Video games have always aimed to create a world separate from our own, with experiences gamers couldn’t get anywhere else. As technology has raced forward with time, these worlds have become more realistic, more believable, and at the same time, more fantastic than ever. In the early days, the games gave us a framework to unleash the player’s imagination, creating a theater of the mind. Today, we can visually experience these worlds exactly how the developers intend us to, right down to the most minute of details.
Even in a near-infinite sea of video games and their accompanying worlds, there are some that simply stand head and shoulders above the rest. No matter what you do in these worlds, wandering around soaking in the details or blasting them to bits with deadly weapons, they are some of the most incredible examples of what the art form has to offer. Once you’re finished reading, do yourself a favor and track down these games to experience the worlds yourself as words alone can’t do them justice.
This one will be at the top of many people’s lists, and for good reason, as it is one of the most imaginative, wondrous, and terrifying game worlds ever created.
The city of Rapture is the brainchild of Andrew Ryan, who created the city at the bottom of the ocean as a way to break free from the shackles placed on him by society. Rapture is a city where anything is possible. Where scientists, workers, and industrialists are all free to do what they want and keep what they make, without being told what to do. At least, that was Ryan’s idealized vision for the city when it is constructed in 1946. By the time your character arrives as the result of a plane crash, the reality is something darker and much more terrifying.
As you slowly see the city come into focus through an entanglement of seaweed and schools of fish, your descent into Rapture is one of the most incredible moments in gaming history. Skyscrapers claw upwards toward the surface, as neon signs flash the names of their buildings, beckoning you to join them and partake of their wares. For a moment, you almost forget you are underwater. That is, until a massive blue whale swims past the window of the bathysphere, carrying you down toward your final destination.
Once your craft docks, you find yourself in the lobby of the city’s transportation area. Art Deco-inspired architecture is present everywhere, with a massive half-dome glass ceiling offering a view of the sky. Starfish dot the glass throughout the room as sharks swim past the blinking neon advertisements just an arm’s length away. You note luggage and signs littering the floor, and it’s clear not all is as it should be. As you move to the next room, however, Rapture truly begins to reveal its rotten roots.
Lights flicker ominously, the darkness in parts broken only by the eerie green glow coming from the sea. Collapsed walls and broken furniture litter every room as fires burn and electricity sparks from broken switches. The creaking of metal groans like the dying breaths of some gigantic robotic animal.
Progressing further, the weight of the sea begins to press in upon the city. Rivets shoot inward from walls and water leaks through fissures in doorways. Looking outside, you see luggage and debris from the plane you were on just minutes before spiraling slowly toward the seafloor. Suddenly, the plane’s massive carcass crashes through the glass and metal passageway as the ocean pours in unabated.
With that welcome to Rapture, your journey’s just begun. You’ll soon find out what happens in a city where there are no consequences, no space, and too much pressure. You’ll comb through the wreckage where freedom was the ideal, but madness was the result. Before all is said and done, you may just question your own sanity too.
from Half-Life 2
After the events of Half-Life, The Combine have taken over Earth and turned it into a police state. Humanity cowers in various urban centers, one of which is City 17. Gordon Freeman finds himself deep in the heart of the city after awakening from stasis, and it’s clear the situation is dire as he steps off the train. Dr. Wallace Breen, formerly of Black Mesa Research Center, is the puppet governor of the city, ruling from the Combine Citadel.
You disembark the train in a dingy station, where humans wander aimlessly, trying not to attract the attention of guards wearing gas masks, brandishing electric batons and bad tempers. One woman speaks to you about her husband, who was pulled from the train, clinging to the fence in hope of his return. The environment just feels wrong, with the smell of fear almost palpable. Look too long at any of the security guards and they will chase you down, smashing their batons into you or shocking you with an electric charge.
Eventually, you step out the doors of the station, where things go from bad to worse. The world is mottled with greys and browns, sickly-looking in its pallor. Even the sky is a hazy, bruised purplish color. Looming out of the cloud is the Citadel, a massive structure looking exactly like what it is, something alien and threatening.
40-foot tall walking machines, a pod shape sitting upon three spindly legs, stalk through the streets with a spider-like menace. Peering down from enormous screens attached to the city’s tallest points, Dr. Breen broadcasts messages about the munificence of The Combine and the advances they have made for humanity’s benefit. It’s a truly disturbing vision of a futuristic dystopian society.
Special mention needs to be made of another city in the game’s world, that being the city of Ravenholm. More of a village than anything, it has clearly seen awful things happen and is still populated by dozens of head-crab-infested horrors. You quickly find bodies sliced in half, pinned to walls by massive saw blade weapons. Blood spatters the walls, the darkness is pervasive, and around every corner, another terror awaits as you fight your way through. This is the most disturbing corner of a world that is clearly no longer safe for humans.
Across these and many more wondrous and horrifying locations, you’ll team up with the remaining members of the Black Mesa crew to resist the Combine at every turn. Will you return to City 17 to end their reign of terror, or will you succumb to Dr. Breen’s insidious plans?
The Capital Wasteland
from Fallout 3
You emerge, for the first time, from the Vault that has been the only home you’ve ever known. Blinking away the harsh sunlight, the horizon slowly comes into focus. You recognize shapes you’ve only seen in history books, a massive obelisk pointing toward the sky, and a tall domed building near it. But these don’t look exactly like the books. The obelisk is horrendously damaged, chunks missing on all sides, and half of the dome is missing, a testament to the war that ravaged this place before you were ever born.
This is your introduction to the outside world in Fallout 3, known as the Capital Wasteland, formerly known as Washington D.C. As you walk around, you are struck by the eerie surroundings, a vast area filled with debris, shattered buildings, human remains, and vicious mutated enemies. You almost hear the echoes of power that once emanated from the buildings that are now just shattered husks.
The Lincoln Memorial is missing its head. The Jefferson Memorial has been turned into a water processing plant, with huge pipes jutting from its former entrance like so many tentacles. Arlington National Cemetery still seems mostly intact, though its rows of gleaming white headstones are now replaced by drunkenly leaning stones, blackened by time and nuclear fallout. This juxtaposition of familiar and foreign, memories and reality, of old times when things were new and current days where everything looks old and tired.
This is what makes the world of Fallout 3 so memorable, as the somber events which took place there open up to the adventures and discoveries that await as you step forward from the vault. Over a journey of 80–100 hours, more familiar sites will welcome you. You’ll traverse the entire city to find your father and the means to begin society again, amidst the ruins of the old American dream.
from BioShock Infinite
Starting out as a metaphor for American exceptionalism, Columbia quickly devolved into a violent city-state under autocratic rule, facing internal strife and rebellion. This is the state of Columbia when the player arrives, but the journey there is one of the most important parts.
The game fades in on a rowboat, two people taking you to what eventually materializes through the rain and fog as a lighthouse. Ascending the stairs, you make your way to the very top, where a capsule waits in the traditional seat of the eponymous light. You see no other choice but to enter the capsule, which shortly after shoots you into the sky above like a rocket. Blasting through the clouds and blinking away the brilliant sunlight, you are treated to a view unlike anything else in gaming. A floating city spreads out before you, fireworks heralding your arrival, buildings sitting atop dirigibles and mighty propulsion engines as a familiar, but slightly different, flag flaps in the breeze.
You descend into the Welcome Center, tendrils of sunlight shining through massive gears, as an angelic steam-punk setting slowly gives way to what awaits below. A massive stained-glass mural shows the city’s leader, Nathan Hale Comstock, appearing as a god-like figure leading his people, with water surrounding a pedestal lit with candles. Thousands of candles line the halls of the Center, as you wade through individuals dressed in religious garb, all apparently making a pilgrimage of supplication to an unseen God.
After going through a forced baptism, you finally enter the city of Columbia and are met with a breathtaking sight. A massive statue stands at its center, while trainlike vehicles on skyrails course across the vista, moving from platform to platform with ease. Buildings bob up and down as if on clouds, moving of their own volition as you watch.
You walk through the streets, which look much like an American main street from the 1950s, with shops and placid street cafes colored in red white, and blue. Grocery stores, shoeshine stands, flower carts, and children playing in the streets paint a bucolic picture. Eventually, you wander up to a man speaking on a stage, a raffle ongoing. It quickly becomes clear that what’s being auctioned is an interracial couple, and the disturbing underbelly of Columbia begins to rear its ugly head.
You soon find yourself embroiled in a civil war, between the forces of Hale’s theocracy and the Vox Populi, ostensibly representing the little people of the city. You will fight your way through all of it, on a mission you don’t quite understand but know you must complete, as the city seethes around you.
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