With the release of Prey a few months ago getting more praise for the atmospheric space-station in which it takes place rather than the actual game-play, we’ve thought more about the worlds in which video games throw us into
So here are 5 great examples of fantastic world-building in video-games which not only bring immersion into the games themselves, but also add to the story.
Perhaps the most celebrated video-game world of them all; from the moment your bathysphere sinks to bottom of the ocean and you take your first steps into Andrew Ryan’s now desecrated vision of an underwater utopian society, it’s clear that the city of Rapture is something special. It’s the perfect realisation of a city that has morally (and structurally in a lot of places) self-destructed; falling from the loftiest of heights to a city of crazed, genetically altered “splicers”, hulking “Big Daddies”, and creepy “Little Sisters” roaming the mostly deserted spaces.
In Bioshock, the player sees Rapture at its worst, just after riots and civil war have killed the majority of the population and left parts of the city in ruins. It’s haunting to walk through the leaky hallways while listening to the utterly immersive audio-logs of the city’s former residents, who paint a vivid picture of how life in Rapture used to be, and how it imploded spectacularly.
Areas such as Neptune’s Bounty, Smuggler’s Hideout and Arcadia will live long in the memory.
A 50’s inspired art-deco style is unusual enough in a video-game but combined with a unique underwater setting, fascinating characters to interact with, and profound themes of philosophy behind it all, Rapture stands out as one of the most memorable game locations of all time.
Hyrule, The Legend of Zelda
For fans of The Legend of Zelda series, coming back to Hyrule with each new entry is like coming home- instantly familiar and incredibly comforting. Hyrule Castle, Kakariko Village, The Lost Woods, Gerudo Valley, Lake Hylia, Death Mountain and dozens of other locations spring to mind when I think of Hyrule, and the memories I have of these places automatically kindle a happy nostalgia. Created by Nintendo in 1986 for the first game in the series, The Legend of Zelda, Hyrule has evolved over decades (along with the technology it’s built on) to become a fully fleshed out world, full of diverse regions and different races, but somehow still retains the original magic and recurring themes of the 8-bit original.
From The Legend of Zelda up to the recent Breath of the Wild, we have seen Hyrule expand and add new locations that become iconic in following games. Having had such fond memories of meeting Epona as young Link, and then returning as adult Link to win her in a race in Ocarina of Time, it was especially meaningful to me when I stumbled upon the ruins of Lon Lon Ranch in Breath of the Wild recently.
Hyrule is a land full of secrets and possibilities. Bombings crack in a wall to find a hidden area, making an offering at a fairy temple, and pulling back gravestones for a secret passageway are some of the actions that have become second nature to Zelda fans over the years. These enduring mechanics are set in a world that is so well established, that Nintendo have also been able to experiment with different iterations of Hyrule (Termina in Majora’s Mask) or even try something completely new (Windwaker’s vast Great Sea).
Stepping back into Hyrule with new games in the Zelda franchise feels like meeting an old friend- although it may have been some time since you last encountered each other, you already have a sense of ease and understanding, and it’s genuinely exciting to learn what may have changed or evolved since you last got together.
The Land of the Dead, Grim Fandango
In 1998, LucasArts and Tim Schafer gave us Grim Fandango, one of the most critically acclaimed adventure games ever made. The usual game-play of interacting with objects to solve (fiendishly hard) puzzles was set to the backdrop of what is still one of the most interesting, and visually captivating video-game environments I’ve seen- The Land of the Dead.
The Land of the Dead (also known as the 8th Underworld) is where the souls of recently deceased people go in order to start their journey to the 9th Underworld, or, the “The Land of Eternal Rest”. We learn that it is not so simple to get this final resting place, and the way you lived your life will affect how you are allowed to travel. If you have generally been a morally decent person, you can take a luxury train straight to the entrance of the 9th Underworld… But if you lived a life of greed, sin, or malice, you are forced to take alternative and longer methods of transport.
Enter Manny Calavara, a Grim Reaper (the equivalent of a travel agent in this world) who is unhappy with his lot in life (or death) assigning travel orders to the newly deceased. As the protagonist, the player steers Manny through his own journey- one that will last 4 years of in-game time, and takes in many locations in this fantastically designed underworld of lost souls. The design of the characters is inspired by the skeletal “calaca” figures associated with Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations.
Grim Fandango stands-out for not only for this high-concept premise, which is based in real Aztec mythology and the belief in Mictlan (the Aztec Underworld), but the way it combines these themes with a unique film-noir style aesthetic. During the 4 year journey you revisit locations that have changed over time to reflect the story of the game, which is a really wonderful way to add depth to an already extraordinary world.
The fictional city of Dunwall in 2012’s Dishonored was not the first video-game location to take inspiration from Victorian-era Britain, but it stands out as one of the most immersive. When I picture this period of post-industrial revolution, I immediately think of a grimy looking London, with thick smog in the air, and drab surroundings of brown and grey. While Dunwall does feature these, it also mixes in non-reality based technological (and magical) elements such as electric barriers and the “Tallboys”, the hulking manned-machine sentinels patrolling the city.
Dunwall comes with its own backstory too; it is the capital of the whaling industry and whale oil is harvested as a valuable commodity that powers the city, and this is completely believable thanks to the excellent design of your surroundings. A lot of credit has to be given to the sound effects and musical score that accompanies Dishonored, and even the art-style has a unique look that enhances the semi-realistic/fantastical setting. You see (and can control) a lot of rats in Dishonored, and these vermin are the cause of a dreadful plague that has wiped out the poorer districts of Dunwall, drawing parallels with the bubonic plague that afflicted London in the late 17th Century. The disease has infected many inhabitants of the city, who are known as “Weepers” due to the blood that leaks from their eyes.
But details like this are never explicitly explained. The developer, Arkane Studios, brilliantly leaves it up to the player to discover the fascinating backstory of not only the city itself, but the characters that populate it as well. Overhearing conversations between NPC’s, or finding hand-written letters and notes are some of the ways that you gather information- everything piece of dialogue or text is beautifully crafted to enhance the design of the world and make it believable.
It all adds up to an atmospheric, intense, and often scary setting to explore. The neighborhoods of Dunwall are separated into smaller sandboxes for the player to negotiate, and haunting characters such as Granny Rags combined with distinct mission locations like Kaldwin’s Bridge ensure that this a game-world that is hard to forget.
The Continent, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt
The Witcher III: Wild Hunt won universal praise on its release for being one of the best open-world games of the last decade. And rightly so: Developer CD Projekt Red’s masterpiece was a lesson in how to design a fantasy world that feels authentic and lived-in, so much so, that you feel as if it carries on existing even after you turned off your console.
In Wild Hunt you explore an almost overwhelmingly vast piece of land that is full of life. Often with games that drop a player on a huge map and give them the freedom to roam, a lot of the side-quests or supplemental tasks can feel underdeveloped. But in this case, CD Projekt RED have established a world in which it is equally fun to complete the main story as it is to travel cross-country looking for monsters to slay, treasure to discover, and even play Gwent (an addictive in-game collectible card game à la Hearthstone). When progressing through the main story in Wild Hunt, the player gets caught up in a world full of conspiracy, politics, and war that are all expertly woven together to form an absorbing backdrop to the main quest.
This is the true star of the show in Wild Hunt– the incredible setting that seems to live and breathe as naturally as I have ever seen in an open-world game. And it helps that it’s all rendered in stunning graphical detail. The locales and inhabitants of The Northern Lands (the region where the game takes place) are instrumental in creating a tangible and utterly believable fantasy world. Your journey will take you from tiny villages to huge cities; from green farmlands to sodden swamps; from underground caverns to snowy mountain-tops and so on… The vibrant landscapes, people, and beasts that inhabit it are so diverse and engrossing that you actually want to experience everything – something quite rare in a game of this size.