A single, universally applicable, perfectly economical method of creating video game cities sadly doesn’t exist – not yet, at least. What’s more, neither accurately simulating an urban world and all its systems, nor creating a completely procedural-but-satisfying setting are realistically feasible options, and we still have to rely on artists and designers to conjure small miracles. Thankfully, sometimes whole towns can be summed up in a few well-selected words, and the feeling and scale of even a metropolis can be conveyed via a painting.
When it comes to modern video games, the level design and early concepts of any contemporary city will often have to begin with the choice between an open world or a game space consisting of more or less observably connected nodes and sub-areas. It’s a choice that is neither always obvious, nor necessarily tied to genre.
Open worlds are essentially continuous, seemingly analogue, and in most cases large game spaces. They are virtual worlds that can be freely explored, and where objectives can be tackled in seemingly any sequence. Players do not move along predetermined paths, and thus narrative or in-game structure is often imposed via gates of all sorts, physical boundaries, and clever mission design. Interestingly, cities have always been well-suited to the open-world approach. Despite monstrous hardware constraints, civic open worlds have been around since the 1980s, with Turbo Esprit and Dun Darach being early examples, though it was the 3D city of Grand Theft Auto III that defined what modern gamers tend to expect.
Thankfully, not all open worlds have to be in 3D, feature cars, or function as sandboxes. Still, many actually do – the cities of Saints Row in particular revel in their silly and playful nature. Similarly, open-world urbanism doesn’t have to encapsulate a whole city, nor be restricted by it. The Yakuza series is happy to let players roam in the confined space of Tokyo’s re-imagined red light district, whereas Skyrim sports several settlements in its world. Thimbleweed Park, on the other hand, crafts its continuous city in 2D, and could have probably even done so using only text.
But why do we choose to build urban open worlds? Why do we enjoy them? Well, I firmly believe that what lies at the core of such places is the promise of a vast possibility of space. The sense that anything you see can be visited. Particularly when it comes to cities, the experience of unconstrained exploration is a fantasy come true, and one that ties in wonderfully with our familiar experience of how continuous urban space is. Topologies are easier to understand too, and getting to master the geography of such a virtual city is feasible and often desirable. Every nook and cranny, and every shortcut hidden in plain sight is there to be discovered and exploited.
Getting scale right can be tricky though, as the amount of assets needed to recreate even a modestly sized town in all its detail is astronomical. Careful abstraction, modular techniques, and visual tricks such as the curving of roads are required to bring assets numbers down to a manageable level, while simultaneously implying size in a world that players can see in its entirety. Even Ubisoft’s lush and visually convincing Victorian London of Assassin’s Creed Syndicate can be traversed in less than 20 minutes, as such attempts were made to trick its visitors by carefully placing quests so as to have them run in (subtle) circles. The boundaries of an open-world city without walls can also pose a bit of a problem. Not all games can follow the example of GTA V and exist on islands, nor can all settings depend on supernatural horrors to enforce city borders.
Fractured space, on the contrary, rarely has to obsess with the boundaries of cities. It is more concerned with delineating and logically connecting its more manageable urban nodes while maintaining the illusion of a cohesive, existing whole. Non-open-world cities restrict freedom of movement, but help us curate the urban experience, pace plots, control flow, and place emphasis on specific sections of a city. The original Resident Evil 2, for example, takes place for the most part in a police department, and yet the presence of Raccoon City is constantly felt.
The framing opportunities offered by discreet, restrictive places make them excellent at implying civic sizes. Grim Fandango’s metropolis of Rubacava consisted of a dozen or so screens packed with detail and carefully crafted backgrounds, whereas the constantly shifting RPG geographies of Sigil in Planescape: Torment could never be displayed in a cohesive, continuous way. Dishonored also benefited from breaking up its Dunwall into disconnected (but curated and characterful) chunks, while giving its players the mental tools to imagine a complete metropolis. Not only would an open-world city have doubled Dishonored’s cost, but it would have also cost the game its focus. This node-like type of spatial organisation allows us, after all, to become intimate with the more familiar scale of the neighbourhood.
Not unlike open worlds, fractured spaces come in all sizes and shapes. They can be 2D or 3D and rendered in a variety of styles. Each space can be anything from a static background to a small open world-like area which renders a specific part of the urban fabric, as was the case with both BioShock games. The full city of Rapture was out of bounds, but extensive sections were modelled, and players were allowed some spatial freedom. Furthermore, to paint the complete picture of a city that was actually there, views from windows were employed to show off locations that couldn’t plausibly be visited due to flooded tunnels and failing bulkheads.
Finally, when it comes to thematically and mechanically connecting those separated, distinct levels in a city, a variety of techniques can be used. Maps, cutscenes like the one introducing Anor Londo in Dark Souls, or even interactive and semi-interactive vehicle sections. In some cases, even a textual description of the voyage and a sketch can be enough.
Cities and towns located in wider, larger open worlds such as Whiterun in Skyrim or Novigrad in The Witcher 3 usually have the luxury of not having to deal with inflexible, often unrealistic boundaries. They do, however, have to ensure they are surrounded by believably fleshed out hinterlands. The influence of a city doesn’t end at its limits. Cities are powerful magnets, and geographical nodes whose influence can be felt far away. Always try to imagine what is around each of them, then, and how they’re thought of throughout your setting.
Clicking on a map location to be whisked away to it, walking, or simply driving there in a car are all valid options, but cities should always make even more (era and setting appropriate) transportation options available to players. These could be both private and public, and could include everything from teleporters and horse-drawn carriages to subways, motorcycles, and bicycles. Avoiding tedious backtracking while enticing players to explore is a difficult balance to strike, and it almost invariably demands walkable spaces too. Obviously, researching the history, present, and fantasy of transportation can be of immense help here.