Dark, dank dungeon-delving: dubiously dumb?

There are some typical trope settings to video games: a war zone, an apocalyptic land, zombies ate my neighbors, and even to hell and back. The themes usually applied to such miserable settings is a dark one, further hitting home that where you are, in a video game, is not a nice place to be. It’s a common story element to try and bring fear to the player in the way a bayou at dusk with fog on the horizon and the howling of woodland creatures would inspire worry. It’s the sense and feeling of waiting for it, and waiting for it—the anticipation that something may jump out at you at any moment. Or perhaps the lack of anticipating anything at all on a barren world.

Setting is part of the triad to story-telling. For any story to work, it needs characters, a plot, and a setting. Each is as crucial to the other and they usually need to go hand-in-hand with one another if the story is going to be any sorts of good. But just like a horror novel, you have to make sure that what you’re writing (and in this case, developing) is going to be enjoyable to the target demographic of gamers.

But what exactly is enjoyable? To each is own is certainly a nice expression to apply, but do people really get their jollies from roaming around in Fallout 3’s Capital Wasteland from hours on end? Or roaming around the nine levels of Hell in Dante’s Inferno? The favelas in Modern Warfare 2? The Deep Roads in Dragon Age: Origins? Riverside campaign Death Toll in Left 4 Dead? Are these the sorts of settings that gamers enjoy spending copious amount of time (sometimes the entire length of the game) surrounding their selves in dark and dreary worlds whose color palette includes gray and brown as its main swatches?

Despite what fetishes you may have, it’s pretty clear that any normal human being can only be in the dark for so long before it gets to you. You start to feel tired, bored, maybe even a little down. Your eyes start to get droopy and you put down the controller—not because it’s 3AM, but because you’re tired of the game. So here’s where the question comes in; are developers trying to design their games so players can effectively say, “Damn, this game is so depressing I’m actually going to stop playing it”? Of course it’s rhetorical, for no developer actually wants the player to be driven away from their game, but if that were the case, then they would probably rethink some design decisions in the settings department.

This seems to be the future of video game settings however. The apocalypse is particularly popular ever since Left 4 Dead and Fallout 3 hit some sales charts. Now we’re even getting an influx of  new movies on the two tropes (zombies and nuclear wastelands) that originally were just cult paraphernalia. But the trouble to these settings is that they must be dark and dreary if they’re going to work. I mean, would you buy a zombie shooter if it were set on a tropical island, where the sun was shining, and the environment was more akin to Crysis’s jungles? Then again, maybe I just revealed your wet dream to you.

No matter what you think, however, what is true for the setting in a story is that you don’t spend so much time in it. That is to say that the story moves to different locations and different scenery. This is to keep things interesting, as well as to keep the people interested as well. Diablo II, perhaps one of the most drearily-set video games, pulls this off well by exposing players to different locations throughout the game (and only exposing them to the most dreadfully dreary one for a short time). I mean, yeah, you have your Hell, but you also have your plains, your desert, your jungle, and your mountains. Blizzard understands that players will go bonkers if they are looking at the same thing all the time, and yet the entire game itself is all about playing it over and over again.

Contrast this with Fallout 3. I was thoroughly disappointed in the environment direction for Fallout 3, given the fact that the previous titles, handled by their original developers, had more color than the third installment by Bethesda. Even more surprised considering Bethesda’s previously colorful titles, including Oblivion, which has perhaps one of the most enjoyable and immersible environments in a video game. In Fallout 3 there’s nary a tree or a bush that isn’t wittered, dead, and brown. The entire land is a dust bowl of destruction, with crumbling buildings and dead things left and right. They even threw an overlay green tint just to further hit home of how dreary the world is supposed to be (compare here what the game looks like without the tint). To top it off they included some dismal music and threw it altogether in an equally depressing cast of characters.

Fallout 3 is the epitome of a depressing game. It lacks the quality of what every sandbox game is supposed to have—replayability. If your world is more boring than a lecture on fiscal decentralization from a seventy-year-old economics professor (worst college experience of my life), then you can pretty much bank that you’re not going to have people sticking around to play the game further. Thankfully modders on the PC can fix that problem, but for Xbox and PS3 owners they’re just stuck with the dreary landscape of nothingness. Even the explorable environment of Fallout 3 is as equally depressing, throwing you into caves (caves!) and collapsed buildings as an idea of fun. Thankfully Bethesda saw what an error that was and attempted to correct it in later DLCs, but the base game is still a classic example of too much of a good thing is not good (never quite understood that until I played Fallout 3).

But even worse than an apocalyptic setting painted with one color is when the dreaded cave setting is thrown into the mix. I cannot express my dislike of caves enough, and I’m sure others can’t as well, but we certainly can try. If being in an open world setting with nothing but abysmal boredom surrounding us, then what do you think being stuck in a dark cave will do to a player? If your first answer was, “Jump up and shout for joy!” then you probably need to be shot. As far as I know the only things that like to be in caves are bears and trolls. Last time I checked I don’t have paws, so I guess I’m not a bear, and I haven’t trolled Valve fanboys in awhile, so I guess that rules me out of the Cave Lovers Club.

I’m not entirely sure what ANYONE would think is appealing about a small enclosed space of darkness of winding tunnels where all you are surrounded by is brown rocks and some more brown rocks. And though I may sound like a claustrophobic, I truthfully attest I’m not (but damn am I afraid of spiders, phew!). The only thing I am afraid of when in a cave, or in any other small enclosed dark setting of repetition, is that the journey would never end. This specifically rang true for Dragon Age, which I refuse to replay these days simply because I know there’s that terrible Deep Roads part of the game that has you in a dark cave for FOUR HOURS. Four hours! Even my economics class was limited to three hours of boredom! In the middle of the Deep Roads part of the game I feel like dressing up in black with a beret and cutting myself at a coffee shop poetry reading night. Not because I’m depressed, but simply because I want it all to end!

I know the dark theme setting is beginning to become popular again these days, but please, for the sake of humanity, stop throwing us into bleak worlds that have tons of caves. Every time you ever think about designing a cave setting in the game I want you to lock yourself in the broom closet for four hours so you can thoroughly understand just how much of a stupid idea it was in the first place to think of such a thing. After which it would help if a group of your friends then proceeded to beat the crap out of you with rolling pins just to understand that it’s not always good to be rolling in the dough at the expense of other people’s humanity. Honestly, if your setting is anything like Oblivion or Crysis, where there’s lots of green, sunshine, and scenery, then I guarantee I’ll buy your game, even if it’s next year’s biggest turd. I want to enjoy what I’m looking at while I’m playing a game and I’m willing to bet so is everyone else too. If you must, however, then do so in moderation, but I swear, anything past that and I’ll lock you in a Jackson Pollock museum, doomed to spend the rest of your days staring at the walls of what we gamers experience in your video games.

About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

2 Responses to Dark, dank dungeon-delving: dubiously dumb?

  1. Lonethar says:

    The environments for Fallout 3 were much better after the moddders got through with it. No doubt about it. I can`t say I absolutely agree with the thought about the cave exploration as long as its done correctly. Confusing and winding paths through an underground environment drive me crazy! And I would absolutely pass on ANY game that saw me plodding through a dark dank cave for 40 hours. Aside from that, I agree with the general vibe expressed here. I find it amusing that originality in too many environments with modern gaming are identical. And generally boring.

    Still eagerly anticipating your next mod list for Fallout 3 Ag! (wink!)

    • Agamemnon says:

      Hey Lonethar! Just got back into the Fallout 3 scene after buying the GOTY edition. I’ve certainly been on the path of going through the nexus and seeing what’s what in post-apocalyptia these days. I’ll keep you posted!

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