The following contains spoilers for Episode 2 of the BioShock Infinite DLC Burial at Sea. Proceed at your own risk.
It’s like I’m really there
One of the things I love about games is how much they lean into genre fiction. Games have never been afraid to lean hard into sci-fi, fantasy, westerns, apocalypse stories, and so on. This means we get a lot of stories that stand out with their unique characters, mechanics, and lore, but one of my favorite aspects of games has to be how settings take on a whole personality of their own. Rather than serving as a backdrop for the action, so many game settings take a front seat in the story, driving home its themes and moving the plot forward.
Perhaps my favorite example of great settings in games comes from the BioShock series. Cities like Rapture and Columbia are built out with compelling, storied histories, complete with uncannily beautiful vistas that conceal proletariat factions at war with oppressive figures. They’re gorgeous, but with the express purpose of highlighting the games’ more sinister themes. Visually stunning locations like Fort Frolic and Monument Island show us how the respective founders of the cities chose to showcase their love of excess, while also making us understand how each city met its downfall.
Case study: Burial at Sea‘s Paris opening
Look, I just really love the BioShock series (where’s that fourth game, 2K?), and a recent playthrough of BioShock Infinite‘s Burial at Sea DLC only reminded me of that. I have to highlight just one more moment from that series, because I think it’s so masterfully done.
Episode 2 opens on a street in Paris, where Elizabeth is sitting at a cafe enjoying a view of the Eiffel Tower. In this sequence, all of the citizens greet her happily by name, birds and butterflies flit about, and artists and musicians showcase their talents on the street — there’s even a little boy dancing around with a baguette, you know, like the French are prone to do.
Of course, it’s all too good to be true, because Elizabeth runs into Sally soon enough, a little girl who she used to kill this universe’s version of Booker. The whole thing devolves into a stunning horror set piece, where Elizabeth is confronted by a tortured Little Sister version of Sally, having to confront her guilt before facing her difficult present in Rapture.
This opening is not an accurate representation of Paris, and it was never supposed to be — it was instead an idealized, sentimental one. One of the very first things we learned about Elizabeth in Infinite is that she used this rose-colored version of France as a form of escapism. When she was locked away in her tower, the idea of someday getting to see Paris is what kept her going. Showing players how the weight of all that she has done has permeated to even her happiest of fantasies is a chilling image, and one that shows us exactly how far Elizabeth has come as a character, for better and for worse. It’s one of my favorite sequences in all of gaming.
The personality of a place is important
BioShock isn’t the only series that makes good use of its setting, however. The barren, hostile wasteland of The Last of Us‘ America basically places the characters in a pressure cooker, which forces them to make the difficult, often brutal choices that make them who they are. Mass Effect‘s expansive, varied settings speak to the epic, large-scale storytelling of a massive space opera, especially when contrasted to the cozy familiarity of the Normandy. Those are just a few of dozens of examples.
I think game settings stick out in our minds so much because we get to spend way more time in them than in other media. We have to choose to explore them ourselves, and can then take as much time as we want to acquaint ourselves with them as we please. We’re not limited to what a director or author wants to show us — if we see something interesting, we can go check it out, organically discovering something that is of interest to us. Great game designers know how to draw the player’s attention to important set pieces, story beats, or areas of importance, and a strong artistic hand will only help a game feel like it has some nice momentum to it, even if we can’t perceive it at first.
When I boot up a game that I love but haven’t played for a while, it can feel like home in a way that I don’t experience with other media. Downtime in a game is really important, especially in the gameplay loop of action games, because it’s a moment to breathe after a combat encounter, recoup, find items and power-ups, etc. That downtime is not only a great way to get to know the characters, but also the setting.
Learning every nook and cranny, remembering where an item is so you can come back and get it later, discovering a hidden room you’ve passed by a million times — only games can do that, and I think that’s beautiful.
Story Beat is a weekly column discussing anything and everything to do with storytelling in video games.