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.
The Far Cry series has created some stunning worlds for us to blow up - a desert island, Africa, a downtrodden paradise, Tibet, but the 5th is the one that really got to me. This was real, normal, relatable, everyday Montana not some distant or exotic fantasy island, and that made the standard Far Cry experience all the more compelling; the locals, the big rigs, the American accents and love of guns; it was close to home, even if you don't live in Big Sky Country. I would chase off the god-bothering locals just so I could fish in peace. I want to retire here.
Noir games tend to try too hard to replicate the look - long shadows, smoke, sharp corners. They fall into cliché, but LA Noire wasn't noir, it was an incredible reproduction of post-war 40s. I loved the monotony of investigating petty crimes just because it allowed me to ferret through 40s era knick-knacks; I never got tired of the streets, the people, the cars, hanging around Soda Bars, wandering the streets in my fedora. LA Noire was the 40s unfussily brought to life. I spent hours just taking in the extraordinary attention to the ordinary.
You can’t list locations without visiting the animus. And where do you go from there? Every Assassin's Creed excelled at bringing its time-period to life and they were all staggering, from BC to AD. The Holy Land, Renaissance Italy, the American Frontier, the Caribbean, Revolutionary France, Classical Egypt, Ancient Greece; but it was Syndicate that really pulled me in. Maybe it’s because it’s my manor, but seeing London at its height, the era of Victorian arrogance, racing a horse-drawn carriage through a Pea-Souper, I became a Dickensian ne'er-do-well, skipping across the mucky Thames, dashing through back alleys and mills and factories, leaping from Big Ben, watching upper-class ladies promenade and little street urchins on the fiddle.
While I struggled with Alien Isolation, I would argue some of that was due to being distracted by the extraordinary set design (not at all due to the un-kill-able Alien stalking me. Totally not that.) It so completely replicated the look of the Nostromo that it was all too easy to slip into the mind-set of Ripley (or in my scaredy-cat case, Lambert). I was amazed at the nodding birds, the drink containers, the androids doing the warm-up run, the big keys, it perfected the 70s imaginings of the future - it puts me right where I don’t want to be; up against an Alien.
Sticking with outer space and the same retro-future look, all the Star Wars games reproduce George’s vision but Dark Forces II was the one to really make me feel like a Nerf Herder. Chasing through the mean streets where scum and villainy reigned just worked better than other SW games - including the modern takes - because it was the seedy underbelly where Cantina regulars lived. It’s not aged well at all, but that doesn’t matter; the environments perfectly capture the original SW feel (Not the Special Edition, I always shoot first) and tonally, it’s never been bettered. We're not some squeaky-clean Luke-wannabe, we're a Han Solo wannabe and it's a perfect world to play that character. Even with its am-dram FMV, it was the only game to make the Kessel run right to my childhood excitement about SW.
I loved Borderlands’ Pandora. Not for its comic book style - for that, see The Darkness II or XIII - it's that we’re in a junkyard. Pandora was a ghost town, a once prosperous gold-rush frontier which corporations gutted then dumped when it came up empty. What remained was a shithole of tire-fires, scrap, gutted mines; all that was left was a destroyed surface and a whole bunch of people left behind to survive the bandit clans and local nasties. But it’s not the wasteland itself that I love, it’s that Pandora is the very definition of setting the scene; it immediately teaches you nothing much matters; we’re not here to save it, we’re here to pick it’s bones - you look around and think “okay, I get it”. And that’s what makes a good setting.
Not exactly a location in the same way as the other games on this list, but one place I feel at home is aboard the Normandy. It’s true that with each Mass Effect, the changes and updates mean I have to relearn how to get about, but it still feels like home. Shepard doesn’t have anywhere else, and it’s where their relationships develop, their team becomes friends and pet fish go to die. It’s where you come to terms with the enormity of what’s expected of you, what needs to be done. We strike out from -and limp back to- the Normandy, and eventually watch it leave as we make our final stand against the Reapers. It represents home and hope, and in the end it’s the place where we’re remembered.
Stauff’s mansion in The 7th Guest is the oldest location on this list, and the least welcoming. A haunted, rotten, evil place but one that I adore. You step into that mansion and completely get it. I’m in a murder mystery, the original Cat and the Canary, the William Castle movies I grew up on as a kid. There’s just something so wonderfully old-school about Stauff’s mansion, a proper haunted house that unnerves, rather than some jump-scare or run-hide nonsense like all Haunted House games now - it's just classy. I am a Guest, but I’d be a resident if I could.
Blocky, pixelated 90s era graphics are rarely convincing, and Blood’s levels are not exactly consistent - but fighting through Friday the 13th and The Shining, carnivals and ghost towns was more interesting than Doom’s gloom or Duke’s strip-joints. But what really got me was Blood was me as a teenager. The alt-punk look, the gothic tone, the creatures straight out of Lovecraft, the Evil Dead and Carpenter refs, and the Elvia calendar - back in the nineties, to see that in the game then look up and see it on my wall meant this game was made by designers I could have a beer with. I can imagine they grew up like me, saw the same movies, wore the same band t-shirts. I’ve never felt so ‘in’ a game since - and that includes VR; unless they create a VR Elvira game.
I’ll never be an astronaut or a mercenary or even remotely heroic, but it’s not always the character I play that makes me feel the part. It’s the worlds that I disappear into. Without background we’re just going through the same motions. Fantastical, realistic, sci-fi, historical, scary or surreal; tons of locations, locations, locations are just a double-click away and cost less than a mortgage. Just like in real life you worry about where the nearest shop is, is the area safe, will your car get nicked, but I’d still rather stress about Cliff Racers, a Big Daddy or tommy-gun wielding monks than what eco-rating my house has.