Anyone who has studied literature knows the vital components of quality writing — plot, theme, character, and setting. These devices generate narratives worth reading. Even though these four elements are essential, the use of setting is often underutilized. A strong sense of place and time generates tone and reflects the society or culture within a story. Settings also work to convey themes and represent characters that may speak to greater meaning.
Video games are no exception to this scrutiny. Some titles may rely more heavily on plot, others on actual gameplay, but one thing is for sure — without setting, video games are a hard sell. When considering even the most primitive and retro of releases, the setting still takes the stage as a selling point to audiences. Where does the Zelda franchise generally take place? In the Kingdom of Hyrule. What about something like Pong? We can easily infer the game is taking place on a table tennis “court”. The entire Assassin’s Creed franchise has built a foundation on interesting settings to their fanbase — even though Vikings were hardly assassins, but I guess it is cool to play as one during the Viking raids.
Just like characterization, a video game’s setting deepens a player’s overall connection to the story. Place and time influence both the character and audience’s emotions, which adds to an understanding of the game’s conflicts. Players can further insert themselves into a world by knowing when and where these characters exist as they experience their struggles or triumphs.
New York City, 1997
Parasite Eve is a 1998 survival-horror RPG developed and published by SquareSoft for the PlayStation. People who have never played this game love to compare it to Capcom’s Resident Evil series. Despite the similarities involving mutated enemies from an “outbreak”, Parasite Eve and Resident Evil setting-wise couldn’t be further from each other. In Resident Evil, players tank-control one-dimensional protagonists through a mansion, or a lab, or Racoon City, or a Spanish village, or whatever — generic landscapes the earlier games’ developers dump Jill and company in to overcome the dastardly Umbrella Corporation. Don’t get me wrong, I love me some RE, and I love Raccoon City, but PE sources a very real and distinct place as the backdrop for the game’s eeriness — New York City.
SquareSoft chose New York City as Parasite Eve’s location to bring to fruition a scrapped idea during Final Fantasy VII‘s development. Imagine if Midgar was midtown Manhattan, the Shinra building further likened to Trump Tower? Anyway, the setting does not limit itself to place alone, as the events in Parasite Eve occur in the “present” — 1997 in the game — during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Much of Parasite Eve‘s narrative progresses through the NYC locations that NYPD officer Aya Brea, her partner, Daniel Dollis, and their Japanese contact Kunihiko Maeda visit and search during the game. Parasite Eve is a sequel to Hideaki Sena’s novel of the same name — and despite his lack of involvement, SquareSoft’s work upon release impressed Sena. Plot-wise, the game involves the rapid evolution of mitochondria and antagonist Eve’s attempt to produce the “Ultimate Being”, the NYC population devolving into either orange goop or charred corpses, and the role Aya plays in all of this.
In the background of all this biological horror, players also witness the destruction of a pre-9/11 New York City. There is an “overworld” map between segments of the game that directs the player to visit different locations in a mostly evacuated Manhattan. Depending on where the plot is at, Aya can travel to famous NYC destinations, such as the American Museum of Natural History, Chinatown, Central Park, and Carnegie Hall. There are also scenes inside a NYPD precinct, SoHo, outside a decimated Statute of Liberty, and even the Chrysler Building — which is only available at the real end of the game, unlocked by completing on regular and then replayed and finished on “EX-Game” mode. But think of the implications created from using such a regarded setting that has so much cultural impact on the world. What are the developers hinting at through rendering these places in Parasite Eve’s narrative at large?
The American Museum of Natural History
A huge chunk of Parasite Eve involves scaling five floors inside the labyrinth that is the American Museum of Natural History. The museum is located across the street from the west side of Central Park and boasts a plethora of engaging exhibits focused on natural sciences, the universe, and by extension, a diverse conversation on the history of human culture. Aya finds herself, not once, but several times, traversing marble staircases and empty elevators to not only hunt the estranged scientist, Dr. Hans Klamp, but the mitochondrial beast that calls herself Eve.
Even for a game made over twenty years ago, the developer’s attention to detail is astounding. As Aya makes her way through the building, she wanders in and out of exhibits uncanny to the ones I explored during elementary school field trips — complete with kiosks prompting the player to answer questions correctly for items. Parasite Eve even gives the Hall of Biodiversity some attention with a model of the rainforest section and smaller-scaled renderings of the Spectrum of Life display. However, the American Museum of Natural History is more than just a setting in Parasite Eve.
In actual NYC, the museum has a robust collection of dinosaur fossils, with the height of this showing being a full-scale replica of a T. Rex. This is used to clever effect in game. Random encounters in this part of Parasite Eve include the animals on exhibit — troodons and pterodactyls that lunge at Aya, screeching through the silent, abandoned halls. Eve has reanimated these old bones to thwart Aya’s advances. I recognize these from the actual exhibits sprinkled throughout the building, and, with developers’ use of pre-rendered backgrounds and a general understanding of the museum’s layout, the farfetched events in Parasite Eve hit closer to both home and my nostalgia more than I realized.
These enemies are not just limited to random encounters in the halls of the museum. Eve also resurrects the renowned T. Rex display as Aya must defeat the Cretaceous predator in the boss battle of this “dungeon”. Dinosaurs like the T. Rex are unfathomable to conceive of existing in our modern-day existence. By reanimating these long since dead creatures, Eve is broadcasting her desire of similarly annihilating human life on planet Earth — the same species who have caused mass extinctions of their very own. Humans put these beasts on display, conquering their bodies for fascination and benefit. In Parasite Eve, this reflects what the mitochondria are attempting with life in NYC. The mitochondria’s ability to take over a host and birth a new purpose does not differ from Eve choosing the American Museum of Natural History as the place to gestate the “Ultimate Being”.
Museums exist so history does not get lost to the ravages of time, for they house physical proof of former and current existences. If there is evidence that you once lived, your legacy lives on, and being reconstructed — even as orange goo — means you never actually die. Eve articulates this often in her violent mission, claiming the “dead” are being repurposed for what the mitochondria believe to be a higher calling. This does not differ from our relationship with dinosaurs, and with substantial evidence of once being alive, they live on in museums and our understanding of evolution.
The Statue of Liberty
The Statue of Liberty is synonymous with not only New York City and the United States as a whole, but also as the ultimate symbol of democracy and opportunity. She watches from Liberty Island across the bay at larger Manhattan with sweet promises of the American Dream. Despite its questionable attainability, the American Dream embedded in American society is a cultural, political, and economic virtue. In Parasite Eve, the Statue of Liberty is not accessible, just like this elusive dream. Aya cannot explore the confines of the giant oxidized woman during the game, but its prominence in the background and when and where it appears is crucial to understanding the various nuances behind setting Parasite Eve portrays to a willing audience.
When players hit “start” — nostalgic sigh — the SquareSoft logo appears as the screen transitions into the top of the statue’s torch. The shot pans down from her outstretched arm to her green face, snow drifting in the air. Here, developers are setting the game’s tone. The image of snow invokes specific feelings and memories for the audience. We may assume it is cold outside, maybe it is Christmas time, but we know immediately where we are — the USA, in NYC. The game establishes the setting without delay, as much of the game’s narrative is subject to the city itself.
Towards the end of the game, the Statue of Liberty appears once more. The orange goo beast made of New Yorkers and their French Bulldogs have decimated her. The cut scene appears right after Aya and the company board the Navy vessel. Aya agrees to assist, being immune to the deadly reaction Eve triggers in living organisms, and jumps into a helicopter to shoot missiles, stopping the Goo Kaiju in its path of destruction. She slays and splays the beast all over the statue, its crushing weight knocking the symbol over. The two times that Lady Liberty appears in Parasite Eve provide moments of foreshadowing. In the opening shot of the game, it looks as if a tear is falling from the statue’s eye. Comparatively, as she is falling over near the game’s end, a goo-drop resembling a tear pools from her eye.
Setting can also imply certain thoughts on a culture’s systems and values. By showing the Statue of Liberty in all its decadence early in the game, then reducing her to a participation trophy at a crucial point, through the likes of an invasive, foreign entity, it diminishes her symbolism. This destruction cancels associations of American freedom and liberty, replacing them with more negative symbolism — such as the country’s love of an unnatural system of capitalistic and imperialistic greed rather than a series of catchall phrases under democracy.
In the monster’s ultimate attack, it uses the country’s citizens against the country itself, thus destroying the land’s highest idol of “values”. We can argue the subtle meanings from this inclusion, perhaps how the repurposed New Yorkers are embracing the “natural” order through the mitochondria and are overthrowing oppressive capitalism that doesn’t care about life at all. Or maybe it is Parasite Eve‘s creators interjecting their personal opinions on American culture. However, the ending battle between Eve and Aya also contains the toppled Statue of Liberty in the background. At such a climax during the game, developers place special emphasis on the statue’s inclusion and beg players to analyze the setting’s significance to the overall narrative.
All the world’s a stage
Parasite Eve is a shorter, more linear experience compared to many of SquareSoft’s other releases. But its one jam packed with meaning and themes that its setting is directly tired to. The above is just a sample of the game’s precision and dedication to using NYC as a setting, and how that informs its themes. This rich sense of place and time grounded in reality expands the story, characters, and theme further, making the game not only one of the more memorable from my past but one of the best a player can get engulfed in — orange primordial goo excluded.