chauvet Cave / Paul Nash’s The Menin Road / Assassin’s Creed fan art / concept art from Dishonored.