The “there”

Real-estate agents live and die by it. Mets pitcher Tom Glavine has forged a Hall of Fame career on it. And far too often, game developers dramatically underestimate how critical it is to the success of their product.

I’m talking, of course, about location, the “there” that puts the “there” in so many things — including games. I’m thinking about it because, like the rest of the known gaming universe, I’m trying to stay alive — and maintain some shred of humanity — in Bioshock, Irrational Games’ (nee 2K Boston) mega-brilliant shooter. It’s not an easy proposition, what with all those crazed, mutated, ex-beautiful people leaping out of the blood-soaked shadows to shred me. The game’s setting is Rapture, a decaying 1940s neon utopia that also happens to be located several thousand leagues under the sea.

Think about that for a second. In one fell locational swoop, Ken Levine and company have combined two tropes that could probably have stood successfully on their own: The Catastrophic Discovery, which is the same trick that’s fueled everything from the Silent Hill series to Doom 3, and the Claustrophobic Terror, when developers stick you in a place that’s all but impossible to escape. You’re freaked out before you even jump in the bathysphere that transports you to this waterlogged slice of hell.

You’d think that this sort of creative setting would be a lot more common in gaming, but sadly, it’s not. Too often, developers go for whatever seems historic and handy, as if good gameplay, like some kind of digital dandelion, can thrive in any setting at all. And even when they find a good one, they have this annoying tendency to beat it into the ground.

About two years ago, developers were going all Winds of War on us, burning us out on shooters set in the various and sundry fronts of the World War II era. Then, once every last piece of shrapnel was clumsily overturned, the popular trend became picking up the nearest dog-eared copy of Tales of Greek Mythology and inundating us with togas and medusae. Titan Quest was awesome, guys; Spartan Wars, not so much.

Now, consider Resident Evil 4, a classic horror game that’s still spreading its creepy virus across yet-uninfected gaming platforms (the Wii version hit two months ago; the PC version just last month). Capcom’s genius was to pull a location switch-up, moving their long-running zombie-blast — which had become way too long in the decaying tooth — out of the familiar urban confines of Raccoon City and drop it, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. Or, more specifically, the middle of some obscure European backwater, where the hordes of angry townspeople stalking you with pitchforks and torches are terrifying not just because they are bearing down on you with the soulless malice of Bill O’Reilly at a Dem convention, but because they are screaming at you in a language you can’t understand.

While I’d be thrilled to see a 10-year moratorium slapped on certain game settings that now stink of cliché — prisons and fantasy kingdoms, I’m looking at you — there are plenty of other locales still ripe for gaming exploration. Start with high school, a gem that games like Bully and Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 have only started to reveal. Or the inner psyche, the place where games like Psychonauts and Crush thrive, largely unnoticed. I keep thinking of those cool old Dr. Strange comics where the Sorcerer Supreme would swap spells with Nightmare or Dormammu inside the confines of some poor schmuck’s subconscious. Now tell me that a game set inside, say, Dick Cheney’s egg-like noggin wouldn’t be the head trip to end all head trips.

Hell, you could probably turn it into the next big successful franchise. •

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