Typically, games often tout a vast array of varied locales as a strong point in marketing, whisking players away to distant lands again and again in the span of a single game. Space operas have us hopping from planet to planet, fantasy games send us across the known world to unite the kingdoms and modern military shooters send us from the Middle East through former Soviet countries to rural Russia. It’s almost as if there is an unofficial race to have the broadest setting in the genre for each game, lest they are seen the lesser.
However, there is merit in limiting the scope of a setting while expanding immensely on detail and character. Some games opt for a single location as opposed to a globe-trotting adventure. The recently released Prey’s Talos 1 is just the newest in a long line of similar settings: Bioshock’s Rapture, System Shock’s Citadel, Dishonored’s Dunwall, Dead Space’s Ishimura, and several more.
With few exceptions, the choice to focus on a single location benefits the game overall, allowing the developers to flesh out the world the player interacts with. Instead of being just another backdrop with a slightly different color scheme compared to the previous one, the setting becomes a character itself.
With few exceptions, the choice to focus on a single location benefits the game overall, allowing the developers to flesh out the world the player interacts with
Prey is defined by its setting as much as it is by its now-iconic mimics and unique art style. While a handful of fantasy RPGs could replace their generic medieval kingdom with any other and the rest of the game would be unchanged, Prey wouldn’t be Prey without Talos 1.
The areas are unique and varied even though they follow a similar design direction to maintain cohesion, and as you explore more and more of the station, it begins to feel much like an actual, functional facility that actual human scientists and engineers would design and create some time in the future (though, granted, it’s a lot more stylish).
This is hardly a new revelation in the industry. System Shock did something similar back in 1994, and other titles before it opted for a similar direction as well. The classic shooter and its sequel both limited the scope of their locales – to a single space station and two ships, respectively.
Each location had a story to tell, of what it was like before the evil AI mutant calamity struck. Told through the standard audio log format, these little tidbits of world building would resonate with players moreso than they would if each consecutive level was on a different planet, for example. In those cases, you’re the only link save for a plot thread, meaning the lore of one location is mostly inconsequential.
Having a more focused setting doesn’t only carry storytelling benefits, but can add to the atmosphere and gameplay as well. The first two Dead Space titles followed a similar pattern to Prey and the System Shocks. Taking place entirely on one ship save for the final level, and then entirely on a space station as well as the ship from the first one, these games incorporate a tight visual direction to communicate with the players. The most obvious example of this is the standard model of air vent in the first game which players would quickly learn hide a jumpscare enemy almost always.
Having a more focused setting doesn’t only carry storytelling benefits, but can add to the atmosphere and gameplay as well
Beyond this, the claustrophobic atmosphere of these games wouldn’t have been possible to replicate otherwise. We need not even look beyond this franchise to see an example of this. Dead Space 3 traded these more focused locales to a story spanning two planets and a field of starship wreckages.
While changes in gameplay are the greatest cause of this, the change in setting also contributed to the title being remembered as more of an action title than horror. The atmosphere is essential for a good horror game, and the third title lost that aspect – possibly in exchange for the crafting system and Co-Op sections.
This isn’t to say that all games should limit themselves to a single location, not at all. Mass Effect wouldn’t have been a comparable experience had it never left Eden Prime (though I personally would love to see a less action-packed crime thriller spin-off set entirely on the Citadel).
Star Wars: Dark Forces could easily have forayed into drab had it taken place entirely on the Arc Hammer, and we could go on at length. The key is recognizing what kind of setting would work best for the game at hand, and the recent slew of open world sequels to not open world games prove how often the industry can get it wrong.
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