A game’s setting has come to mean a number of things to gamers; in tabletop roleplaying it’s usually used to describe the surrounding world and the cast, and it means similar things in video games. However, when working on a game you must work two-fold on your setting; creating both an implied and explicit setting, in order to reach the best mixture of freedom of choice and engaging experiences that create emotionally and psychologically appealing games.
Now, implied setting is a term that I’ve sort of “made up” in that it’s not really a standard term, but it’s important to consider it nonetheless. Implied setting is most common in video games, perhaps the best example of which is the classic Pong. Two paddles, a ball, and simple score-keeping come together to create an abstract narrative with a clearly defined goal of scoring points. In more modern games, we tend to see stuff like this in Bejeweled or other such casual/puzzle games; some of these things have a little taste of narrative, such as the classic Pac-Man, which had the player trying to escape ghosts in a somewhat less abstract setting, but had little animated cut scenes in between the action, not necessarily forming a plot which drives the game’s action but one which sort of unfolds in parallel to them. Games that rely heavily on an implied setting are typically designed like Audiosurf, where the gameplay itself is the driving reason to play the game, and the lack of narrative is simply a facilitator for a focus on the gameplay. That’s not to say that most of these games can’t have an explicit setting and narrative added to them-Puzzle Quest, for instance, adds a plot to the classic match-three gameplay known perhaps most popularly from Bejeweled, as well as some game mechanics to work as a role-playing game with adventure elements. One way to see if a game has an implied setting is if there’s a very short narrative that focuses entirely upon the game goals (you must reach the right side of the stage), and if there’s a “progress bar” or similar such level of achievement that is the driving force of a game. For instance, Unreal Tournament’s multiplayer uses an almost exclusively implicit setting, although it is not abstract.
Tabletop games tend not to do well with implied settings; if people just wanted to see who wins in a game of chance, they’d play poker or blackjack, and if they wanted some more variety they’d just settle for a board-game such as Munchkin, which provides a middle-ground between the two but still features an intentionally stereotypical fantasy setting. In fact, the modern board game market is packed with games such as Seven Wonders, which have a heavy link to an explicit setting (the rise of civilization) rather than relying on an implied setting such as a game like Backgammon. Explicit setting is what really gives rise to storytelling.
Explicit setting is the sort of thing that is found in the vast majority of games, and it’s really something that most people think of when they think of such things. It’s what almost every movie and written story relies upon. Explicit setting has characters, motives, and background, all of which play into the formation of a narrative.
For instance, let us look at Donkey Kong, one of the first games that really spun off its protagonist into fame, and, since Mario is such a famous character, can truly be said to have started character/brand importance in video games’ original characters. He was originally named Jumpman, sure, but Donkey Kong created an iconic villain and protagonist of video game history in a single swoop, because it created an effective narrative within the limits of the technology of its day, and Wikipedia even states rather unabashedly that “Donkey Kong is the first example of a complete narrative told in video game form”. It has a complete setting; characters in the form of what has now become Mario, motives in the form of Jumpman rescuing his lover and Donkey Kong kidnapping her for vengeance against Jumpman, and a small background with its modern-day Damsel in Distress plot.
Modern games, on the other hand, tend to create more interesting settings; worlds such as those featured in Skyrim and Dragon Age are the outcome of dedicated efforts to create engaging worlds, and even games like Call of Duty and Battlefield, with their focus on frenetic violence rather than deep, engaging storylines are obligated to include a single-player experience with a narrative to complement their mostly abstract competitive multi-player focus. Tabletop roleplaying games, since the days of the first Dungeons and Dragons, relied upon players’ implicit knowledge of fantasy tropes and conventions combined with some setting-building and wargame elements to create their drama.
The importance of setting to a game designer lies in creating the best experience for a player. Sometimes, a setting can get to be too much; when I play a puzzle game to kill some time and let myself get my thoughts in order while doing menial tasks, I don’t expect any writing awards to be given to the game studio that created it; if I’ve kicked off my shoes and started up a song by The Protomen in Audiosurf, I don’t expect Audiosurf to create a narrative for my experience. Instead, I want it to count up my points and tell me how good my hand/eye coordination was today.
On the other hand, setting is important. I’d only have spent a few minutes playing Drakensang if it didn’t hook me on its interesting fantasy world, and one of my biggest gripes about the recently-released Shadowrun Returns is that while it had all the Shadowrun characters I know and (sometimes) love, it didn’t really actually deliver a convincing narrative-I went from rookie Shadowrunner to the One True Hero by the end of a short storyline, and I never had to worry about such cyberpunk issues such as figuring out where I could hide from the authorities who took my personal do-gooding as a threat to their authority, how to pay my rent, or whether or not my allies I hired could be trusted. It doesn’t make the game itself bad; I actually enjoyed the tactical system, though I’m not sure it’s an RPG so much as a TBS with character customization (it bills itself as a tactical RPG, but its RPG elements go as far as a campaign designer runs with them, and Harebrained Schemes didn’t). However, it did make the experience less satisfying, because once I saw the direct representative of a megacorporation, or a government leader, I knew exactly what I was in the middle of. It’s an issue with them not knowing their audience-they clearly knew that their audience was full of rabid Shadowrun fans, but perhaps didn’t really know what Shadowrun fans wanted, which was not so much “Let’s go back and revisit stuff that everyone knows with beloved characters” and more of the same original experiences that lead people to the tabletop and cyberpunk in general.
Likewise, this caution can go to anyone; setting design is important. I don’t mean that you can’t do transgenre or interesting things; Shadowrun’s tabletop installments are known for that, and they’re considered by some people to be the best game ever made. However, you do need to make sure that your setting goes for a coherent view of what it’s about; a game about becoming a king of a country by battling all challengers in an arena doesn’t necessarily need a side-plot where the protagonist spends time as a fashion designer. A game about surviving the post-apocalypse doesn’t need flashbacks to before the world began to end. A game about being the underdog doesn’t need an ending where you become the God-Emperor of Mankind. If done poorly, something like this can strip enjoyment from your game.