Videogames offer a plethora of prospective settings, but none play to the medium’s strengths like the big city. It only makes sense that the promise of a game set in a metropolis would be appealing. City planning is essentially level design, each individual building holds the potential for telling an interesting story, and neighborhoods serve as microcosms of activity and interaction. But unfortunately, developers are often more interested in providing players with an epic, world-spanning journey.

Why restrict players when you can put the world in the palm of their hands? The result of this thinking, however, is rarely as epic as developers hope. In order to simulate an entire world, they shrink the scale so that it will realistically fit into a game both from a technical and practical standpoint, leaving us with a planet abstracted to be no bigger than a college campus. They assume that confining players to a single location will make the experience ordinary, but in reality, a virtual city can be vast and varied.

In a climate where games are only getting bigger, an all-encompassing city setting can meet this growing need while providing plenty of possibilities for interesting environments and level design.

In a climate where games are only getting bigger, an all-encompassing city setting can meet this growing need while providing plenty of possibilities for interesting environments and level design. The Grand Theft Auto series proves to be the most literal interpretation of the concept by recreating an approximation of a modern city. Each game takes place in a single city modeled after a real-world one – Vice City, for example, is based on Miami. The player is given missions throughout the metropolis, each of which are marked on a mini-map meant to simulate a GPS. In addition to these missions, you can wander around finding different collectables, shop at gun stores, eat at fast food restaurants, and even meet up with friends. And though GTA‘s cities pale in comparison to their inspirations, they feel as big as the real thing.

But though each city is quite large for a game locale, most of what you see is superfluous. Pretend apartments and stores are wallpapered onto some rectangular geometry, with the occasional blip on the GPS indicating an actual store you can interact with. Mindless pedestrians will walk along the sidewalks, and though some interact with you, most merely serve as window dressing. Of course, it’s unrealistic to expect a game city of this size to let you explore every single one of these features, but making a large metropolis without addressing these restrictions short-circuits one of the setting’s greatest strengths. The Grand Theft Auto games absolutely illustrate how to fill the vastness that today’s gamers crave with style, but they also show there’s more to the city experience than square footage or architecture. It’s also about the people that reside in these large settlements and their interactions with each other – something games can innately excel at. But this is difficult to pull off in such a large package.

In order to address this, many other games attempt to fake the feeling of a large city by portraying a bustling metropolis in a smaller area, relying on interactions between its residents to sell it as a community. The gameplay of works such as Yakuza and The Last Story focus on smaller areas, compressing the city experience into a more easily-manageable package. This way, players become more intimate with their surroundings as they learn landmarks and meet significant people. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask takes this one step further by featuring a tiny town full of named NPCs that go about their routines during three days of game time. Real-world time is simulated, and each citizen of Clock Town wanders to different locations at different times of day to take care of their own needs. Players can intercept each one at a certain juncture in their routine in order to help them with their problems and reap the rewards. You still lose the vastness of an actual city – Clock Town itself proves especially small and merely serves as a hub for the rest of the world – but simulating city life makes it feel alive and vibrant in the way that a real one would.

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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