Can “Setting” Alone Sell a Game?
Speaking in an interview about the upcoming Sniper Elite V2 a Rebellion spokesperson mentioned that some of the appeal of the game stems from the idea that “gamers are ready for World War II again”. Most gamers will surely remember that only a few years ago the first person shooter market was dominated, if not saturated, by games set in that era. Since then however, the immense popularity of the likes of Modern Warfare and Halo has seen it largely abandoned for the seemingly fresher and greener pastures of modernity and post-modernism.
Bearing this in mind, the way that the aforementioned statement was presented appeared, to me at least, to be something akin to a marketing pitch, and this led to me ask the question posed in the headline of this article: Is the setting of a game alone enough to influence the purchase decision of any great portion of potential consumers?
In and of itself I believe the answer to this to be, beyond any shadow of doubt, a resounding negative. However, there are a number of other factors that invariably have an effect and must be taken into consideration. These range from the style of the art direction through to the mechanics and core gameplay design. Perhaps the best way to emphasise this last point is to consider the fundamental differences between the requirements of a fairly faithful representation of the weaponry and tactics that were available and frequently used in the First and Second World Wars. Consider the alterations to these formulae when it comes to portraying modern wars, or the fictionalised future wars that may yet be. Different cues are needed for each, depending on the temporal setting.
The same idea extends beyond shooters to almost every genre. Action and adventure games draw inspiration from different times and places, such as Prince of Persia while God of War takes a different tact by being influenced by Greek mythology and architectural cues. L.A. Noire conjured a wonderful recreation of The City of Angels in the Roaring 40’s, down to the figures of speech that are employed throughout. Perhaps the most successful series in recent times at leveraging the setting has been Assassin’s Creed. The Holy Land in
the midst of The Crusades, the Renaissance Italy; these places have rarely been used before, imbuing the series with a sense of novelty, but they have also been involving and engaging environs. Moreover, Ubisoft’s insertion of historical figures and a rough approximation of technology available during the respective time periods further heightens the apparent authenticity of them.
This is of particular import to those of us that consider narrative as paramount. The more strongly that a game takes advantage of the period in which it is set, the more likely it is to engage us. While background knowledge is necessary, it is by the explicit details that we will be drawn in, and this, I believe, is where a great many developers fall short. Perhaps it is simply because gaming is not yet widely seen as a powerful storytelling medium, but it is almost criminal in how underutilised the exposition of detail is, but there is promise as it seems to be becoming a greater priority with each passing year.
To reiterate, the simple temporal and environmental backdrop is not enough to make or break the decision, in my experience. The way that the mitigating factors are exploited is the way in which it can be settled. Of course, this is just my conjecture, and I may be over thinking and overanalysing the topic; I leave it to you to decide.