In my mind, one of the most overlooked strengths of the videogame medium is its’ ability to recreate real-world places, periods, and historical locations on a level that allows you to truly immerse yourself in living, breathing recreations of said places. Quickly outdistancing even books or movies in recent years, the immersion factor of games allows you to more fully experience those places greater than any other medium, transporting you in place and time like never before. In addition, the technological advancements of the recent generation allowed those places to become more realized than ever before in gaming, giving us incredibly detailed looks into other lands and other times.
I, for one, am incredibly excited to see what recreations the newest generation holds for us, and with Infamous: Second Son just around the corner showcasing a brilliantly faithful recreation of Seattle (my favorite major U.S. city), I thought it appropriate to pay homage to my personal favorites of the now-fading generation. It’s not that uncommon that I boot up one of these games just to lose myself in the world that they offer, taking in the life-like nature of their settings. If you ever feel the need to explore some awesome places of historical note, or even just see other cities and lands that you yourself may never get to see in life, grab one of these games and fire them up for some great lessons on history and culture!
Hong Kong – Sleeping Dogs, United Front Games/Square Enix London
As someone who loves exploring other cultures and traditions around the world, it’s odd that I didn’t actually know much about Hong Kong (other than roughly where it is) going into this game. Thankfully, it didn’t take more than a couple of hours of running around in Sleeping Dogs to give me a good sense of that world and pique my interest enough to start looking further into the place for myself, and it’s hard to imagine a better way to experience the city outside of actually being there.
The last holdout of British Imperialism (it wasn’t officially turned over to China until 1999), Hong Kong is a strange mash-up of both old and new cultural traditions, and of both Eastern and Western influences. United Front Games does a stellar job of expressing this in their faithful recreation of everything from booth-laden street markets to massive, towering skyscrapers, each portion of the island indicatively colored by cars, clothing and architecture pulled straight from the real-world location. Characters’ conversations flow between both English and Cantonese, and the unique culture blending is showcased in nearly every facet of how they look and act, from aforementioned clothing to their ideals and motivations. The only thing missing from the game is the crushing crowds and traffic that overwhelm the city, obviously removed to make traversal and exploration more enjoyable. That point aside, though, this living and breathing city with all its beauty and flaws in tow has few equals in the gaming world. It’s no surprise that this beautiful portrait of a world so foreign to our own in the West was honestly more enjoyable to me than GTA V, which was characterized by its sheer vapidity and size.
Colonial America – Assassin’s Creed 3, Ubisoft
Say what you will about gameplay, story, and whatnot, there’s nobody in the gaming world producing historical adaptations of such detail and accuracy as those teams at Ubisoft, something which they deserve considerable praise for alone. While initially uncertain about their choice of such a particular time period, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with their painstakingly recreated world of the American Revolution, something which I think the game’s other flaws seem to greatly overshadow in the gaming community.
Ubisoft goes to unparalleled detail in ensuring that every one of their historical periods is as factual in its reproduction as possible, something that is heavily embodied in the world of AC 3. With every architectural landmark in place, construction areas in the place of those yet to exist, and even the rocky, hilled landscape of early Boston, New York, the wild frontier and the Eastern seaboard all intact, it’s hard to imagine the manpower necessary to put that world together. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent running through the frontier exploring to my heart’s content and doing every sidequest I could find, or even running through the two cities, enraptured by the mere fact that I might as well have been transported back in time to the birth of our nation. The game and the setting are certainly an acquired taste, but to any lover of history like myself, the true impact of such a lovingly-built recreation bears an elegance that is unfathomable.
Renaissance Italy – Assassin’s Creed 2/Brotherhood, Ubisoft
I know, I know, it might seem unfair to give the Assassin’s Creed series two slots on this list, especially when the GTA series only gets one. My reasoning, however, is the simple fact that these two worlds are so vastly different from each other in every way, and yet still each so exact in their reproduction, that both deserve their own credit. As one of the most fascinating and significant places and periods of all Western history, with emulations of Venice, Florence, Tuscany, and even greater Rome, there’s plenty to be learned about life in this era just by jumping into the game – aside from the alternate-history storyline, of course.
Exalted as the ultimate period in history of the flowering of human scientific progress and artistic expression, The Renaissance is an era we know much about but don’t ever really get a chance to see outside contemporary movies, paintings from the era, and our own imagination. Such a period of vibrancy, charm, and political turmoil is difficult to fully appreciate without being able to see it for ourselves. Knowing that, I consider it an immeasurable achievement that the team at Ubisoft Montreal was able to pull together every recorded detail possible to produce the most realistic portrayal of that time that we may ever see. Combine this with the fact that vertical traversal allows you to see the beauty of those places from every possible angle, and the fact that numerous sidequests and history unfolding before you serve to place you directly in the heart of things, and you have a recipe for greatness that will go down in gaming history.
The American West – Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar Games
For all the dramatic over-romanticization of the American “Wild West” era, it seems unusual that it appears to be the hardest for games to capture well, with few contenders and just as many successes (GUN) as abysmal failures (Damnation). Imagine the surprise of many gamers when Rockstar Games – storied a developer as they are – managed to knock their attempt out of the park, creating not just possibly the greatest game this generation, but one of the greatest games of all time. It’s hard to imagine any other developer really competing with their vision, and yet we wouldn’t want it any other way.
Rockstar has become particularly adept in the previous generation at creating worlds unmatched in their massive proportions and scope, which is no more appropriate than for recreating a land of such untamed beauty, varying biomes, and endless possibility that was the American West. Taking it all in from horseback, there are wild animals to hunt (or be hunted by), outlaws to bring home for bounties, dangerous bands on the dirt roads, and the occasional tiny town where something of note is always happening. Rockstar’s penchant for the sardonic pushed them to set this story just around the time the ‘Wild West’ was dying, allowing for some great portrayals of Amerindian conflict, turn-of-the-century small town America (briefly), and the dark side of American progressivism. All of this culminates in a powerful story with few rivals, matched only by the ambition of the living, breathing world it is set in. When it comes to Red Dead Redemption, the game world mirrors our own in that there is something for everybody to find enjoyment in.
Vice City (Miami) – Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Rockstar Games
I couldn’t very well end this list without a shout-out to the GTA series. The children of the incredible men over at Rockstar Games, they are unrivaled masters of world-building and Americana parody. My main problem was trying to decide which of their many offerings truly characterized the best example of their work within the series. In the end, I decided the only clear option was the one that best showcased their own talents by matching up equal parts of real-world location with a heavy dose of their own imagination, serving to heavily romanticize and exaggerate that time and place: the Miami-inspired ‘Vice City’ in the year 1985.
A neon-drenched metropolis of bright colors, towering buildings, beautiful beaches and moral ambiguity, Vice City represents the glitz and glamour everybody thought that the 1980’s was. Much like the real Miami, it’s a boiling soup pot of Haitians, Latinos, drug kingpins, shady politicians and beautiful women that’s just ripe for the taking by anti-hero Tommy Vercetti. It’s not the biggest or the most grandiose of the GTA worlds, but just as with the other two GTAs of the PS2 generation, every nook and cranny of the world had something to find and every square inch was full of an incontrovertible character. A lot of people who lived their most formative years in the 1980’s are still utterly in love with that time period, and this massive virtual playground, filled with almost endless diversion and entertainment, exemplifies the best qualities of that entire era in a way that made many of us younger kids fall in love with it, too.
Even eleven years and now two generations removed, we still can’t get the beautiful memories of our time in Vice City out of our heads, which is a special mark of greatness in the gaming world.