Last time in “The Road Not Taken,” I discussed Nordic and underwater environments. These were the most underused settings with the highest potentially I could think of. The key word being “potential.” Though I’ve gotten a lot of requests for what settings to tackle in my next piece (this one) few have been realistic, at least in terms of making actual games out of them. I also got a few complaints about my commentary on Nordic environments, with people complaining that several RTS games use them extensively. This is of course correct, but here’s the thing; do you really experience the environment in an RTS game?
I would have to say no, in an RTS game the environment is simply a pretty backdrop with a few obstacles thrown in. It has little or nothing to do with your gameplay experience. And so, though the contribution is valid, it’s barely one worth noting. If you disagree with this you’ll most likely feel the same way about my first underused videogame setting: Ancient Egypt.
While Ancient Egypt has been used a few times in RTS games and even quite a few times in hack & slash adventure games, it remains one of the more ignored time periods in video games. There has always been a presence of Egypt in adventure and RPGs. Some even go further and devote entire sections of the game to the place and time. The Stygian race in Age of Conan comes to mind. But it’s never really been utilized to its fullest.
Ancient Egypt was a time of prosperity, religion, war and most importantly, mystery. The world was young in the eyes of man, the people lived or died by the hands of their rulers and corruption was commonplace. Great monuments were erupted to pay tribute to the gods and house the divine Pharaohs; the most recognizable landmarks in the world; The Pyramids.
Envision a first person RPG set during the late period of Ancient Egypt, a time when the Romans were at their doorstep and tension was building in the dwindling kingdom. The game wouldn’t feature magic or supernatural events of any kind, but instead would focus on a dramatic retelling of the Roman Invasion.
Surely this screams atmosphere, and hopefully if such a game is ever made the developers would take great care in establishing a deep and living world with social gameplay at its core. As an Egyptian noble man you’d have the choice of overthrowing the current Pharaoh and embracing this new “democracy” from the north, or embracing your ancestry and respect in the region to gather a formidable defense. There would of course be several shades of gray, but the key idea is strategic social gameplay set in an environment and time with a great and detailed history.
Imagine taking part in sacrificial rituals, assassinating a key character using a poisonous snake, taking part in arena fights to prove your worth to your friends, family, and enemies. Acquiring new, strange and deadly equipment from the north and east, raiding the tombs of old kings and ancestors to claim the rewards.
All of these things are old and familiar ideas in game design, but coupled with the place and time period it could make for a truly spectacular work of art.
Next I’ll move on to something a bit more independent of time, caves.
In this world that we live in, we have thousands of unexplored cave systems, some host to hundreds of unknown specialized creatures who’ve learned to survive in complete darkness. Caves have played a big part in myth and legendary creatures such as Yeti’s, Big Foot, dragons, and vampires. There are also urban myths floating around caves about serial killers, stray orphans, cults, and ManBearPig. All have one thing in common; they’re all a huge load of excrement.
So caves might just be big empty hollow pits with a few narrow squeezes in between, but to me that sounds like a great video game setting. Toss in the fact that a game doesn’t at all have to adhere to reality, you’ve got your self the perfect survival horror.
Now it being a cave doesn’t necessarily mean that’s going to be boring gray and brown looking all the time. There are caves in South America that feature huge galleries of crystals, shallow pools and even vegetation in places where the sun never shines, making for an excellent opportunity to use lighting effects in really cool and interesting ways.
But let’s talk about a potential game. Shall we?
As I mentioned earlier, I would first like to see this setting get used properly in a survival horror game. Caves are often used for these and action adventure games. But they never seem to be more than a level or two here and there, and they’re never very realistic looking. Caves in Tomb Raider always had temples or other man made structures built into them with neatly trimmed edges for Lara to grab onto, or even worse, stairs. Caves in a few survival horror games always appear in the form of mines, with shafts, vents, railings and constructions.
In my ideal cave game you would be in the raw and real cave, no safety railings. If you fall you die. No constructions and neat edges. Brute strength, wit and climbing gear is what you’ll need to navigate these dark corridors. No conveniently placed holes for the sun to shine through; its torches, flashlights, flares and light sticks all the way. No; this would be a real, unexplored, dark; cave, the kind that you see in…well…scary movies. Most importantly, it will play on two great fears: claustrophobia and nyctophobia. If we can work in arachnophobia somehow, I think we’ll have a winner.
That’s it for this edition of “The Road Not Taken.” If you have any feedback or ideas for other underused video game settings please let me know in the comments below!