Skin Deep

Games have a strange relationship with theming. I’m not talking about the fact that games don’t need themes and many don’t have one (like Go or Tetris). I’m not talking about the way the same game can be themed in countless ways (like Warcraft and Starcraft). I’m talking about the fact that the vast majority of games have the same handful of themes: sci-fi, fantasy, or zombie apocalypse. Games rarely adopt real settings, and when they do, it’s almost always based on war.

Today, I want to talk about why I generally avoid these sorts of settings in the games I make. Instead, I have made games about biological systems and most recently political systems. Before I get into that, though, I wanted to discuss why I think games based in fictional worlds are so popular.

Oh yeah, and just a warning–this article isn’t going to have many pictures or anything. Sorry! If words aren’t your thing, this article probably isn’t for you.

Advantages of Highly Fictional Worlds

There are plenty of reasons to make games based on fictional premises, not least of which is that people are used to those games and seem to enjoy them a lot. Why deviate from what people want? The thing is, if you look at other mediums, like film or novels, the percentage of fiction taking place in fantastical environments is a lot smaller. Different demographics might account for some of this disparity, but I think there’s more to it.

For example, fantastical worlds allow you to introduce fantastical solutions to solve problems that you’re facing, which can be a lot easier than finding realistic solutions to problems. These can be story problems, such as how to save your hero from a plummet to his death (how about a hover bike or a friendly pegasus?). There are also game specific problems, such as how to explain your problem with the game’s technology. If you can’t render very many polygons in an open world, you might have to use fog to hide distant objects, and it can be a lot easier to justify when you have excuses like dragon smoke, post-apocalyptic smog, and the like. Similarly, gameplay might need some components that are difficult to explain in the real world, like more controlled and exaggerated jumps due to a jet pack or big range attacks from futuristic weapons or magic. It’s not impossible to solve these problems in a more realistic setting, especially if you’re not worried about the details being accurate, but it definitely takes more work.

Another reason I think games adopt fantastical worlds is that people are more willing to accept more abstraction in these settings. Players are focused enough on the exciting elements of the world that they don’t mind that you’re not worrying about feeding your characters or that NPCs just say the same thing over and over. There are lots of reasons to have these limitations in games, and I’m not saying they’re necessarily a problem or anything–I just think it’s a lot easier to hide them when you’re not using a realistic setting. In the case of a novel, the author can introduce as much detail as necessary at any given time, but a game world usually has to exist independently in its entirety all the time, which makes it much more difficult to include such detail.

One last reason I want to mention, though I don’t think it actually applies to many games, is the ability to deal with touchy issues in fantastical settings. There are some themes that are extremely emotionally or socially charged, such as race, power structures, sex, and violence. It’s easier for some people to handle these themes when they aren’t dealt with directly, and fantastical worlds give you the opportunity to create a metaphor for these issues that’s fairly obvious but still gives the player a comfortable distance from the real issues.

Sadly, I think this is often turned on its head. Rather than using the fantastical setting to address serious issues, games use fantastical settings to avoid the issues altogether. A great example is a shooter where your enemies are aliens or robots, because violence against aliens or robots is perfectly acceptable, but it would be too much against humans. In my opinion, this is a huge missed opportunity–why not challenge your players to confront the consequences and ethics of real world violence?

The Unfiltered Alternative

I couldn’t help but delve into my own philosophy about this in the previous paragraph, so maybe it’s time to just come out with it. While there are many reasons to adopt real world settings for games, the biggest for me is that it lets you directly deal with issues that are relevant for players. In my opinion, art should help you see the world a little differently, and making a game about the actual world is the best way to make sure that people are thinking about the world differently after experiencing what you have to provide them.

Now, you might be thinking that there are plenty of games with real world settings. It’s true, especially when it comes to simulation games. Games like SimCity, Civilization, and more recently Farmville have put players in a god’s eye view over systems closely based on real world systems. Historical simulations are also fairly common for non-digital games, too, like Puerto Rico and Twilight Struggle. I think these games are generally awesome, and include some of my favorites (like Civilization).

That said, I think they often miss opportunities to challenge people’s understandings or perceptions of the world. Puerto Rico is an excellent example. In the game, the players are plantation owners in sixteenth century Puerto Rico, creating buildings and farms and importing “colonists” to work on them, represented by brown wooden tokens. Colonists, huh? Anyone with a basic understanding of world history knows that that’s a nice way of saying slaves. I’m sure that the publisher of Puerto Rico wanted to make the game palatable for audiences that are sensitive about the violence in their national histories. Why turn a fun time into a bad, introspective time?

Don’t get me wrong–I think most players play games because they want to have fun, and it’s important as a game designer to provide them with a fun experience. By in large, that’s why I play games! But I don’t think it’s necessary to strip the experience of meaningful examinations of serious issues to make it fun. In my mind, you’re most successful if you create an engaging experience for the players as they play, and then leave them with something to think about or apply to their real life afterwards. I think Puerto Rico had the opportunity to force people to confront an ugly history and consider how the world they enjoy came to exist (and maybe even question whether such practices still exist in some places), and sadly chose to avoid it. Maybe this is better for the bottom line, but it certainly didn’t make the game more powerful or meaningful.

In my games, I try to embrace these opportunities. Not every game provides the same great opportunities as Puerto Rico, but let me give you a small example from my own work. Arachnophilia may not seem like an especially deep game, but believe me, a ton of thought went into it and what it means. Perhaps one of my favorite examples of this is how you lose in the game. Even though the enemies in the game can only destroy your web, not you, you can’t die from losing your web. The only way your spider dies is by starving to death. That means that if your web happens to completely break, you have to sit there, watching your spider slowly get weaker and weaker until finally it succumbs to its own hunger. Now, truth be told, I don’t think players like this “feature” of the game very much, probably because they don’t think of it as their spider slowly dying, more as a reminder of their own failure in the game. However, sometimes, I think it’s alright to make your player feel a little uncomfortable. Other forms of media do this all the time–why can’t games every now and then?

Practically Speaking

Maybe you disagree with me that games should confront people or try to make them see the world in a different way. After all, there will always be plenty of room for games that are purely there for good old fashion escapism. But, before you go off to make the next great zombie space marine beam sword slaughter fest, consider one last reason to try a more realistic setting. The setting you want to iterate on has been done before. A thousand times. Sure, your game has a crazy new vehicle system, a realistic day/night cycle, and features a baseball bat, chainsaw, AND flame thrower, but at the end of the day, your zombie game just looks like another zombie game in the sea of zombie games out there. You might get a piece of the pie, but the pie has already been divided ad infinitum. Why not make your game stand out? Try approaching a real issue, or make people reevaluate what a game can be, and you have a much better chance to actually be seen over the multitude of games being released these days.

So yeah, if the whole idealistic plea for art doesn’t get you, keep in mind that it’s better for publicity anyway.


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