The Gameological Society, a new gaming spinoff of The A.V. Club, interviews game designers on the challenges of establishing setting. There’s analysis here of three different games, each with widely different aesthetic and mood: Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Yakuza and Final Fantasy XII.
I especially liked the breakdown of Deux Ex’s futuristic Detroit setting, on setting the right balance of freedom for the player character:
The goal, then, isn’t to make the city big, but to make it seem big. It’s all about how you wrestle out that illusion of urbanity. “The player must feel like he has freedom of exploration, that he can be creative with the environment,” Jacques-Belletête said. “At the same time, we need to set limits and boundaries in the world and these boundaries must feel ‘natural.’ We think a lot about what these boundaries will be.”
The boundaries can be superficial. A police barricade, a boarded up door, a chain link fence that’s just too high to jump. Those boundaries can be masked, though, by any number of perceptual means. “A great trick to make the city feel bigger and livelier than it actually is with the sound. Having dogs bark in the distance, the echoes of police sirens, and people talking and babies crying when you get near windows of apartment buildings. The streets of our game don’t have cars moving in them. But with each opportunity we had, you can see moving cars in the distance—on overpasses, on the other side of fences, and other such places.”