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Body Talk: The Best Stories are Built on a Pile of Corpses

Alex Spencer | 27 Jul 2013 09:00
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Bloodox Way, Dunwall: Day 23, Month of Rain

Residence is a family home, covered in a thin layer of dust. Victim is half-fallen off a chair at the empty dining table. On the table: one tin of whale meat, one bottle of hemlock essence, one drained glass, and one book, marked 'Mother's Journal'.

The body is so contorted it has to be moved to even see it's a woman - Mother, presumably. There are spatters of dark red on her face and clothing, a large single smear at the waist of her trousers. The blood doesn't look to be hers.

The diary fills in the rest:

"Morris is sick and so are the children ... The flies have set in ... It took a while, but I got Morris into one of the bags. At least his face is covered."

In the corner, huddled on stained mattresses, are three tightly swaddled bodies - one large, two small.

"It has settled in that they are lost to me, all of them ... page missing ... I have the fever now."

The dead are often easily brushed past in games. In your average shooter or RPG, you dispatch so many enemies that their bodies - if they don't fade quickly away -become meaningless, except as a repository of loot or a signpost of where you've already been. But placed carefully, a single corpse can be worth hours of beautifully-rendered cutscenes and snappy dialogue.

For something so simple, these bodies are surprisingly versatile tools. They can be used for horror, or to establish an approaching enemy as a powerful threat. They can be used to trick the player into believing they're not the centre of this simulated world.

A single corpse can be worth hours of beautifully-rendered cutscenes and snappy dialogue

It starts to get really interesting, though, when particular games, such as the Elder Scrolls and Bioshock series or Dishonored - from which the above example is lifted - use the bodies to tell their own self-contained story.

As the player, you walk into a room, and a quick glance around yields the component parts of a mystery: a body or three, a few suggestive props, maybe a diary, whether it's written or recorded on an audiolog. Suddenly, whoever you were playing as, you're the detective.

Constructing these kinds of scenes, according to Ed Stern, Lead Writer at Splash Damage - the UK-based developer which made its name with the Enemy Territory games, and is currently working on a follow-up to 2011's Brink - is "a bit like being the writer on an episode of CSI. Also the production designer, set dresser and camera operator."

"The titular Crime Scene Investigators need a crime scene to investigate. You need clues for them to frown at and piece together, so they can arrive at the actual crime and perpetrator themselves."

In the example above, the journal just ends. It's not a huge leap to pull the final pieces together - the defeated tone of the final diary entry, the poisonous hemlock, the empty glass - and work out what happened, but it's more satisfying than being told outright.

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