Out today, Arkane Studios’ Dishonored is already receiving acclaim for its involving mix of action and stealth. But one of the other noteworthy things about the game is surely the unique game world its creators have wrought. Part Orwellian dystopia, part steampunk fantasy, the city of Dunwall provides an engaging backdrop for its creative mayhem. There are shadowy streets and grand palaces, dingy houses and whale carcasses dangling in the docklands.
Dishonored’s creators have drawn on the imagery of movies such as Metropolis and Blade Runner, the real-world architecture of London and Edinburgh, and mixed them together with a sci-fi aesthetic that is entirely its own. Dishonored’s the latest example of what games do best: they not only absorb us in a compelling story, but also immerse us in a virtual space that feels, for the hours we spend in the game, convincingly realistic.
With this in mind, we’ve trawled through history to find 10 of our favourite videogame cities. And to remain in keeping with Dishonored’s sci-fi fantasy theme, we’ve restricted our selection to fictional places, rather than recreations of real-world cities – hence the absence of, say, The Getaway or Assassin’s Creed.
Inevitably, you’ll have your own choices, so feel free to add your own favourite cities in the comments.
Ant Attack (1983)
Made at a time when the mere notion of fitting a memorable city into a 16kb videogame seemed far-fetched, programmer Sandy White’s pioneering Ant Attack was a true technical marvel. Not only was it the first commercially-released home computer game to use an isometric 3D perspective (White called his engine SoftSolid), but it also managed to create the impression of a sprawling city using little more than a few shaded blocks.
The aim of the game was to rescue a non-player character dropped randomly on the map, and then get back to the exit before you’re bitten to death by an army of gigantic ants. Although the gameplay was simple, it was the atmosphere that made Ant Attack so memorable; Antescher genuinely felt like a deserted city in the middle of nowhere, and exploring every inch of it revealed intriguing little locations, such as a graveyard full of crosses and a mausoleum, remnants of amphitheatres and pyramids, and a park containing trees and a pond.
With so many early 80s computer games set against little more than a black backdrop with single pixels to indicate stars, the scale of Antescher was ambitious, its lonely ambience unforgettable.
Beneath A Steel Sky (1994)
Among the very best point-and-click adventures ever made, Beneath A Steel Sky wove a spectacular sci-fi tale. About a boy and his robot kidnapped from their home in the Australian outback and their attempt to escape Union City, the game presented a series of logical challenges, and culminated in a great twist ending.
Thanks in part to some stunning design work from comic book artist Dave Gibbons, Beneath A Steel Sky looked spectacular. Although constantly viewed from a fixed 2D perspective, with the action taking place on static screens like a moving storybook, a brilliant use of perspective and lighting gave the futuristic Union City an unforgettable sense of scale and detail. As Robert and Joey travel through the game, gradually learning more about the city’s secrets, they traverse industrial facilities, suspended walkways looking out over distant skyscrapers, and weird, lushly appointed bio-surgery clinics.
Funny and cleverly written, Beneath A Steel Sky was acclaimed on release and still extremely popular – a sequel’s currently in development, meaning the sprawling Union City will survive into the 21st century.
Final Fantasy VII (1997)
The seat of power in Final Fantasy’s world of Gaia, Midgar is a Blade Runner-like industrial sprawl. With its skyline dominated by the Shinra Electric Power Company building at its centre, the city radiates out in concentric circles, with each sector powered by its own reactor. With the wealthy living in the upper section, and the poor crammed into the slums beneath, Midgar’s design owes a certain debt to the classic movie Metropolis, but its distinctive layout and wonderfully cold atmosphere give it a presence and identity all its own.
Although it was introduced 15 years ago, Midgar’s still fondly remembered, and a familiar videogame culture touchstone – there’s a British rock band named after the city, and one MineCraft player has painstakingly replicated its architecture in block form.
Resident Evil 2 (1998)
Where the first Resident Evil took place in the claustrophobic, creaky environs of a remote mansion, Resident Evil 2 threw players into the open spaces of Raccoon City. Following Leon S Kennedy and Claire Redfield as fight for survival against a legion rotting zombies.
Raccoon would have been a typical small US city before the T-virus took hold, with a hospital, industrial and residential districts, and even its own zoo. The 1998 outbreak, however, turned it into a nightmarish warzone, and although its name sounds cute, Raccoon City’s been one of the unluckiest cities in videogaming.
Half-Life 2 (2004)
Through a mix of perfectly-timed scripted sequences, expert design and subtle storytelling, 1998’s Half-Life felt like a true interactive movie. Few will forget that opening monorail sequence, which so cleverly introduced the Black Mesa Research Facility, or the first encounter with the various life forms that sneaked in through a dimensional rift.
Rising to the considerable challenge of besting its own game, Valve released Half-Life 2 six years later, and the result was a masterpiece. Taking its bespectacled protagonist Gordon Freeman out into an open world was a logical decision, but few could have predicted just how much detail and scale the developer would bring to its dystopian City 17.
Located somewhere in Eastern Europe, the city is under occupation of the Combine, an alien force that is in the process of strip-mining Earth of its resources. With City 17 as its headquarters, Combine’s control is maintained by metrocops – masked humans who do the aliens’ bidding.
Although peppered with sci-fi technology, City 17 feels grounded in reality, with much of the game’s action taking place in retro-fitted post-war buildings and crumbling streets. It’s an undeniably earthy, depressing vision of the future, but it’s also entirely unforgettable.
Gears Of War (2006)
As the bullets fly, the chainsaws buzz and the blood flows, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Gears Of War’s setting is far less important than its action. But between fire fights, the detail and effort that went into designing Jacinto City truly becomes apparent; although Epic Games could so easily have set Gears in a series of corridors or on a spaceship, it instead decided to depict a street-level view of a war between humans and aliens.
Although set on a distant planet called Sera, the architecture in the devastated city is distinctly European, and full of shattered ornamental fountains, mullioned windows and gothic towers. The artistry of the city’s buildings provides an effective counterpoint to the earthy space marines and screaming aliens that fight in the streets, and although the game’s skirmishes are often small in scale, the sense that the action’s taking place in a huge, richly-detailed environment makes it all seem truly cinematic.
Would BioShock have been such a huge hit without Rapture? Possibly, but we suspect it wouldn’t have been. Few will forget their first steps into this creepy, shadowy undersea city. Built by a power-mad business mogul in the 1940s, what was intended as a utopia has descended into an Art Deco nightmare. Horrific scientific experiments have driven its surviving residents insane. Orphaned girls hide in the shadows, protected from harm by the ferocious Big Daddies – pumped-up humans in hulking diving suits.
Although its gameplay didn’t change the face of the first-person shooter as we know it, BioShock’s design and setting undoubtedly showed just how distinctive and visually compelling a game could be.
Grand Theft Auto IV (2008)
The sheer scale of Liberty City ensures its place on this list. A barely-disguised recreation of Manhattan, it nevertheless has an atmosphere all its own, and straddles the line between the gloss of a Hollywood gangster movie and gritty realism.
The GTA series has always been about freedom, and GTA IV offered players the freedom to explore and dip in and out of the central narrative as they saw fit. Anyone who’s wandered around Liberty City will have their own memories and stories to share – whether it’s jumping off a fictional version of the Empire State Building, going bowling or going to see a stand-up comedian at the Split Sides club – and the sheer range of things to do and see is breathtaking.
While not as outlandish or exotic as some of the other places on this list, few feel as vibrant or truly alive as Liberty City.
Fallout 3 (2008)
One of the great things about Fallout 3 is how convincing its depiction of a post-apocalyptic world is. The way its non-player characters clothe and protect themselves all adds to the convincing sense of detail, and this is keenly evident in the brilliantly imagined Rivet City.
Built in and around an old aircraft carrier, Rivet’s safely cut off from the madness of the mainland, and contains a church, hotel, science lab, bar, museum and a busy market. One of the most densely-populated areas in the game, it’s also a useful source of information and supplies. Rivet City might look damp and uninviting from the outside, but in the harsh world of Fallout 3, it’s a perfect refuge.
Few RPGs can match Skyrim for outright size, and Windhelm is surely one of the most expansive and impressive cities in any fantasy game. With its icy silhouette dominating the skyline in the snowy north, Windhelm is a spectacular sight, and matched by the chilly atmosphere of this medieval sprawl.
Reached by crossing a frozen bridge to the main gate, visitors to Windhelm will find, among other things, a blacksmith’s a second-hand shop, a temple, and a market. And if you really fall in love with the city’s narrow streets and stone buildings, you can even buy a house here. Bear in mind, though, that there’s a killer on the loose, which you’ll have to investigate in the mission, Blood on the Ice. Windhelm might not be the warmest or inviting of cities, but you can’t say it’s uneventful.
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