Interior Spaces In Video Games As Settings And Myth Components

Monday 22 April 2019

From the moment when the video game technology found the means to create three-dimensional settings for  its environments, the concept of space and its use in gaming moved to a wholly different level. Still, third-person shooters from the early '90ties, like Wolfenstein 3D or Blake Stone and even more evolved games like the very first Tomb Raider, took place almost exclusively in interior areas because back then creating an open-world exterior space was a very difficult and complicated task. Under that light, we could say that the setting played a major role in shaping the essence of the plot. When, in the first Tomb Raider, Lara Croft had to go to Peru, the game's action was limited to a series of caves. Exterior areas, whenever they were present in the game, were in fact interior spaces with a black ceiling indicating the sky. In the gameplay sequences of Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within, the most iconic point-and-click game from that time, we see real environments that were photographed and used as some sort of backdrop, in front of which the action could take place. The evolution of gaming technology however was so fast and so impressive that it soon was able to offer all the means for the creation of video games that were almost like movies. Now game developers can create a vast open world and expand it as much as they want as a huge, seemingly limitless exterior that covers several different areas.

A video game is, simply put, a moving picture that develops on a computer or TV screen. The whole surrounding, exterior environment of a game is built from scratch and, in its turn, happens to be a specified space made of pixels and defined by a programming language which gives it the attributes of a virtual exterior world. Within that virtual exterior world, individual interior spaces are formed, again from combinations of pixels, taking their own place and gaining their special major or minor importance in the world that includes them. As soon as the surrounding space becomes the exterior of an interior setting, the interior space gets a specific level of autonomy. This means that, on the technical level, it still depends on the programming of its exterior space but on the levels of fiction, story and plot, it has its own identity and role in the game. So in terms of programming, it is made of a set total of pixels and commands, but in terms of storyline and gameplay, it is what us, as players see: a mansion, a store, a hut, a museum, an asylum, a lighthouse, a castle - whatever the almost endless list of interior settings in video games can feature.

While there is a multitude of interior areas in games that exist in the environments simply for the sake of realism (houses in a village or a town, apartment buildings in a city, abandoned huts in a countryside) or for aesthetic purposes, or both, they often have a prominent role, being places that the lead characters have to explore so as to make important discoveries. Although now we see games that depend much of their action on the exploration of vast exterior environments, like Miasmata, Kholat or the recent zombie-themed Days Gone, interior spaces never ceased to play a major role in the development of the stories. Ramon Salazar's castle in Resident Evil 4 is a good example of how an interior setting shapes the core of the game's adventure. While outside in the Spanish countryside, Leon Kennedy has a moderate liberty considering which way to choose and what strategy to apply so as to escape from the enemies. Once inside the castle, things become tighter, as the place has traps everywhere and vicious monsters guarding its halls. Salazar didn't deliberately lure Leon in his castle, but the way the story unfolded, such a development was inevitable.

The castle is centuries old, but this is not limited to its architecture and history. Everything inside it seems to be lost in time. The owner himself is dressed like a baroque nobleman, the latter being a tragic irony completely, as he is neither a noble nor a man. What makes his castle even more chilling, is that there are whole rooms that are completely deserted, while there are still signs of life around. You go through a garden maze where zombie dogs roam, only to find yourself moments later in a beautifully decorated bedroom where there is only calm and silence. Next up you move to an empty dining room, and just after this, there is a small trap room where several enemies attack unexpectedly. This is a pattern that repeats itself throughout the whole sequence of the castle's exploration, although from a point and on, you rarely have the chance to enter a room that is safe and empty - with the exception of the safe rooms with the typewriter. Although a big part of the game takes place in exterior areas, the action that happens indoors is the most memorable. 

Having a story unfold in an interior space is many times a necessary option to create a haunting, immersive atmosphere. The Asylum in Outlast, the Brookhaven Hospital in the Silent Hill series, the Church in The Lost Crown, are examples of iconic environments that perfectly set up the mood for a chilling horror adventure. Claire Redfield in Resident Evil: Code Veronica finds herself in the creepy mansion of Alfred Ashford, an old-fashioned villa that is full of zombies, traps, hidden passages and secret rooms, after escaping from her prison cell following a zombie outbreak. While a house is normally a safe and protected zone, in survival horror games there is more danger creeping inside than outside. You can never know what lies behind a closed door or what will jump out of a dark corner. Claire is involuntarily an intruder, and as such is treated with extreme hostility, more so since the owner of the mansion is a deranged man who lives in his own little world. Alfred threatens to shoot her on sight whenever they cross paths, taking advantage of his knowledge of the grounds so as to outsmart her and subsequently defeat her.

Such interior settings rely a lot on the element of the unexpected; they are unknown grounds and the lead characters have to explore them in detail, most of the times coming across all kinds of nasty surprises. In the original Resident Evil, Chris Redfield, Jill Valentine and their teammates are trapped in the Spencer mansion, a rather unfriendly estate where the inhabitants are zombies and monsters. The biggest part of the game takes place inside the mansion and follows the heroes in their quest of keys and other important items with which they are able to open one by one all the doors of the vintage house. An impressive library, art gallery rooms, a tea room with a grand piano, could, in other conditions make any visitor feel at home. Not in this case, though. The interior space here offers a very brief and temporary relief from danger, but it's not long before we realize that there is much less safety inside that it was outside.

The Raccoon Police Department in Resident Evil 2 Remake acts in a similar way. The huge building offers a shelter to Leon Kennedy and Claire Redfield as soon as they get inside while the city is crawling with zombies, but soon they find out that the situation is pretty much the same, if not worse, in the station. Surrounded by an imposing aura, mostly due to the fact that it used to be a museum, with several vintage key items lying around and works of art decorating its halls, the RPD is an archetypical environment, given its importance in the progression of the plot. Once inside, Leon and Claire have to reveal a secret passage that leads to the basement and, subsequently, to an alternative setting. Said passage is just a few steps away from the entrance, hidden below a huge statue in the main hall. Opening it, however, is neither easy nor straightforward. There are certain items in specific rooms that need to be found before the secret door is revealed. But even when this is done, there is still work to do before the exit becomes available. In that sense, the story in the first half of the game is centered around the RPD; all the attention and the focus of the characters shifts to it, as their main task is to explore every nook and cranny in the building to find the items in question.

Ethan Winters in Resident Evil 7 finds himself in a similar situation when he gets trapped inside the Baker house, and his quest is the agonizing search for a series of key items that will allow him to leave. Unlike with the pathetic, brainless zombies, Ethan has to face a human enemy, a morbid and bloodthirsty stalker who is far more dangerous because he still retains a level of intelligence. Just like Alfred Ashford, Jack Baker, the patriarch of the house, knows the layout of his grounds, which gives him a great advantage over the unwilling intruder. Regardless the environment becomes an unexpected ally for Ethan, as he can use it to hide from Jack who is frantically turning the place over while looking for him. The Baker house is a fortress of lethal traps where everything that would have a normal, everyday use, has been turned into a weapon against anyone attempting to escape. Once you get inside, you cannot leave. Doors lock behind you and other doors lead to more dangers. You have to go through painful puzzles so as to find a way out. Maybe the most frightening aspect of Ethan's unexpected impisonment in the Baker home is the fact that the farm stands in the middle of a broad, swampy countryside with no other houses in any close distance while Ethan has no way to communicate with the outside world, and his only means of escaping, his car, lies in pieces in the garage.

The eery, dream-like depiction of Salem in Murdered: Soul Suspect offers the ideal exterior environment for its gloomy horror story. There are several interior settings in the game,  however the most memorable and crucial one is the Judgement House where lies the key to the final revelation of the mystery story. From the moment that the gameplay allows Ronan O' Connor to wander around Salem, he can see the exit to the region where the Judgement House is; however he cannot go there until certain things have been done first. This alone intensifies the significance of that house and creates a feeling of uneasiness concerning it. The Judgement House is an old, crumbling, mazey mansion haunted with ghosts of the past, with demons hiding in the walls, and a particularly chilling room that the antagonist of the story, a mysterious serial killer, has transformed into a lair. Ronan can get in the house freely and explore it, but once he discovers that room, the demons are unleashed and roam the corridors and halls and a shocking revelation becomes accessible in the basement.

Set in a vast exterior environment, Resident Evil: Revelations 2 is noted for its intense claustrophobic feel which is evident right from the start but becomes even stronger as soon as we find out, through Claire Redfield's eyes, that we are in fact on an isolated island in the middle of nowhere. Claire Redfield and Moira Burton explore several interior areas in their struggle to survive and eventually escape, but it is not until they reach the Monument Tower that they start to acknowledge the nature of the evil force that brought them there. The Monument Tower is a very tall, steep, intimidating construction that can be seen from a distance long before we are able to reach it. Essentially the lair of the game's arch-villain, Alex Wesker, who affectionately calls it "the scaffold of the Gods", it is a disturbing fusion of high-tech devices and flimsy architecture, and looks like a server lost in a spaceship. Just like in Resident Evil 4, here too the hostile countryside is nothing compared to the nightmarish interior that is the tower. Anxiety and fear build up progressively as Claire and Moira ascend the twisted construction up to the point when they meet with Alex who, not surprisingly, is hiding behind a wall of glass. Just then, Alex commits suicide after revealing her plans, albeit her words are full of riddles. As soon as this happens, a self-destruct sequence begins and the two girls have to run to the emergency exit, a narrow path over a chasm that leads back inside the tower where, in one version of the story, Moira is crushed to death.

Mark Jefferson's Dark Room in Life Is Strange is yet one more unforgettable interior environment which also happens to represent the root of the evil in the story. Located in a well-hidden underground area of an isolated barn, Mr Jefferson's private space is a seemingly clean and all-shiny place with top-notch technological equipment where the professor is supposed to take and work on his artistic and inspired photographs. In reality, it is the lair of a psychopath who is obsessed with capturing the loss of innocence with his camera. Max Caulfield finds herself trapped in Mr Jefferson's Dark Room, in a sequence where the whole essence of the game is being summarized. Max has the ability to rewind time, just like photographs take us back to the past. In her attempt to change the present, she has to use her own photographs, as well as the stuff and equipment in the room around her. Max being trapped in the Dark Room symbolizes the way she is actually trapped in time, in a doubtful reality of consecutive rewinds that fix one thing but mess with everything else.

In The Evil Within, the notion of interior space moves to a completely different level. As the whole adventure develops inside a madman's head, through his shattered memories, there is no actual exterior world anywhere to be found. In this specific universe, however, there are still countryside and city streets which eventually contrast with the most important interior setting, the Victoriano manor. Sebastian Castellanos is literally dragged inside the mansion in Ruben Victoriano's vicious attempt to force him into acknowledging how much he had suffered as a child and how unjust life had been to him. The manor here is a tangible element off Ruben's memories but is also a major symbol, tightly connected to him. When Sebastian gets inside the house, he essentially dives into Ruben's innermost thoughts. Ruben's house is not simply an interior space; it is the field of the story's most important revelation which had to occur in a protected place: it was a secret that had to be shared only with a specific someone. The dimly lit rooms of the manor are chilling; their air is filled with sins of the past and from time to time, Ruben himself appears in his ghoulish form, chasing Sebastian and threatening to kill him.

In the same atmosphere, the interior spaces of The Evil Within 2 are all part of a virtual world, where exterior areas only typically belong to the outside. Although technically houses are still houses, stores are still stores, gas stations are still gas stations, there are several interior environments that are directly connected to the protagonist, Sebastian Castellanos and the game's villains. Sebastian's Safe Room is a safe haven that is abruptly formed by his memories once he is sedated and enters the virtual world STEM, in a desperate search for his little daughter who had been abducted so as to participate in a nightmarish experiment. Sebastian's Room is a reminiscent of his office at the police station and it is the place where he can return through teleporting mirrors. There was a space with a similar role in The Evil Within, but that one was much less familiar and friendly to Sebastian. The Room of The Evil Within 2 is a place that no one can invade (except for one instance); in there, he has the chance to contemplate, remember and come to terms with his conscience by watching slides from his past.

Notably, there are certain interior settings that are particularly popular in video games and quite often are closely connected to their respective stories and their progression. Lighthouses (Alan Wake, Bioshock Infinite), churches (Resident Evil 4, Devil May Cry 4, The Evil Within, Resident Evil 6), laboratories (Gray Matter, Resident Evil 2, The Evil Within 2), asylums (Murdered: Soul Suspect, Thief 2014, Sanitarium, The Evil Within), museums (Tomb Raider: The Angel of Darkness, Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within, The Lost Crown, Murdered: Soul Suspect), universities (Life is Strange, Resident Evil 6) underground train stations (Resident Evil 6, Tomb Raider 3, The Evil Within), are environments that we get to see a lot more than others, not only because they are advantageous by default but also because usually they gain a high symbolic value in the stories where they are featured.

As video game characters become more and more realistic, it is not random that their surrounding world also resembles the real one. Heroes who have jobs, families, backgrounds, who have suffered losses or lived days of happiness, are expected to be active in a world where familiar things exist. Since they are not space soldiers fighting against aliens, but instead are writers, detectives, scientists, professors or artists, their world naturally consists of places where they can live like real people. Even in dream-like realities, like those of The Evil Within series, the virtual world of the stories is comprised of elements borrowed from the real world where the characters live. And this is something that practically has no limits. Since contemporary games are like interactive movies, with their metaphysical, supernatural or fantasy elements going hand-in-hand with their strong realistic aspect, they also place their lead characters in situations where they get to visit and explore real-life settings, the virtual depiction of which is impressive, to say the least.

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