Domestic spaces can also add textural depth to game narratives, building on their function as characterization devices and adding emotional weight to the story. Beyond Good and Evil tells a story of propaganda and corruption through the eyes of Jade, a freelance photographer living with her adopted family in a scruffy yet idyllic lighthouse on the picturesque planet of Hillys.
The lighthouse is beautifully detailed, and the personalities of Jade, her uncle Pey'j and the eclectic assortment of anthropomorphic children in their care are all evident in their snug home. Jade's room is festooned with developing photographs of the children, whilst the communal rooms are furnished with patchwork quilts and toys to give the adopted children a sense of the homes they have lost.
Players can return to the lighthouse at almost any point throughout the game, and watch the children as they sit in peaceful contemplation in the garden, listen to the radio or curl up in bed. Its tranquil domesticity stands in stark contrast to the creepy factory and the oppressive slaughterhouse that Jade must infiltrate, thus amplifying their horror. Furthermore, the insight the lighthouse gives into Jade's daily life means that later plot developments impact the player far more heavily. It provides not only a continual reminder of who Jade is, but the way of life that she is trying to save.
Even the briefest glimpse of more intimate environments can help games avoid the tonal monotony that so often hinders their narrative potential. By their very nature, games tend to express conflict better than anything else. This only becomes a problem when they aspire to telling stories, because for conflict to have any emotional weight, the player needs have a sense of what they are fighting for.
It would be reductive to suggest that personal environments are the only method games have of conveying character, of course. But it's hard to think of a device so perfectly suited to the medium. How many of us haven't felt the desire to peruse someone's belongings at some point? Videogames are partly about wish-fulfilment, after all, and it seems strange that more games don't allow players this rather personal transgression considering that other real life taboos are breached daily in the virtual world.
Giving players access to the dwellings of videogame characters can contribute more to the sense of a living, dynamic world than any number of cut scenes. Even when those characters are merely ghosts (like the wastelanders in Fallout 3), their homes endow games with vital humanity and history. Game designers would do well to remember that signs of life bear just as much significance as life itself.
Mary Goodden is a London-based researcher with a Tomb Raider complex. Her deadly serious comparisons of video games to romance novels can be found at Well-Rendered.