With my ear to the receiver, I’m listening to a guide on the flora and fauna of the Echo River. It’s 1:30 in the morning and I’m hearing Will Oldham aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy voice acting as a pre-recorded guide from the fictional Bureau of Secret Tourism. This was the way I discovered Here and There Along the Echo, the latest Kentucky Route Zero interlude from Cardboard Computer.
For me, the bizarre, phone-based interlude felt eerily like it was describing a real place. Here and There Along the Echo was released with a grainy promotional picture. It looks like a dated billboard for a midwestern tourist trap. I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri and family vacations often brought us to the edge of the Ozarks in Springfield or Branson. My senior year of high school we camped out by the gorgeous Ha Ha Tonka Springs. The springs are located in Osage Beach, Missouri, which used to be called (no joke) Zebra, Missouri. These southern portions of the state are spotted with towns that time forgot and kitschy tourist traps that could easily include the Echo River. Perhaps it’s not that surprising that the imagined landscape feels familiar. In a Rock, Paper, Shotgun interview, Jake Elliott spoke about the first act of the series, “A lot of the stuff that’s on the overworld map is based on real world locations. Just twisted in some direction or another. There’s the bait shop in the overworld. That’s a specific bait shop that I photographed somewhere. Tamas goes through there a lot also. He has family in Missouri and in Kansas.” It’s refreshing to feel like Kentucky Route Zero resonates with real places that I’ve been.
I’ve heard this sentiment that games are enhanced by a grounded sense of place that is expressed many times. At the second annual Lost Levels conference during GDC, researcher Adam W. Flynn gave a talk arguing for developers to embrace Bioregionalism and local influences over generic settings. After the talk, he said, “All too often we have games that suffer from what you might call ‘Generic Northern European Fantasy World’. It’s based on what you played and what you’ve read. Maybe it’s Tolkien or games inspired by that, but what you’re getting is a copy of a copy of a copy. If you’ve ever done that with a Xerox machine, things get all grainy and terrible. If you actually go into where you live [it’s richer].” Drawing from local sources and grounding games in a sense of place can provide more original experiences and draw players into the natural history of a developer’s homeland.
Walden, A Game from the USC Media Lab makes these naturalistic intentions obvious. The game is inspired by one of the most influential American nature writers, Henry David Thoreau, and the developers are representing Walden Pond in a unique way. Tracy Fullerton, the game’s lead designer says, “We used US Geographical data as the basis, but we also went back in and looked at how he talked about the different trails around the pond to try and make it feel correct to the text. We went through the text really carefully and combed through to see what plants, animals, trees and landmarks he talked about, and made sure to include those in the game. The particular types of pine trees and birch trees that he talks about are the ones we actually have in the game.” Surveying, researching, and reading the book combine to lend Walden, A Game an incredible sense of place.
Upcoming games are going to diverse places and bringing players along for game experiences whose themes and tones are rooted in a distinct sense of place. Never Alone has been developed in tight collaboration with Alaskan native communities, but the art direction wouldn’t have come together without digging into a sense of Alaska. Developer Alan Gershenfeld explains, “Sean brought on our art director a Russian, named Dima Veryovka, who actually studied traditional art in Russia (including indigenous art); he worked on S.O.C.O.M. for many years. Before we brought him onto this project, we had some very talented concept artists that were designing the girl and the environments. It was beautiful, but it kinda looked like Disney. When we shared with our Alaskan native partners, it just wasn’t resonating. We threw it all out. Dima came on and went up to Barrow in the middle of winter and was really immersing himself, in -30º-40º weather, in the fascinating landscape. He went behind the scenes at the Smithsonian and had access to a lot of the indigenous art and artifacts. An entirely new look emerged that was more situated in place.” The art direction on Never Alone didn’t come easy, but the results feel specific and meaningful
The developers of Firewatch have, likewise, been open about the benefits of locating their game specifically in Wyoming in 1989. Developer Matt Conn and the team at Midboss Games are aiming to locate Read Only Memories in a believable version of the San Francisco of the future. Conn says, “You play a game like Grand Theft Auto or Watch Dogs and although they get the buildings and the actual city correct it doesn’t play like it’s that city. It could really be anywhere. With Gabriel Knight it couldn’t have taken place in any other spot. There’s so much of the voodoo culture or superstition that was intertwined with the story.” He says they want Neo-SF to feel like a specific character in the game the way that New Orleans was a character in Gabriel Knight.
All of these examples speak to the depth of culture and environment that can be mined by digging into a specific region. Game environments that embrace a sense of place can transport players to specific biospheres filled with natural beauty. They can also reflect the cultural nuances of a time and a space in a way that so many generic game settings do not.