Something that is often overlooked in game design is the significance of the relationships players can make with locations in their games. Depending on the circumstances of the locations different emotional relationships can be made with them.
A good way to look at this topic would be in regards to the attachment theory in psychology. This theory is often used to describe the significance between a child and the child’s primary caregiver. However, the characteristics of attachment can be found in the relationship between a player and a location in a game quite often.
There are four different characteristics of attachment described by John Bowlby. Proximity maintenance, safe haven, secure base, and separation distress.
Proximity maintenance is the desire to be near the subject’s attachment figure. A good example of this in video games would be the bonfires in Demon Souls and Dark Souls. In these games, the bonfires act as secure locations as well as “checkpoints” for when you die in the game. You have a strong desire to stay close to these locations because if you venture too far away from them and die there is a higher chance that you will not make it back to retrieve your lost souls.
Safe haven is the act of returning to the attachment figure for comfort and safety in the face of fear or threat. This can be seen in many games, but the one game that best comes to mind for me, personally, would be the Nether portals in Minecraft while you are in the Nether. These portals act as your safe haven and a place to retreat when faced with a large threat in the Nether. And, let’s be frank, the Nether can be quite scary when you first venture off into it.
Secure base is when the attachment figure acts as a place of security from which the subject can explore the surrounding environment. This can be felt in a lot of games, but one game franchise I felt they made this very prevalent in was Rachet and Clank in relation to the ship that they used to fly from planet to planet in. As you travelled throughout the different worlds in Rachet and Clank, you would always start your journey from your ship which also acted as a Safe haven.
Separation distress is anxiety that occurs in the absence of the attachment figure. This is a very strong emotional effect that I think is very, very useful when done correctly in games. An example of this would be in Skyrim while doing the Assassins Guild quest line. The assassins sanctuary effectively becomes your home during this quest line and you gain a sense of security and friendship while inside it. But nearing the end of the quest line you lose it to a group of enemies who burns it down and kills many of your friends inside. This is a very effective emotional trigger on your first play through. I find this to be a very well executed quest and I wish this tactic was used more often in video games.
While locations act as great tools to create attachments and extremely effective emotional triggers they can also have different kinds of relationships with the player. As an example from my own experience of gaming, I’d like to use Helgen from Skyrim. (Yes, I reference Skyrim a lot.) I started the game and expected to be a prisoner considering all Elder Scrolls games make you one in the beginning. Thus, I wasn’t surprised when i started the game in the back of a cart in chains. However, I wasn’t aware that I would end up facing my executioner within the first few minutes of playing the game. So already I am starting to give Helgen an association with the idea that I am supposed to die in this place. The scene continues and now I am on the chopping block, ready to face my fate when, out of nowhere, a dragon comes out of the sky and starts burning the entire town. I narrowly escape the hellfire and end up out of the city, but I did not leave without receiving a very important message. Helgen is a bad place to be. It wasn’t until my third play through of the game when I actually considered to revisit that hell hole. And when I did, I was a little disappointed with the results. After that introduction, I was left with an incredibly strong feeling of fear towards the place. I did NOT want to show my face there ever again after nearly losing my head and almost becoming a dragon snack. I was expecting something a little more substantial then just a bunch of brigands making the scorched ruins their home. Even though that was wasted in Skyrim it is still a great example of how you can make relationships with locations in your game.
A game that does use this relationship effectively is Doom 3. After experiencing the bathroom scene in this game, you pretty much never want to go into a bathroom ever again. This made for a great emotional trigger that the Doom team could use on their players, and they used it well.
So the important message to take away from this post is to make sure you think a lot about how your players will define the locations they go to. It is important to recognize these relationships and the emotions that go along with them. If you do you can use them to your advantage.