When buying a house, they say Location, Location, Location is key. And it’s the same in gaming; imagine Doom set in Tamriel. Here then are our favourite locations in gaming, places so cool, so immersive you play just to be there. Those are our homes away from home.
A Plague Tale brings the Middle Ages, the 100 Years War and the Black Death together in one horrible experience - yet the nightmare of death, war, pestilence, famine is an amazing place to be. Plague Tale is the very definition of location makes a game; the final third goes a bit mystical, but the decay and misery that Amicia carries her adorable bro Hugo though brings it horribly home; this actually happened.
Bioshock’s Rapture. We’ve had many blighted-future settings, it’s a stalwart of sci-fi but Rapture sends you back in time and to the future in one claustrophobic setting. It’s incredibly beautiful, even in the depths and its decay; the huge windows staring out at the bleak, cold Atlantic work so much better than some coral-infused turquoise sea, and it reminds you you’re under crushing water with no way out except deeper in – into a dead and soulless place, but one that was wonderous once. That opening where the sub drifts through the underwater city as a giant squid swishes by fills you with awe, but inside it’s like the blitz. The Art Deco design, the ornate, overwrought detail; a once-beautiful city decimated yet there’s still a wonder to it, even if you’re picking your way through rotting corpses and failed dreams. Bioshock 3’s Beyond the Sea did Rapture proud in the early levels, restoring it to its pre-war glory, where at least briefly, you can see what a beautiful idea it was. I’d live there, even after the war. I’d not last long, but it'd be worth it.
Oblivion is my favourite fantasy RPG, but my fave fantasy location is its precursor, Morrowind; it was genuine high-fantasy. Those Daedric shrines, the crypts with the whispering and creaking, the old ruins, the towns carved out of the environment, the forlorn Silt Striders and vast expanses; you had to really get into the world to survive it, become like the complex, often corrupt citizens. They weren’t the jolly NPCs of Oblivion or the racist arses of Skyrim, those were survivors and you took their cues and learnt how a filthy swit carves their way through the Ashlands.
Sticking with Bethesda’s glory days, you can’t list environments without mentioning Fallout 3. Everything is gone and anything that's survived is dangerous or desperate. But the communities you find, dug into any corner that can sustain them allow some hope to seep in, that humanity might survive this, and that drives you to do your part. It’s one of the few apocalypse games that doesn’t focus purely on you taking out some new totalitarian government – that is a key part, but it’s not what you take from it. It’s picking your way through the rubble, marvelling at how humanity adapts that stays with you.
Fallout 3 allowed for hope, but Mad Max was about as fatalistic as you can get - it conjures images of Cormack’s The Road, where the world was dying and nothing was going to save it. Charging about in a rusted muscle car raiding camps for supplies, trading skills at settlements and living one moment to the next was both amazing and repetitive, but it was the world that gave you Max’s survivor attitude. The first half, set in a desiccated ocean bed was dusty, full of wrecks and dead whales, but the second half, in what remained of civilisation was worse; buried under sand dunes, no one’s rebuilding or looking to the future, they’re just hanging on, surviving by any horrible means necessary. It’s an incredibly nihilistic game, as it should be; how can you live in a world where you’re forced to eat maggots and watch kids die and not become an animal?
Arkham City is a fantastic bat-fantasy game, but its the Escape from New York-channelling streets that convinced me I was the Bat; swooping across rooftops, hanging from gargoyles is one bat-thing, but it was the gritty, dangerous, lawless streets that got under my cowl and me into character. I am the Dark Knight. Thanks to the City.