Why do we go back to the same places in games?

It's not uncommon for games to recycle levels and environments, even between sequels. But is it always for cheap effect, or can it say something special?

Many videogames inhabit something like a timeless state, wherein each revisit forces the player to embrace the specific moment of plot launch or -- more certainly -- the specific moment in which it was made. It is almost impossible to pull up a game title from even three years ago without having to contextualize every aspect of its creation, from user interface on down. To not do this runs the risk of holding a game to an unfair standard – you wouldn’t, for example, fault a game from the 90s because it failed to predict iPads, would you? But sometimes, contextualization can be a joyful process, or even lead to greater understanding for what we appreciate about a game and the specific time and circumstances that brought it about.

In other words: sometimes time creates a distance that makes the experience that much better -- especially when the series knows how to use that time to its advantage.

My desire to revisit worlds was piqued recently when Saints Row 4 came back into my life. Post-election, the idea of a headstrong narcissist president -- and his team of best friends offering hollow apologies for apocalyptic choices -- seemed somehow less fun. But what really struck me about Saints Row 4 is how it uses setting.

For those who haven’t played it, Saints Row 4 imagines the city you once conquered in Saints Row 3 except re-created within The Matrix and action-packed with glitches, faults, and continuity errors. This raises a question for me of how many locales videogames have presented themselves as at least as real as the physical world, enough that I’m able to understand their archeology. Put simply: games make you revisit things in complicated ways, and sometimes that complication depends on you. But revisiting a location can also stir up things in us that we weren’t aware we had we were tied so strongly to.

Who had used this well? Who had used this poorly? I started making a list of games and experiences that stuck with me in their calculating choices, and which games had been forgettable in their execution of a Return To Oz, to see what emotional strings pull the hardest. Whereas Saints Row 4 has a separate arc of being recontextualized by modern history, I found that worlds playing against their own stories, or their protagonists, could pull off the cleverest executions.

Portal 2 is one of the easiest cases to point to. The sequel takes place in the same laboratory as the original, albeit ravaged by time and still attempting to mechanically soldier onward despite a crumbling, nature-reclaimed architecture. The game manages to take place both in the future and in the past, but also within your personal past. The sanitized mouse-trap of Aperture tried to put you through a meat grinder and you really left your mark via a trail of destruction. Some of the still functioning rooms even operate as if they remember you, by thwarting your progress via unexpected changes. GLaDOS, your AI potato companion, uses every opportunity to remind you that you’re the villain here for dooming a world so much bigger than yourself.

Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest inverts this by having the player revisit Dracula’s castle, only to find it completely abandoned. After hours of being under constant siege by twisted creatures, this sudden silence is much worse. You’re about to take on Dracula again, but last time your “victory” doomed the world around you. Will a second time only make things much worse? Similarly, the first moments of Super Metroid after landing on Zebes, you go through the chamber where you fought Mother Brain, and it serves as more than a callback to the last game: it also reminds you that your epic quest wasn’t so final after all.

Some open world titles recycle locations without making major changes, and some manage to use these opportunities to improve the game’s flow. My favorite example is Prototype, where the city of New York takes place on a single gigantic island. The sequel splits a similar amount of game world across three islands, changing how monster infestation is distributed and, as a result, how human life on the islands functions. Crackdown and its sequel similarly take place on the exact same map, with a few shattered buildings added into the landscape, but it fails to make this interesting the way Prototype does.

In other games, revisiting old locations is meant to shock you, reminding you of what you’ve survived and what you’ve lost. Gears of War 3 takes you back to Haldane Hall, the estate of Fenix’s parents, only to force you to abandon it all over again. Dead Space 2 pulls a fantastic twist when you find yourself back on the Ishimura: a ship that should be just as dead as its crew. And of course the entire Resident Evil franchise takes any provided opportunity to bring us back to the Spencer Mansion. The Enemy Within, another series from Resident Evil director Shinji Mikami, even pays a visit to Spencer Mansion in its DLC, so invested are fans in this particular setting.

For every game like Dead Rising 2: Off The Record where a game can just be released with a swapped protagonist, there are also games that choose to revisit locations that expand the lore, occasionally to the detriment of the original. Bioshock: Infinite used the Burial At Sea expansion to revisit the original game and, clumsily, explain away an unfortunately racist character and a number of other debilitating plot holes. The excitement of going back to one of the greatest underwater cities in videogames was quickly deflated when you realized the intention of your return trip was a patch job for Infinite’s shoddy storytelling, not Rapture for its own sake. Sometimes dead is better.

Finally, there’s Silent Hill, a setting revisited and re-explored perhaps more than any other. While the town itself must include a few basic streets and locations, almost everything else bends to the will and fears of each iteration’s protagonist. It’s always the same town but it’s never explorable in the same way, and certainly the residents are on permanent rotation. Seeing the amusement park can stir something deep and terrible inside, but everything else is up for grabs, and that’s probably the best possible way to handle a permanent location over a game series.

Are there cheap reasons to re-use maps and levels? Absolutely. But when done right, these games play your personal history against your working expectations. In an age where we’re doing more re-releases, maybe incorporating classic moments into newer projects is a better choice.