Gaming may be bursting at the seams with rich, detailed universes, but complex and interesting protagonists are thinner on the ground. The main reason for this lies in the interactive nature of videogames: Exploring a world is fun, but passively observing a character’s behavior in a cutscene is not. But there is a way for developers to harness the narrative power of exploration to convey complex characters without ever taking control away from the player. Just as a well-realized environment is arguably the most effective method games have of conveying a world’s history to the player, so a carefully designed home can convey more about a character in a few minutes of inquisitive game play than several hours of dialogue-heavy cutscenes. If a man’s home is his castle, then a videogame character’s home is the window to the character’s soul.

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BioShock‘s brass plaques, consumerist posters and period detailing tell the complex story of Rapture. In the same way, April’s eclectic yet homely bedsit in The Longest Journey effortlessly shows us her character: humorous, artistic and conflicted. Despite a troubled past that compels her to keep a handwritten diary on hand at all times, April still harbours a lingering affinity for keepsakes from her childhood, such as clockwork monkey Constable Guybrush. It is a side of herself she keeps hidden however, as Guybrush is stashed away in her wardrobe, unlike her college timesheet and art materials, which remain on prominent display.

It only takes a few minutes to explore April’s room, and yet these few minutes provide the story and its protagonist with a strong identity and an emotional center that resonate for the duration of the game. Which begs the question of why, when domestic spaces are apparently so adept at conveying character, are they so often neglected in favor of more escapist and impersonal environments?

The obvious reason is that the compulsion to play videogames is largely based upon the desire to escape the real world. You could be forgiven for wondering why gamers would want to explore a virtual living room when they’re probably sitting in a real one. After spending a day wandering through various “real life” rooms filled with everyday signs of life, wouldn’t gamers rather be whizzing around the galaxy, saving the human race from the Collectors? Well, yes.

Mass Effect 2 is an example of the kind of ripping space yarn that should reinforce the case for more “standard” settings (space stations, alien planets) over the mundane and the homely alternative. But a closer look shows us the aspects of the game that make it truly special are not those that soar through the stars, but those that nestle on the sofa.

The original Mass Effect struggled to make us empathise with a Commander Shepard whose cabin was so clinically featureless that not so much as a book troubled its sterile shelves. Because there is no faster way to learn about a person than to examine their personal space, the blankness of Shepherd’s cabin quickly conveys a passionless character with no real loves, foibles or even preferences.

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Fast-forward three years and the most welcome addition to the Normandy is not the plasma cannon, but Shepard’s cozy cabin. Should Shepard have engaged in a romance in the previous game, a portrait of the lover in question rests on Shepherd’s desk, only to be tactfully placed face down if a new romance blossoms. Alongside the very human signs of life in the cabin (amongst them: dirty glasses, a collection of model ships and a hamster), it is this small detail that gives Mass Effect 2‘s Shepherd a humanity not possessed in the earlier game.

Many of the missions are similarly crafted to make their completion a matter of personal interest rather than box-ticking. A loyalty mission requires Shepard to examine first the cluttered bedroom of a murdered girl before visiting the killer’s glossy apartment. The contrast between these very personal dwellings tells us more about the relationship between the two than dialogue ever could.

Mass Effect 2 shows us that games need not sacrifice their scope – and their standard setting – for the poignancy afforded by personal details that are so often overlooked by vast games. Fallout 3 goes even further, telling us stories through the medium of living spaces alone.

The remains of post-apocalyptic Washington DC are littered with deserted homesteads that are all that remain of the lives claimed by the wastes. The player can scavenge power-ups from the empty dwellings of the less fortunate, rootling through derelict houses for something that might prove useful.

Buffout, for example, is an in-game steroid that increases the player’s strength and endurance for a limited amount of time. It’s also highly addictive, meaning that the careful player will weigh its short-term benefits against its long term risks. Like so many RPG items, Buffout could easily have been nothing more than a variable in a statistical balancing act, yet Fallout 3 manages to endow it with narrative power by carefully placing it among the domestic detritus of the dead. Often a player will enter a charred bedroom to find a stack of Buffout bottles and a quart of whiskey next to a soiled mattress. The placing of these power-ups within what was once someone’s home tells a very human story of substance abuse and self-destruction without the need for a cutscene.

The use of domestic spaces in Fallout 3 not only elevates the ancient gaming convention of the power-up to something with emotional weight, but it also makes the story of The Wasteland far more interesting than that of Project Purity. Without this careful arrangement of deserted homesteads, the tragedy of a nuclear holocaust would be simply too large to have any emotional impact upon the player. Scattered medication, children’s toys and useless crockery show the player that even though a country has been levelled, it is its citizens who suffer.

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.

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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.

Rated E for Everywhere

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