Earth, Sky, and Beyond: The Subtle Power of Setting in Our Games - quasiconundrum Blog - www.GameInformer.com
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Earth, Sky, and Beyond: The Subtle Power of Setting in Our Games

I love Uncharted. I love its sweeping adventures, its stunning locales, and yes, I also love the gruffly charismatic charm of Nathan Drake.

My affinity for the Uncharted franchise, however, presents an interesting case. For the most part, I tend to dread the intensity of the games' combat situations. I also find Uncharted's plotlines to be fairly trite and lacking in depth—while they can be entertaining, I feel like they're also ripped straight out of the Indiana Jones handbook, and strive for little beyond the same generic "adventure" formula.

So, then—if I don't really care for the story or the gameplay, why do I love Uncharted?

In truth, I love it for one major reason: it goes places. I don't love the gameplay; I don't love the story. What I love about Uncharted, rather, is the setting.

And the more I think about it, the more I've come to realize that Uncharted is by no means unique in this respect, either. To me, it merely serves as a dramatic example of the largely understated power of setting in our games.

Setting in video games has always seemed to me to occupy a somewhat vague position in terms of its significance. On the one hand, setting is omnipresent: all video games, due to their visual nature, have one. Any time you see a game in action—or even a screenshot of a game in action—what you're seeing, for the most part, is the setting. But the irony is that setting is so pervasive that the majority of the time, most of us don't seem to notice it at all. When we do happen to make note of it, we usually only do so in terms of how it serves the story or the gameplay. Rare are the occasions in which we actively recognize a game's setting as a factor unto itself.

In most games, rather, the setting simply is. We view it as little but a backdrop, the stage upon which the gameplay is spotlighted, the blank canvas onto which the game's mechanics, story, graphics, content—all of the elements that make a game what it is—are painted. Whenever we do acknowledge a game's setting, it's generally because it stands out somehow—because it is particularly striking, different, or otherwise memorable. In these instances, the game's setting captivates our aesthetic senses, rising above the station of a simple stage to reach out and seize our attention.

These are games like Assassin's Creed, in which setting is an indisputably fundamental part of what makes the series so powerfully unique. Or games like Dishonored, in which the setting conveys a pervasively haunting mood so strikingly different from what we're used to experiencing. And yes, games like Uncharted, with breathtaking vistas and jaw-dropping cinematics that propel us from one world-shaking adventure to the next.

In games like these, it's obvious that the setting is no mere backdrop. It is clearly an element of power and influence in its own right, and it plays an undeniably pivotal role in making these games great. In most cases, however, the significance of a game's setting is not quite so readily apparent.

One of my favorite games of 2012 was Monolith Soft's Xenoblade Chronicles. I enjoy RPGs in general, but this game serves well to illustrate why I have a special fondness for JRPGs in particular.

For starters, I typically don't play them for the story. I find that the storylines in most JRPGs have a tendency to follow the same archetypal patterns over and over again—and for the most part, Xenoblade Chronicles is no exception. Secondly, in my experience, the characters are mostly insufferable, often to the point of being laughably ridiculous. These elements are, of course, largely matters of personal taste; my point is that they generally don't appeal to me. And even the core mechanics in JRPGs tend to vary considerably; I usually have only the faintest idea as to whether I'm going to like them or not.

But there is one thing I can always count on when I fire up a new JRPG: whatever else the game may amount to, I know that it will take me on a memorable journey. JRPGs feature some of the most colorful, most downright imaginative settings in all of gaming. If, for example, you were on a hunt for the most utterly unique setting in any video game, you could certainly do worse than that of Xenoblade Chronicles: the entire game world—from human colonies and sprawling grasslands to tangled forests and a massive sea dotted with floating islands—all of it is situated upon the bodies of two titanic beings frozen in time.

For me, however, it is the sheer variety of the game's settings—which is something of a hallmark among JRPGs—that is the major attraction. In fact, one of my biggest motivators throughout Xenoblade Chronicles was simply a desire to see where the game would take me next. To me, there is something especially poignant about venturing out across a menagerie of different lands—across plains and mountains, through deserts and jungles—that invariably expands a game's sense of adventure and wonderment, heightening its splendor and ultimately creating a unique, memorable experience.

That is, after all, one of the central reasons why I love to game in the first place. Yes, I love a good story, and yes, I love fascinating characters. I love engaging gameplay, and although combat is rarely much of a draw for me, I sometimes even love that, too. But I believe it is the setting more than anything else that binds all of these disparate elements together into a single, cohesively meaningful experience.

Story may fade into the background as gameplay takes center stage; conversely, gameplay often all but vanishes when the story steps into the spotlight. Through it all, however, the setting remains, bestowing an all-important sense of continuity amid a frequently-shifting gaming experience. It is setting that sees us forward on our grandest adventures—it is the first sight to greet us whenever we turn the corner, and is often the most vivid image to linger in our memory, long after our adventure is over.

I feel I would be remiss if, in a discussion about the role of setting in video games, I neglected to mention one of this past year's most memorable gaming experiences. It is perhaps the purest example of the raw power of setting that I can conceive of. This is a game with no dialogue, with no written script at all. Its mechanics are minimalist to the point that it defies any straightforward definition or categorization. Much like the concept of setting itself, it simply is.

To a greater extent than any other game I've experienced, Journey takes the oft-overlooked element of setting and thrusts it into the limelight. In Journey, there is no plot to compel you forward; there is not even a clear pattern of gameplay by which to chart your course. Your guide, rather, is merely a shining beacon of light atop a mountain in the distance.

Across blistering dunes and freezing slopes, this shining mountain is your constant companion, beckoning you ever forward into the unknown. And all along the way, the sands and skies themselves impart a personal, primal tale of hardship and determination, of failure and triumph. From your very first step upon the shimmering, shifting sands, to the awe-inspiring moment when you finally reach your destination, Journey stands as a testament to the quintessential power of setting in video games.

It's hard to say what Journey would be without its shining mountain on the horizon. What, for that matter, would Assassin's Creed be without its lusciously-recreated historical settings? Or Mass Effect without the Normandy or the Citadel? What would the Legend of Zelda be without some iteration of the land of Hyrule? Or Mario without a Mushroom Kingdom?

In a sense, these seem like arbitrary, ultimately meaningless questions—but I think that only serves to highlight the fundamentally essential nature of setting in games. It's often difficult to analyze setting as its own distinct element; I believe this is because the concept of setting is inextricably bound to the very concept of gaming itself. Whether in regards to story or gameplay, characters or combat, in the end, every aspect of a game—in one way or another—is defined in terms of the setting.

Video games have a unique power to transport us to impossible places, to send us on unimaginable voyages. They carry us into unknown lands, and show us sights never witnessed by human eyes. They allow us to travel backward in time, forward in time, to the ends of our Earth and beyond, into the infinite sprawl of universes that live only in our most unfathomable dreams.

Thus we wander, ever onward into beautiful realms. The earth of a thousand worlds is our guide, while the skies unfold to usher us home. And remember: it is not about the destination.

It is about the journey.

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