Video games can be really quite beautiful, the graphics and sound design working in combination to create an atmosphere quite impossible in other media. Here we will look at five fantastic video game worlds that evoke a strong sense of awe and wonder, in no particular order.
Dark Souls – Lordran
The game that inspired this article after I spent a couple of hours this morning grinding for souls in Anor Londo, Dark Souls (and its sequels) have such a strong sense of self that their imitators just can’t capture. The Remastered edition on current consoles improves on every aspect of the original release, even on the lowly Nintendo Switch, and this is our focus today.
I’ve already mentioned Anor Londo, and this is hands down my favourite zone in Dark Souls, and encapsulates the point of me writing today. Massive, intimidating gothic architecture stands before a beautiful sunset. Coming immediately after the closed-in, claustrophobic Sen’s Fortress, this is a real high point in this game. The area itself is massive, requiring some hefty detours to find its bonfires and to open shortcuts to probably my favourite bosses in the game – Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. I defeated them for the umpteenth time just before I sat down to write this, and after several playthroughs it remains a favourite section not just of Dark Souls, but of all games. On the way to the bosses you will face many silver knights, which will really test your combat skills, and highlight the main design of the game – a zone full of incredibly difficult enemies, whose only goal in life (or undeath at the least) is to make life hard for you in the way to the almost impossible bosses.
Besides Anor Londo, the rest of the game is simply beautifully designed. A Medieval aesthetic is used throughout, with many cathedrals and fortresses to explore, punctuated by stone sewers and dense forests. As you progress you will unlock shortcuts between the different areas, learning the quickest way between any two points (and that’s even before you unlock the ability to warp between key bonfires), and this helps you to build a map inside your head, creating a sense of connection in the world that is unparalleled. Revisiting previously conquered areas after having gained several levels and many hours of experience is refreshing, as previously tough enemies are now felled with one hit, and rarely feels like a chore.
Then there’s the plot, which essentially has you begin as a nobody with no hope, tasked to rid the world of its oppressive rulers and take their place. It’s a true David and Goliath story, which ends with you effectively replacing Goliath!
Enslaved – Odyssey to the West
Often mentioned in hidden gems lists, I can attest to the greatness of this game, which arrived fairly early in generation seven, available on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. A retelling of the Chinese story Journey to the West, the game tasks you as Monkey (motion-captured by Andy Serkis), as you journey (against your will) to the west with Trip, through a post-apocalyptic future in which nature has taken ahold of the cities. Not dissimilar in visual style to The Last of Us, the game plays more like another Naughty Dogs game – Uncharted, albeit with a focus on melee combat versus robot enemies rather than gunplay against human assailants. The two main characters are tied together such that each needs the other to survive, lending an urgency and a strong incentive to persevere, whilst enabling a narrative during which their relationship can grow.
Add solving puzzles to progress to beating enemies to a pulp, you have the beginnings of a fine game. Top that all with a beautiful world and compelling story, and you have a winner. Enslaved’s world is gorgeous – ignoring the trend for brown and grey that marked the era, the world here is lush and green as vegetation takes back the world claimed by the humans. It’s a humbling sight, and one that helps to highlight just how much humans have affected the world as they build it to their needs.
Fallout 3 – The Wasteland
Honestly, this could apply to any of the 3D Fallout games, but 3 was the one I particularly enjoyed, and the only one I finished, and it was also the first that brought the ideas to the third dimension.
The game begins within the confines of an underground vault, one that you’re never supposed to leave. You learn the basics of gameplay, build your character based on various stats, and then.. you leave. The first time you step out into the daylight and see the world sprawling before you is a hugely memorable moment for many gamers. Sure, we’re back to brown and grey design here, but in this case that amplifies the sense of the destruction that led to your being born in the vault. This world is dead beyond all doubt, with infertile soil unable to sustain any but the hardiest vegetation.
Following a nuclear war, the titular fallout has created some fearsome varieties of enemies, and the game leaves you free to explore the wasteland as you see fit – the story missions being largely optional as you go off on side missions, or just have a look around. Look in the wrong place though, and you’ll want to hightail back to a place of safety!
Narrative is king here, with a strong lore, multiple warring factions, sides to pick. Much like its stablemate, The Elder Scrolls series, Fallout litters its world with discoverable journals and the like to give you insight into events in the Wasteland before you arrived, accessed through computer terminals and sometimes requiring successful completion of a hacking minigame. Hauntingly atmospheric, there are few people that haven’t enjoyed at least one of these games.
The Last of Us
Ok, there’s a clear bias in this list towards the oppressive, post-apocalyptic world design. I admit, I’m a sucker for such things, and it’s why I’ve always enjoyed a good zombie film, and why at least the first two Terminator films have such a place in my heart. The idea of a world in which the last few remaining humans struggle to survive against a disaster that has removed the rest of humanity from the earth, whilst nature tries to recover her control of things, is fascinating to me.
Another future setting, this one following a fungal infection that has killed much of the human race, leaving many of the remainder as infected, violent zombies, The Last of Us begins during the beginning stages of the end. Tragedy hits, and we jump forward some years to a brave new world in which our player character is tasked with taking a young girl to safety – a young girl who just may hold the secrets to a vaccine against the disease.
By allowing you to play the beginning stage as events unfold, you are given not only a tangible sense of your place in the world, but also made to care about the safety of Joel and his ward, Ellie. Once again we see a world in which nature is reclaiming its dominance, with the juxtaposition of cold, grey human architecture with the lush, green plantlife regrowing in the cracks being especially effective.
The story is framed by the differing attitudes of Joel, who remembers the world as it was, and Ellie who grew up knowing nothing different to the current state of affairs, and perhaps has a different sense of the dangers around them. It all comes together to make a beautiful game, one of my favourites of recent years, and one worth experiencing for yourself – particularly the Remastered edition on Playstation 4.
The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past – Hyrule
Right. Something a bit different. Though now I think about it, this is ANOTHER post-apocalyptic game, at least in its second act! Oh well, nevermind!
The Legend of Zelda A Link to the Past is a game just about everyone must be familiar with, cited by many (myself included) as the best entry in the series. It certainly succeeds in building a strong world and giving you a reason to want to save it. Another underdog story, you early on find yourself tasked with saving Princess Zelda from her castle’s dungeon, before she is kidnapped by the wizard Agahnim, who wishes to use her power and that of the descendants of seven sages to free Ganon and take control of the world.
First-time players must find three pendants scattered across Hyrule to prove their worth, before claiming their prize – the Master Sword, and using it to defeat Agahnim. Upon completing this quest, thinking you’ve finished the game, you may be surprised to find that you’ve barely scratched the surface! Drawn into the Dark World, you find a version of Hyrule bent by Ganon’s evil. Essentially doubling the playable area of the game, this is A Link to the Past’s master turn, now giving you a new mission – to save the seven maidens and defeat Ganon. This second act is, predictably, considerably larger than the first, requiring you to explore both the Dark and Light World versions of Hyrule to unlock access to the seven dungeons and defeat the bosses found therein.
Hidden secrets are dotted throughout both maps, leading to a fully powered-up Link carrying 20 hearts, powered up clothing, shield, sword, boomerang, and extended carrying capacity for arrows, bombs and magic. Each upgrade makes your mission slightly less perilous, and adds a sense of growth to the character, without resorting to the RPG standard of grinding and levelling up.
Besides the beautiful graphical design of the game, and the sense of completeness in the game map, special comment has to be made about the music. The series has simply some of the greatest music to be found in video games, and this one I think does much of it the best. The SNES sound chip is a fantastic thing, and it is used here to create much emotion and atmosphere. Never boring, each piece of music is fantastic in its own right – and on completion of the game you find they saved the best til last, with a truly triumphant fanfare signalling your success.
Ultimately this game took what had come before, and made it into a cohesive game, with a somewhat improved sense of progression, and just the right amount of handholding to make it enjoyable without removing the challenge in progression and exploration.
So there you have five of the best-realised worlds in video games. There are many more I could have mentioned in this list. How about you? What are your favourite game worlds, the ones in which you can get lost in the details? Let me know in the comments here, or find me on Twitter for a chat!