Monday, November 23, 2009

There’s a Time and a Place

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Most video games are set in one of a few familiar time periods: World War 2, the present day, or the future (usually either of the dystopian or war-torn variety). Many fantasy games are set in what is essentially a mythologized version of medieval Europe or Japan. Very few games step outside these established temporal settings.

This is part of what makes Assassin’s Creed 2 such a breath of fresh air. The title is set in Renaissance-era Italy, complete with some of the most famous landmarks and figures that inhabited it. I spent this weekend climbing to the top of the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore and chatting it up with Leonardo da Vinci. There is enough accuracy and detail worked into the game to reach that holy grail of narrative video games: suspension of disbelief. The original Assassin’s Creed was a less polished game, but the strength of the setting was not among its faults. Having seen Ubisoft’s recreations of 12th Century Jerusalem and 15th Century Florence, I can’t wait to see where, and perhaps more importantly when, the Assassin’s Creed games will go next.

Even in games that have very little basis in reality, a change in temporal setting can add a great deal to the experience. Think of the visual style of BioShock: if it hadn’t been set in 1960, the art deco aesthetic and old-fashioned clothing on the splicers might never have been, the songs on the jukebox would have been completely different, and the atmosphere of the game just wouldn’t have felt so fresh. Breaking apart from the typical medieval European fantasy setting, Jade Empire managed to present a unique role-playing game by placing the player in a mythological version of ancient China. It’s no coincidence that the settings of these games are all so well praised. In an industry replete with cookie-cutter worlds, a simple shift in time and place can yield scores of new ideas and experiences.

Think of all the untapped potential on maps and in history books. When will we see a role-playing game based on Egyptian mythology? A western-style shooter in late 19th Century Australia? How about a survival horror game in a factory town in the American Midwest during the Great Depression? Why do we keep revisiting the same times and places, when there is so much more to see and do?

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