Concluding the countdown with the top 10.
#10) Gotham City — Batman: Arkham Knight (2015)
I’ve written here about Arkham Knight before, but I feel as though I didn’t give quite enough attention to just how magnificently Batman this particular depiction of Gotham feels. The bricks, the steam, the gleaming skyscrapers, the darkened alleyways. It’s a bright, imposing, monolithic city of mud and grime and dust and despondent, miserable crime.
Like any good city, it looks cohesive and sensible from above, divided into three roughly equal islands, but from street level, it’s a giant, convoluted mess. Sections of the city are built on top of the ruins of older parts. Mud and dirt and grime beaten down by the shiny newness of corporate gentrification. Similarly to Arkham City, Gotham is a place with a real history, and some of it should stay buried.
#9) Boston — Fallout 4 (2015)
I think, by most players’ estimation, Fallout 3 is a better game than Fallout 4. I certainly don’t disagree, but that’s not the point of this dumb thing you’re reading. What’s irrefutable is that, technically, Fallout 4’s Boston is much, much more impressive than the Capital Wasteland. It’s seamless, gigantic, convoluted, moody and interesting from whichever angle you decide to approach it from.
Where the Capital Wasteland’s capital city is bifurcated and sectioned off by load screens and an interminable subway system, Boston is just one discrete city, a single place. If you can see something, you can get to it without having to go underground or even hit a single loading screen. Even the two major settlements, Diamond City and Goodneighbor, are bigger and more cleverly implemented than their Fallout 3 counterparts, Megaton and Rivet City. All in all, it’s just a bigger, more colorful, and more technically impressive place to inhabit, even if the game around it isn’t quite as good (still good, though).
#8) 2027 Hengsha — Deus Ex Human Revolution (2011)
Where Detroit is plausible, Hengsha is fantastical. Where Detroit is dirty and run-down, Hengsha is somehow even dirtier and more run-down. A city cut in half by a two-level Pangu structure, Hengsha is built like a city from a science fiction novel. The rich live up top, the poor live down below, in squalor and pain and destitution. What makes this city so fantastical is how the lower level is interspersed between areas of extreme poverty and extreme consumerism. From a level design standpoint, it’s even more vertical and disorienting than Detroit was, stuffed to the brim with hidden areas and alternate paths, both longtime Deus Ex staples.
What gives it that extra ounce of plausibility is how Eidos Montreal enlisted the aid of several Chinese graphic designers to work on the storefronts and general signage, lending an air of actual Chinese realism that a group of French Canadians probably wouldn’t be able to grant. All of this coalesces together to make Hengsha Island Human Revolution’s marquee attraction, a mismash of the real and the strange that makes it as intoxicating to be in as it is terrifying to think about.
#7) Los Santos — Grand Theft Auto Series (2004, 2013)
If I’m being honest this might be, objectively, the most well-realized virtual city on this entire list. Rockstar set out to completely re-create 2013 Los Angeles in their own style, and that’s exactly what they did. Los Santos is Los Angeles, right down to the smog that infests every street. During the day, it’s a sun-drenched labyrinth, full of yellows and blues and sunny-eyed Hollywood optimism. At night, it’s the neon metropolis of LA in every 80s film, full of deep shadows and synthesizers.
But what perhaps holds Los Santos back from the top of this list is how it might be too accurate. It’s too good of a recreation. I’ve played GTA Online far more than any sane person should, and Los Santos is as good of a playground for that manner of tomfoolery as I ever could have wanted, but it lacks a certain imagination. Something is lost in the translation from real to digital, and it’s just enough to make Los Santos duller than it should be. There are no mysteries here.
#6) City 17 — Half-Life 2 (2004)
If you know me (or at least my online presence), you know that Half-Life 2 is my favorite game. One of the biggest reasons why is its almost immaculate sense of place. City 17 is a living, breathing place, despite (or perhaps because) of how everyone in it is slowly dying. The opening hour of this game devotes itself entirely to environmental storytelling, delivering slow exposition in the black-suited Combine overseers, the lonely stares of its oppressed citizenry, and the worn down Eastern European cobble of its neglected city being devoured by alien technology.
It’s in the details that this city truly comes to life. The monolithic presence of the Citadel, silently standing watch over the entire city, growing in size the closer you get to it until it nearly takes over the entire screen. How that same Citadel roars to life during alerts, spitting out drones and gunships by the thousand. I feel a particular need to shoutout Viktor Antonov, this game’s visual design lead, and not just because his particular blend of European architecture melded with burnished steel will be making another appearance here. The incongruity of City 17 is what makes it feel so congruous, if that makes any sense. The intersections of the familiar and the alien are so well planned and designed, that it feels like something that actually happened, in a real place, and not just a series of pretty looking rooms linked together by a bored designer, as is so often the case in games. Valve’s adherence to honest-to-goodness game design is their best trait, and they are a company filled with great traits.
I could (and probably will) write the book on what makes Half-Life 2 great, but the only reason City 17 isn’t #1 on this list is because maybe half the game actually takes place in it. These top 6 are interchangeable, and this is the one with the least actual screen time, so here it sits.
#5) Midgar — Final Fantasy VII (1997)
You know how I said Hengsha Island was frighteningly plausible despite its silliness? Imagine that, but raised to such a fantastic tone that it becomes almost impressionistic. Midgar, a tiered city run by the megalomaniacal Shinra energy company, is so broken and destitute that it almost becomes beautiful. Throughout the first several hours of the seminal Final Fantasy VII, the player is sent on a journey that encompasses the entirety of Midgar, from the ruined train graveyard to the filthy slums. From the futuristic Shinra headquarters to the quaint church. From the glitzy, ramshackle Wall Market to the upscale surface level. It’s a fantastically implemented city, and one of the biggest reasons FF7 is as revered as it is. It’s also the strongest opening sequence of any Final Fantasy game — one of the strongest of any game I can think of.
When you finally leave Midgar, it appears on the world map as a blighted wreck, sucking the life out of the world around it. Every time you return, you see the city for what it truly is: the thing that’s killing the planet. What’s perhaps most ingenious about Midgar’s design is that when you’re in it, it seems like the world entire, but when you’re not, it’s the least important place imaginable. A tiny, sad wreck, a monument to the depravity of the Shinra corporation and their sad ambitions.
#4) Columbia — BioShock Infinite (2013)
Speaking of sad ambitions, let’s check in on our old friend Zachary Comstock. The purported hero of Wounded Knee and self-styled Prophet founded, along with the scientist Rosalind Lutece, the floating city of Columbia, his last bastion of American Exceptionalism and racial purity standing sentinel in the skies of early 20th century America. As the game spares no expense to point out, it’s a new eden, free of the hypocrisies and secular evils of the world below. Of course, the Columbia one sees in the Welcome Center and around the fairground is different than the one that actually exists: a nesting ground for virulent racism and religious puritanism that threatens to devour everything it deems lesser than itself; a deterministic, violently evil place that probably deserves the fate it eventually finds itself in.
Visually, Columbia is a marvel, in no small part because of how limited the engine Irrational was working with really was. Similar to their other major virtual city, they stretched limited assets as far as they could and coaxed a beautiful game out of a scrapheap. The way the background islands slowly sway up and down on the breeze. The deep, vibrant color palette. The expansive and expressive usage of cloud and fog cover. The sheer variety of place, from the burnished brown and golds of Finkton to the autumnal orange twilight of Soldier’s Field, Columbia is an extremely inviting location. Until it isn’t, and possibly the best looking thunderstorm I’ve ever seen in a game assaults you from every direction, and Columbia shows its true colors: deep purples and savage, aggressive reds everywhere.
While the player eventually leaves Columbia, making it at least slightly less important to the game from which it springs than the cities that beat it out, the mark this city made on me was indelible and fantastically, singularly unique.
#3) Liberty City — Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
The abstract resonates more than reality. To have the sort of video game experience that truly marks itself upon you, the imagination has to be engaged. When it is, a lot can be covered up and ignored and forgotten. A lot of sins can be forgiven when the heart is engaged just as well as the head.
Grand Theft Auto IV is not a perfect game. It might not even be a great one. But it does feature the greatest “realistic” city I’ve ever experienced in a video game. It’s not as big or feature-rich or good-looking as Los Santos, yet it’s better. It’s hard to explain why. Part is certainly how the rhythms of playing the game force you to engage with it. When Niko Bellic starts in Broker (Brooklyn’s stand in), he’s surrounded by people a lot like himself, desperate, destitute, exhausted immigrants clawing at one another to get out, to get to the shining building in the background.
As he climbs his way up the criminal ladder, through Dukes (Queens) and Bohan (the Bronx), the buildings get slowly, imperceptibly closer, their appeal only grows, and when Niko finally makes it to Algonquin (Manhattan), the center of the GTA universe, he sees it for what it truly is: a concrete jungle in the truest sense, a vile, indecent place where brothers rip one another apart and nothing ever changes or gets better. It’s thematically resonant to an extent none of the other games to this point have been.
I’ve never lived in New York City. I’ve never even been there. Yet, in a certain way, I have.
#2) Dunwall — Dishonored (2012)
I said before that Half-Life 2 is my favorite game, and it is. This, however, is Viktor Antonov’s masterwork. Set in the Victorian steampunk whaling plague city of Dunwall, Dishonored uses its setting as a character as well as any work of fiction I’ve ever come across. Dunwall is many things, and as much as it is a series of disparate and discrete open worlds mashed into one whole, it truly feels like one whole. The Flooded District and Dunwall Tower feel like they exist in the same place.
First, you visit the plague-ravaged Distillery District, where the back alleys are controlled by the gangs and the main streets the City Guard, boarding up the houses of the dead and condemned in equal measure. After that, you visit the Clock Tower District (pictured above), where the rich and powerful throw lavish parties as corpses pile up in the riverbeds and heavily armed guards patrol the night, trying to keep out people like you. Arkane, by their own admission, went out of their way to try and create Dunwall as a city with a history and a culture that you are only a small part of. This is an old city, founded on whale oil and bone and blood. One of the best features this game boasts is a steampunk heart, pumped full of mystic energy that whispers dark secrets at in your ear at a button prompt.
The sense of freedom and expression this game instills is unparalleled. You can go any way you want, kill anyone you want, grab anything you want, but with a focus that bigger open world games could never muster. When you clamber over high rooftops, the shingles clatter and break. When you sprint through the sewers, the mist swirls and suffocates. When you run along docks and ports, the sea air blasts into the sky and the diseased birds caw. When you pass through deserted tenements, every room is someone’s home, every balcony someone’s window to the world. With one exception, Dishonored often times feels like more an archaeological dig than an arcade game. I’ve seen Dishonored described as an oil painting come to life, and it’s the most apt gaming metaphor I’ve yet heard, I think. So it would take quite an accomplishment to top.
#1) Rapture — BioShock Series (2007-2013)
And yet here we are, topping it. When I started this, I knew immediately which gaming city would claim the top spot. Since BioShock’s release in fall 2007, it seemed as though every year another game would be jockeying to be “the next BioShock.” In 2008, it was the desolate Capital Wasteland that claimed the title. In 2009, the dingy corridors of Arkham Asylum took the crown. For my money (I have no money, FYI), nothing else has ever seemed to spring, fully formed, from the minds of its creators like Athena from the head of Zeus.*
*An appropriate metaphor given Rapture’s strange predilection with ancient Greece.
Rapture, first introduced in the greatest introductory sequence in the history of gaming, was founded in an alternate 1947 by former Soviet industrialist and Ayn Rand stand-in Andrew Ryan, a selfish capitalist frustrated with government and religious oversight looking for a place to call his own, an Objectivist fantastyland made reality through sheer financial elbow grease. For a time, Rapture was prosperous. Then, of course, it was torn apart, both by Ryan and by the opportunistic sharks he spawned at the bottom of the ocean. Sifting through Rapture’s wreckage in 1960, one of the primary joys of playing BioShock is uncovering the evidence of just what drove this impossible city to the brink of madness and death, and just what the survivors are willing to do to keep surviving.
The thread of ludo-narrative dissonance (or disconnect between the theme and gameplay) was one of the primary criticisms of BioShock Infinite, but they aren’t to be found here. Rarely has a game linked so well conceptually and mechanically. You have to scavenge to survive. Yours is not to reason why, yours is but to do and die, and for all BioShock‘s faults, this thread remains consistent and engaging throughout.
The real star here is Rapture itself. Divided into cleverly named and referenced zones, the city is on the brink of collapse, depopulated and deserted by anyone resembling a real person. What’s left are the splicers, ravenous scavengers mutated by years of abusing genetic cocktails known as Plasmids; the Little Sisters, warped monsters created by Rapture’s science; and their ghoulish protectors, the Big Daddies. The latter of this group are the most striking visual design in this game, and perhaps in any game, and facing them doesn’t get old for upwards of 20 hours.
The real magic of Rapture can’t be captured in floor plans or clever references. It’s in the dark water pooling in the corners, a reminder that the ocean is never far away. It’s in the cheap shimmer effect Irrational put on the even cheaper 2D backgrounds that somehow always seems to give the effect of truly being underwater, as mesmerizing as it is claustrophobic. It’s in the excellent sound design, the groaning metal and calling whales in the background. The blinking neon lights, the missing persons posters plastered everywhere, the empty houses. More than Andrew Ryan or Bridgette Tenenbaum or Frank Fontaine or Sander Cohen, Rapture is BioShock’s best character, and BioShock never once forgets or neglects that.