Few creative mediums let you explore stories like video games. Players don’t just watch a story—they participate in it, sometimes steering narratives to wildly divergent endings. But in order for an interactive experience to truly transport players, it needs to have a well-built world for them to live in. Here are some locales that stand out from the rest.
The most memorable video game worlds come to the player steeped in story, teeming with possible paths to take and lives to intersect with. Characters whose existences you want to know more about, conflicts you’re compelled to join, spaces filled with mood and urgency… a good gameworld is a place you don’t want to leave.
When you first enter the failed undersea experiment in Objectivist utopia-building, it’s all gone to hell. As you pick through the remains of a society where genetic manipulation and unchecked ambition ran rampant, you find out about class tensions that erupted into all-out war and a twisted family reunion. BioShock 2 took players back to Rapture before it exploded, and sequel BioShock Infinite transported them to the companion city of Columbia, set in a floating metropolis where turn-of-the-20th-century nationalism curdled into jingoism. Infinite reveals a multiverse at the end of it all, teasing a whole bunch of other realities with their own versions of Rapture, making the whole enterprise feel even more epic.
When it comes to sheer size and volume, few video game environments match the scope of Tamriel, seen in Oblivion, Skyrim, and other installments of Bethesda Softworks’ trailblazing Elder Scrolls franchise. It’s a continent that contains the wondrous dragons, evil sorcerers, and power-hungry monarchs that you’d expect, but is also rife with surprisingly poignant ground-level stories and characters with oddly quirky, but wholly believable behaviors. No matter how many times you finish, say, Skyrim, Tamriel continues to feel like like a place where there’ll always be something to do and more to explore.
The sector of space that humankind already lives in gets a radical makeover thanks to alien technology in BioWare’s beloved scifi series. Humans have achieved a fantastical level of harmony and plenty in the Mass Effect games, but contact with other sentient races means there’s cosmic-scale melodrama to get involved with. In the aggregate, the franchise’s main plotlines, sidequests, and DLC add-ons offer a rich stew of family secrets, tribal grudge matches, and interplanetary political turnabout. The Mass Effect games are filled with moments where it feels like you’re changing lives in both big and small ways, which is what make them so memorable.
Azeroth is the fictional reality where World of Warcraft happens, meaning it’s been home to millions of players in its 13-year existence. As it grew into one of the most influential MMOs ever, World of Warcraft transported players to new kingdoms, introduced new races, and sent them into the past to prevent a broken future. Whether you played through WoW’s massive raids as Alliance or Horde, it felt like you were in the middle of a living history, something few games can lay claim to.
Nintendo’s re-invented the fantasy kingdom of Hyrule plenty of times over the history of its iconic game franchise. Sure, you’re always playing as a plucky boy hero named Link with a familiar set of races, allies, and enemies. But the world has come to feel mutable, like it’s kinda sorta just reincarnated from entry to entry. Zelda games have bounced players back and forth from past to present, light and dark in endearingly clever ways and Link, Zelda, and Ganon have been reincarnated so many times that it’s hard to keep track of, even if you use the official timelines. No matter what, Hyrule will be a place where Nintendo fans can romp through best-in-class adventures.
An Eastern European city ruled by alien conquerors, the setting of both of Valve’s Half-Life 2 episodes feels like a place slowly being squeezed of its humanity. The dystopian oppression in City 17 is memorable because there’s a thread of personal familiarity and dark humor running through it. Mostly, City 17 shines as a possibility arena sketched out in the negative space of all the things you can’t do; the fact that you can’t live freely inside of it makes you want to fuck shit up even more.
Death is an incredibly inescapable fact of life in From Software’s Dark Souls games. In the notoriously difficult franchise, it’s not just that every dead body in the world of Lordran has a story, it’s also the fact that they might have belonged to another real-world human player that magnifies the drama. Some adventurer just like you faced off the games’ ultra-tough enemies and suffered an ignominious end, leaving a cryptic note that could help or hurt your chances of survival. Hell, they might even invade your game to give you added grief. Truly no game series has ever offered as much sado-masochism as this one.
BioWare’s high fantasy universe grew in scale with every entry in the Dragon Age franchise. (Yes, even the recycled environments of Dragon Age 2 gave you loads of new people to meet and adventures to have.) By the time the dev studio delivered Dragon Age Inquisition, they’d made a game so giant that players had to be told that they should leave the game’s first playable environment. A game this big and particulate multiplied the inherent responsibility built into BioWare’s trademark sliding morality scale: You carried the fate of all of Thedas’ many groups of people on your shoulders. It’d take a real jerk to not care about screwing the lives of so many beings.
One of modern video games’ most towering achievements, The Witcher 3 is the kind of game where you’re better off not knowing the scope of what awaits. Suffice it to say, when you control mystically powered hero Geralt in CD Projekt Red’s opus, you’ll be doing everything from finding lost frying pans to solving murders to acting in a play. You’ll get stunned by the level of variety and depth of execution on your first playthrough. The Witcher 3 is the kind of game you could play for hours every day for weeks at a time... in a good way. When you go back to Geralt’s adventures again, it’ll be a little like going to an entire library full of books that you already know and love.
As lead character of Black Isle Studio’s seminal computer RPG, the Nameless One has lived a lot. And the endlessly reincarnated hero has done it in a place where you can do a lot of living: The city of Sigil, whose neighborhoods mirror the fiction’s Planes of Existence. These adjacent realms operate on the same axis of good/evil and lawful/chaotic that orders Dungeons & Dragons’ famous attitude alignment, in which you’re moving through a place that can let you access differentiated versions of right and wrong. Join the wrong faction and you’ll be saying, “The chaos is too damn high!”
Have your own favorite gameworld that’s packed with flavors you like? Let us know in the comments below.