I want you to look at the title above and consider what, exactly, I mean by “well-realized.”
In relation to cities in video games, “well-realized” is a tricky concept to nail down, so I’ll start with what it’s not. It’s not the biggest, the most detailed, the most feature-rich, the most emergent, or even the most realistic. These are all worthy aims for a video game city to have, but they’re not what makes one well-realized. Instead it’s a sense of place, of cohesion, of precision in all facets of design, that separates something like Liberty City from a guided tour of New York City. With that, let’s start!
#25) Luca — Final Fantasy X (2001)
Final Fantasy X is a lot of things to a lot of people. To some, it’s the pinnacle of the old-school Final Fantasy form, the last entry in a lineage of greatness, before new-school game mechanics took over and ran a revered franchise into the ground. To others, it’s a farcical mess of a game with an incoherent storyline and an unbearable main character. To me it’s a bit of both, but most importantly, it’s home to the best combat system and most lively art design in the entire series.
Nowhere else is this art design better exemplified than in the city of Luca, home to the national Blitzball tournament (think soccer mixed with lacrosse in a sphere of magical water) and end of the first major section of the game. It’s pretty easily the biggest settlement the player actually gets to explore in the game, and its winding streets, cluttered docks and smoky taverns lend it the jovial, friendly vibe the rest of the game feeds off of.
#24) SkyTown — Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (2007)
I’ll be honest: I really, desperately wanted to include something from one of the Metroid Prime games in this. Unfortunately, “cities” aren’t really a thing those games do. They tend to opt for abandoned ruins, derelict starships and secret research stations. Hardly the sorts of places anyone would actually inhabit, which is generally a big component of the whole “city” thing.
So I’m cutting corners a bit and using the one actual city Retro had in one of these games, albeit one inhabited by automatons and made up almost entirely of puzzles and boss fights. Like any real Metroid city should be. Bonus points for a great theme, too.
#23) Hong Kong — Sleeping Dogs (2012)
It’s unfair to categorize every sandbox game as a Grand Theft Auto clone. It’s extremely fair to categorize Sleeping Dogs as one. Slowly working your way up the criminal food chain of a major metropolitan area, unlocking bigger and badder sections of famous city? In that way (and in several others), Dogs consciously follows the basic GTA strategy. Most notable is the metropolitan area Dogs chooses to reproduce, in this case Hong Kong in all its neon glory.
Aside from the basic level of novelty from finally having one of these games set in an Eastern city, it’s a stunning, if dubiously accurate recreation, complete with karaoke bars, underground fight clubs, martial arts temples, outdoor markets and all sorts of cars and car-related shenanigans. Sleeping Dogs is not a great game, but it’s notable for two distinct reasons: a great fighting engine and a great setting.
#22) High Charity — Halo 2/Halo 3 (2004, 2007)
One of the rules I made for myself when I started doing this was that the cities in question actually be somewhere people live and not be something you just run through once during a fight. I broke this rule, because despite High Charity being mostly a backdrop (look at the background here to see the city proper), it’s a *really beautiful* backdrop, and the parts of the city you do visit are strange and enthralling in their way, full of hanging gardens, mausoleums, and deep blues. In its return appearance in Halo 3, it’s a ruined, Flood-infested wreck, and while there’s some fun in revisiting important places from the first go-round, it’s long since ceased being a city anymore.
#21) Vice City — Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002)
I…I don’t think Vice City is a great game. It’s too derivative of GTA III in all the ways that matter, and the pastel color palette can be really grating, but Vice City itself is a pretty great recreation of 80s Miami — or at least the perception of 80s Miami that our culture collectively holds. As a pure game space, it’s got more variety than the original Liberty City does, too. Rockstar’s just far too good at this for even their weakest efforts not to place here.
#20) Nar Shaddaa — various Star Wars games
Of all the cities here, this might be the one that has seen the most derivations. Appearing first in 1997’s Jedi Knight, the Smuggler’s Moon has retained a few distinct attributes, namely that it’s always nighttime, always filthy beyond reckoning, and always littered with criminals and refugees in equal measure.
What gives it flavor beyond the setting for the most Film Noir elements of Star Wars games is how each game brings a little something different to the table. The Jedi Knight games bring a sense of immense verticality for platforming, Knights of the Old Republic II populates the area with oppressed people to help (or harm), and The Old Republic gives itself a new sheen of textures and a general scope for MMO games. It’s a dirty, disgusting place and an integral location in the expanded Star Wars fiction.
#19) Washington D.C. — Fallout 3 (2008)
I don’t want to say that Fallout 3 has diminished with time, but this city space certainly isn’t the monolith it once seemed way back in the halcyon days of 2008. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong here, because obviously it does. Just perhaps that, compared to what follows, it seems a little diminished. The scope of post-apocalyptic DC is staggering, but the execution is sometimes off. Really, just the hardware of the time couldn’t handle it, since so *much* of the city is broken up into gloomy subways and dilapidated transit stations.
That’s not to say that those places don’t have their own charms, but they do contribute to the sense of the city as not being a complete whole. Which is a shame, because the city as a whole is a marvelous-looking thing.
#18) New York City — Max Payne/Max Payne 2 (2001, 2003)
Painted backdrops set the stage for the night’s play: the fall of Max Payne. In many ways, Max Payne is one of the most artificial video games I’ve ever played. As a game, it’s little more than a very taut arcade shooter, albeit an innovative one. As a simple exploration of a city, it’s limited in scope and a little basic in execution, comprised mainly of snowy streets, barren rooftops and two dimensional cutouts of the New York skyline.
Yet, playing Max Payne makes the city seem more than the sum of its parts. It’s a lonely, empty city because of the nigh-biblical snowstorm going on all night. It’s dirty because the majority of the game is spent in hostels and warehouses. No one will ever accuse Max Payne of achieving verisimilitude, but what it does do is establish a distinct tone and sense of place that is maintained throughout the entire game.
#17) Arcadia Bay — Life is Strange (2015)
DONTNOD’s Life is Strange is one of the most peculiarly charming games I’ve ever played. On its surface, it operates similarly to a lot of recent adventure games (i.e. Telltale’s entire catalog), but with a sort of doofy high school freshman style that makes it a bizarrely unique game. That sense of quirkiness permeates the entire experience, but what makes it shine is the environment it takes place in. Arcadia Bay: a slightly stylized, pastel-hued sleepy little Pacific Northwest town that the game plays completely straight. Despite all the giant tornadoes, time travelling, serial killing, party crashing, alternate universe meandering shenanigans Max Caulfield gets up to, Arcadia Bay is an orange-tinted constant, the one thing in the equation that remains the same.
It’s a legitimately beautiful place, one that lends itself well to the game’s most charming mechanic: at least once an episode, Max gets a chance to simply exist in Arcadia Bay, to contemplate and take in the sights and sounds of this wonderfully strange little town.
#16) The Citadel — Mass Effect Series
In the three Mass Effect games, the Citadel, center of galactic trade and culture and home of the governing council races, appears a grand total of, you guessed it, three times. While the grimy, dark blue industrial areas of the second game and the elegiac, sterile war center of the third game are interesting in their own right, it’s the Citadel’s original appearance way back in 2007 that makes it onto this list.
Broken up into two distinct sections, the Citadel is represented as the pinnacle of galactic power and the ultimate cool kids club that you, as the avatar of humanity, struggle to find your way inside. The gleaming Presidium level is where the movers and shakers of the Mass Effect universe congregate, and the Wards level is where the gangsters and thieves hang out. It’s a simple dichotomy, as old as time by video game standards, but Mass Effect does it about as well as I can remember by making each section visually distinct (as well as the unofficial third district, C-Sec) and gorgeous. There’s an earnest sense of galactic goodwill, adventure, and exploration that permeates this game even today, and the Citadel personifies it.
#15) Bright Falls — Alan Wake (2010)
In the context of this list, Bright Falls is sort of the dark inverse of Life is Strange‘s Arcadia Bay. A sleepy Pacific Northwest town centered on a singular industry that hides dark secrets is hardly a new trope, but these two are so strikingly similar in how they execute that I felt it worth mentioning. (Both force you to make your way through the town during a thunderstorm, both feature eerily similar diners, both encompass the area around the town just as effectively)
Both towns also feature artists as their protagonists, with photography student Max Caulfield in LIS and writer Alan Wake (he’s a writer, in case you didn’t hear him mention that 17 times) in the game called, well Alan Wake. What makes Bright Falls a more evocative place to set a game is in the margins. The realism of the setting as an actual place (the entire area seems immaculately scaled, for one) helps, as does the variety of play spaces. Most importantly, it’s the almost slavish devotion both to Stephen King and Twin Peaks that makes Bright Falls feel like a real place, albeit one derived from someone’s nightmares. Alan Wake’s nightmares, to be specific.
#14) The City — Mirror’s Edge (2008)
What a stupendous waste Mirror’s Edge feels like at times. Conceptually, it’s as interesting as any new IP since it came out in 2008 (and certainly more than anything EA has produced in that same time frame). Mechanically, it’s broken and frustrating. From a design standpoint, it lies somewhere in between, with the simpler parkour moves flowing magnificently and the more complex feeling like some of the least responsive perhaps ever. It’s an inspired mess of a game, but what can’t be questioned is the art design, which borders on genius for most of the game’s runtime.
Even now, in 2016, this eight year old game can inspire awe with its stark yet colorful depiction of a futuristic police state ruled by surveillance. It’s somehow at once a throwback to older dystopian fiction and a telling portent of Apple’s entire aesthetic direction. It’s interesting without being overwhelming, familiar without being derivative, and wholly unique. Now if only the game around it could make such claims.
#13) 2027 Detroit — Deus Ex Human Revolution (2011)
At this point, these virtual cities are becoming less referendums of the games they appear in than they are the reason for these games themselves, so I’ll try to write a little less about why the game in question works the way it does and more about why the city works.
In the case of 2027 Detroit from Eidos Montreal’s seminal Deus Ex: Human Revolution, the key ingredient is plausibility. This looks a lot like what a slum-ridden metropolis in the near future could look like. Take away the gold hue which permeates the game (which you shouldn’t do because it’s the key compenent of the retro-futurist cyber-renaissance aesthetic that defines the game thematically), and it looks a lot like some of the more rundown parts of most American cities do now… just filled with slightly shinier cars. A disparate, labyrinthine city filled with people too focused on surviving to put much thought into the more serious, far-reaching ramifications of world’s events, and the shadows which propel them? Sounds pretty familiar to me.
#12) New Mombasa — Halo Series (2004, 2009)
Another city appearing over multiple entries in the same franchise, Halo 2 and Halo 3: ODST’s future metropolis of New Mombasa is notable for how frustrating its seemingly contradictory appearances made the sort of fans who care about the layout of a virtual city, and the lengths they would go to reconcile the differences between Halo 2’s crumbling slums and ODST’s modular metropolis. It’s the latter that I’m focusing on here, as the combination of dark, shadowy alleyways, gleaming cutout skyscrapers, slick driving rain and surprisingly effective jazzy soundtrack combine to make wandering the streets of conquered New Mombasa equal parts evocative, lonely and contemplative. It’s a great game to just walk around in.
Something ODST does better than anything I’ve ever played is to utilize the insides of structures in a way that meshes perfectly with the exteriors. It’s hard to describe exactly what I mean, but it’s a very Halo design flair. Some conflux between proportion and scale is what I’m getting at. It’s the single most unique thing about the single most unique Halo game.
#11) 1947 Los Angeles — L.A. Noire (2011)
We go from one noir setting to another with Team Bondi’s perfectly bizarre LA Noire. Conceived alongside “the most realistic facial engine of all time,” (which slid all the way through the Uncanny Vallery) Noire’s biggest technical achievement is still probably its painstakingly accurate recreation of 1947 Los Angeles, which was close enough to inspire genuine nostalgia in people who were there.
I could write a lot more about why, despite being a bit of a failure, LA Noire exists as one of the most peculiarly strange and unique games in recent memory, it’s the setting, this gloriously detailed post-war Los Angeles, that serves as the backbone of this game.