Narrative Analysis: The Basics
In every narrative, the events and the characters must exist in a specific time and place. This unique combination is known as setting. Settings have many components, but they all serve a common purpose: to constrain the story’s scope. Like the physical laws of our world, focused settings provide clear boundaries for what can and cannot happen in a story while also limiting what actions the characters can and cannot perform. These boundaries help audiences believe in the fictional world, as it allows them to build their own expectations for how the story might progress.
At its most basic, setting is made up of two connected parts: time and place. Time is when the story occurs; place is where it occurs. Both the time and the place are subject to change as the story progresses, but the changes should make sense within the parameters laid out at the start. These parameters take many forms, such as the geographical, social, political, or technological elements that define the world. The more development these elements receive, the better they work as boundaries for the story. Robert McKee, author of Story, notes how this development matters, saying: “A vast, populous world stretches the mind so thinly that knowledge must be superficial. A limited world and restricted cast offer the possibility of knowledge in depth and breadth.”1 In other words, the more elements a story has, the more the audience will have to remember. With fewer elements, the audience has more room to learn more about them.
Each of the three main components of story—plot, character, and theme—has a relationship with the setting. Sometimes, it is the setting that impacts the story; other times, it is the story that impacts the setting. With plot, the setting can be a source of obstacles, or the events of the plot can result in a change in the environment. Characters have a similar relationship with setting. Either the setting can inform their actions, or it can be a reflection of their emotions. In The Anatomy of Story, author John Truby summarizes this succinctly, saying: “In most stories you write, the world is a physical expression of who your hero is and how he develops.“2 The connection between theme and setting is slightly different, as it depends on the nature of the specific theme. An environmental theme like ‘the rise of industrialism comes at a with a cost to nature’ is likely to have a stronger connection to the setting than an emotional theme like ‘love conquers all,’ but both can be reinforced through setting via motifs and symbols. These reinforcements, combined with character and plot connections, create settings that form an essential part of their stories.
Setting in Video games
Games Discussed: Portal (Valve), BioShock (2k Games), Persona 5 (Altus)
The interactive nature of video games adds another layer of complexity to their settings, as players are able to directly engage with the world and its occupants. This interactivity also adds depth to the connections setting and story, as players’ actions drive the plot, the characters, and the themes. Decades of complex video game narratives have delivered standout examples in each category, emphasizing the story-setting relationship in genres ranging from first-person shooters to role-playing games.
The relationship between setting and plot is explored in Portal (Valve, 2007), a puzzle-platform game set in a scientific testing facility in an unknown time and location. When players first gain control of Portal’s silent protagonist, Chell, they’re given a portal gun and told to complete a series of tasks throughout the sterile, pristine facility. When the tests take a life-threatening turn, players are given a chance to escape the facility. The player’s decision to leave the confines of the pre-approved testing area represents a major turning point in the plot, and the change in the narrative is reflected in the setting. Chell’s new environment is dirty and chaotic, lacking the well-designed visual instructions from the tests. Players must learn how to interpret sloppy, handwritten clues and navigate the muddy setting, adding a new dimension of difficulty to the escape.
The first-person shooter BioShock (2K Games, 2007) demonstrates one possible relationship between setting and character. Set in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in 1960, BioShock tells the story of Rapture, an underwater objectivist utopia built by business tycoon Andrew Ryan. Ryan envisioned a world where men would rule through sheer force of will rather than through government or religious authority. As a product of Ryan’s singular vision, Rapture reflects his ideals, and its decay shows how those ideals have been corrupted with time. When players first enter Rapture from above, they’re treated to sweeping vistas of a glowing city beneath the waves. The city seems calm and serene from the outside, suggesting that Ryan peacefully realized his ideas. The chaos players find inside the city tells a very different story. After widespread riots, Rapture has been torn to pieces, and what’s left is plagued by blaring sirens, violent lights, and overgrown vegetation. In spite of Ryan’s ideals, he was not able to dominate through will alone, and the ruins of Rapture reflect the disastrous results of his attempt.
Setting and theme share a strong connection in Persona 5 (Atlus, 2016), a role-playing game set in a fantasy version of modern-day Tokyo. Persona 5’s story explores the theme of cognitive distortion, suggesting that people’s hearts and minds can be warped by strong desires. When distortions are strong enough in the Persona-world, they can take the physical form of otherworldly buildings called Palaces. It’s the player’s job to guide the protagonists, the Phantom Thieves, through these Palaces to steal the objects of desire that led to the initial distortion. Each Palace is a unique setting developed to match the desires of the person with the distorted mindset. The cruel volleyball coach sees himself as a king and the school as his castle; the abusive art thief imagines himself as the owner of a fine museum and sees his victims as his works of art. The metaphor of theme-as-setting concludes once Phantom Thieves steal the object that created the distortion, as the Palace crumbles and the owner is freed from their poisonous mindset. Their setting is restored to normal, as is their view of the world.
There are countless ways for video game narratives to explore the relationship between story and setting. The best settings will provide solid ground-rules for the story and forge connections between the plot, the characters, and the themes. These rules and connections ensure that the settings will be essential components of the experience that players will always remember.
1 McKee, Robert. Story (p. 72). HarperCollins e-books. Kindle Edition.
2 Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story (p. 178). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.
* Reference Footage (Portal): Bolloxed. Portal – Full Walkthrough. YouTube, 2015.
* Reference Footage (BioShock): Gamer’s Little Playground. Bioshock Remastered All Cutscenes (Game Movie) PC 1080p 60FPS. YouTube, 2016.
* Reference Footage (Persona 5): DismArchus. Persona 5 Royal | Museum of Vanity Arc [English] [No Commentary]. YouTube, 2020.