I don’t know about everyone else in the world – it’s a lot of people, more than I felt was reasonable to canvas for this article – but I’ve worn my virtual soles out with America in video games. I’ve fought Russians in the White House, sniped people on the roof of the Stock Exchange, strangled monsters on the sidewalks, built an East European criminal empire from scratch and repelled an alien invasion from the Oval Office as my portly Saints Row Commander In Chief. I’ve climbed from the bottom rung of the ladder to the highest political office in the land and back again. I feel I’ve earned a break.
America’s a great setting for a lot of games. GTA works because you’ve got the crime and the corruption and the social segregation slapped up against the ideals of capitalism and the American Dream. The Last Of Us works because it’s unsettling to see the most powerful country on Earth eaten from the inside out by monsters. These games have something they’re trying to say, and principally what they’re saying is about America.
But that shield isn’t big enough to cover every game that’s released, and it’s a shame that more and more often, big-budget games seem to get lumped with an American setting by default. New ideas and successful sequels get imported to New York primarily because it’s recognisable to the biggest chunk of the audience. The Division developer Peter Mannerfelt summed up the issue neatly in an interview with The Metro: “There are very few iconic locations in the world generally, that when you test it on people they always recognise… If you took an unknown city, the impact of the game would be a lot less clear for people, I think.”
This often applies even when the story has to take a torpedo in the stern to make the new location fit. The first Modern Warfare’s SAS campaign is set largely in the wilds of Russia and Azerbaijan, because those are the sorts of places where you can imagine terrorists smuggling pilfered nuclear weapons. But for Modern Warfare 2, the same baddies borrow the Russian army for a bit and use it to drive over the United States. Suddenly I’m shooting down gunships from the roof of a taco restaurant, or firing a sniper rifle through a front window while Ivan jumps my white picket fence and bleeds to death all over my lawn. This was not a decision made in the name of coherent storytelling.
What really cracks my nut are the number of games set in the States but developed by teams outside of it. Watch Dogs is set in Chicago, but developed in Montreal. The Division is set in New York, but developed in Sweden. The Crew is set across the entire bloody continent of North America, and is being developed in France. Not even in Paris – in Lyon.
I’ve not been to Sweden, or to Canada for that matter. But they’re surely the two most under-represented countries in the world in terms of games that are made there versus games that actually happen in them. In Sweden you’ve got DICE making Battlefield 4 and Mirror’s Edge 2 (American soldiers on the one hand, an American city on the other), Ghost Games making Need for Speed: Rivals (set in the fictional Redview County, USA), and The Division. And in Canada, you’ve got Ubisoft Montreal making Rainbow Six: Patriots (New York again, apparently), Watch Dogs (Chicago), and the follow-up to Assassin’s Creed 3 (New York, but it’s an old New York).
It’s not that these games are or will be bad for these choices of setting – it just feels like wasted potential. What if you heard that there were four big name, big budget, big studio action games coming out for Christmas 2014: one set in New York, one set in Los Angeles, another one set in New York and one set in Stockholm. Which one would you Google first?
Other entertainment mediums don’t suffer this blinkered, US-centric focus. For whatever reason, Sweden does a top line in grisly crime fiction, yet no-one complains that The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo would have ‘reached a wider audience’ if only Blomkvist and Lisbeth had been third-generation immigrants in Chicago. People are happy to watch and read stories set just about anywhere – it’s only in video games that mindsets like Mannerfelt’s still seem to persist.
And yet, the indicators that gamers are ready to play somewhere that isn’t the USA are all there. Exceptions like Sleeping Dogs, Max Payne 3 and Metro: Last Light all scored around the eight or nine mark in most reviews, despite being set in Hong Kong, Sao Paulo and Moscow, respectively. Token inclusion of foreign cities in Modern Warfare and Uncharted suggests developers agree that international settings are cool. And look at the response space games get when they promise whole new worlds and civilisations to explore: Mass Effect is one of the best-selling, most critically acclaimed game series in history, and after more than a decade of Halo-mania on 360, Destiny could practically shift the Xbox One all on its own.
I’m not suggesting that all locations are equally deserving. I lived near Guildford for a while, but I don’t want to see it in a game, unless possibly it’s being hit by a meteorite. But as we start getting hyped for things like virtual tourism on the Oculus Rift and new, galaxy-hopping space epics that carry us off to different worlds, surely we can do more in the next generation with the one we’ve got already? Video games have enough conflict, drama and marauding aliens to go round – let’s spread the misery.