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City Life: An Unfulfilled Setting

Jeremy Signor | 29 Apr 2013 18:00
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That doesn't mean that smaller locales can't be packed with content. In fact, it proves to be a convenient, believable way to frame a game's structure. Western RPGs like Baldur's Gate built cities with density in mind. Every house and store can be accessed. If their doors were locked, you can either pick or break the lock. Each NPC can be approached and engaged in a conversation, and most will give you useful information. This approach ultimately proves preferable to a largely empty environment, but the city is almost never actually the sole setting here. Baldur's Gate II's Athkatla feels fairly large in comparison to RPG cities that came before and served as a significant focal point. Though you did leave the city fairly often for quests and story progression, Baldur's Gate II truly makes Athkatla the star of the game. The only drawback to this approach was the fact that the city wasn't really that big, but this is excused by the fact that it was a fantasy city and therefore not as big as a modern one. Later western RPGs like Dragon Age II expanded on this concept, increasing the scale just enough for the player to buy the fact that they're exploring and questing in a large, all-encompassing metropolis.

We see so many games toying with individual qualities of cities, but few truly commit to the concept.

We see so many games toying with individual qualities of cities, but few truly commit to the concept. Some trade off size for depth, while others emphasize vastness over detail. And fewer still stick strictly to the city itself for the entire adventure. We've never really seen a game try to have it both ways, truly capturing the feeling of being in a virtual modern city. Imagine a game of Skyrim's size, but instead of open countryside, every square inch was part of one giant city where every building was explorable, and every person had something to say or a quest to offer that takes the player to a different, distinct district. The problem is this ideal situation is highly unrealistic given current technology and development cycles. The inaccessible buildings in the Grand Theft Auto games are the tradeoff for the sheer scale the cities display. And the games that focus on a tiny district-sized area do so either from a limited budget or a desire to focus on the inner workings of a bustling urban community.

This conflict between representing the macro versus the micro lies at the heart of the issue, but a bigger problem plagues game cities and the developers who fail to see their potential: variety. When you limit your game to a single urban setting, you (supposedly) run the risk of boring the player with the same environment over and over. Though the aforementioned Athkatla offered a surprising number of environments within its walls, it relied on surrounding realms to fill in the gaps with levels that featured forests, ruins, and caverns. But when you think about it, wildly different locales could be represented in a city in believable ways. Plains and forests could become vast parks and wildlife preserves in between the cityscape. Sewers might give way to unexplored caverns filled with monsters and treasure. Even something as innocuous as a foundry can serve as a stock lava level. But more important than the potential for variety is the way all of these concepts can fit neatly together within the framework of a city. If games are about providing a fantastic world for you to run around in, a city, when built correctly, can be both fantastic and cohesive, making for a believable and immersive experience.

Though we've seen games experiment with all the different wonderful things a city setting can bring to a game, there's still so much potential for new experiences. Cities are architectural behemoths that beg to be explored. They're communities where interesting characters interact constantly. They provide players with a believable world without actually needing to artificially fake an entire planet. But more importantly, they invite players to master the landscape and populace until they feel right at home. And when you think about it, these are values that games, city-focused or no, always strive to embody.

Jeremy Signor is a freelance writer and editor from Pennsylvania who has written for GamePro, 1UP, and Atomix Mag. You can follow him on Twitter @SnakeOfSilent. And don't forget you can use the mini-map if you get lost.

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