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My Kind of Town: Propping Up Arresting Game Settlements

Video game settlements tend to exert a kind of gravitational pull upon players when it comes time to gather themselves and with fellow beings in a single place.

Michel Sabbagh

December 19, 2023

17 Min Read

In life, the sayings "there's no place like home" and "home is where the heart is" reinforce the idea that humans are instinctively used to forming close bonds with specific surroundings—however far they travel away from them.

And if art imitates life, then it's fair to say that gamers echo such a feeling. If not with virtual abodes, then most certainly with spots other folks call home.

Whether they be cozy hamlets located in the middle of meadowy nowhere or monolithic metropolises that draw souls from all walks of life, video game settlements tend to exert a kind of gravitational pull upon players when it comes time to gather themselves and with fellow beings in a single place. As a place of respite from gameplay and narrative challenges, game settlements have become a staple of open-ended titles—or at the very least, titles that ooze adventure and use settlements to modulate the experience's pacing.

As gaming evolved to accommodate 3D graphics, online play, and the like, virtual settlements grew increasingly more complex in terms of what they could feature and how they could be shaped. From hubs in MMOs to ghost towns in walking simulators, game settlements presented developers and gamers alike with new ways to achieve gameplay and storytelling goals.

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This can be seen in the likes of Final Fantasy XV (2016)—which leveraged HD technology to turn pre-rendered memories of bustling towns into full-fledged spaces ripe for virtual tourism—and Everybody's Gone to the Rapture (2015), its quaint Salopian setting lending itself well to a feeling of coziness that contrasts with the mystery regarding the inhabitants' vanishing.

Long story short, the biggest technological contribution to games is the fact that settlements can now exude such a palpable level of character that they instill in players the same curiosity they bear toward NPCs. That is, the same wish to interact with them and see if there's more to them than meets the eye.

Except one spends more time navigating physical spaces than dialog trees.

While it's true that players may favor certain types of settlements (e.g. villages, towns, cities, etc.) over others, it's also true that the best kind of settlement is one that doesn't just serve as a mere pitstop for gamers. Between the need to fill locales with helpful resources that incentivize player visits and the importance of having them respond to major choices by the player character, developers have lots to keep in mind and realize if they aim to ground players into the setting via a blend of ambient verisimilitude and gameplay practicality. One polygon and line of dialog/code at the time.

After all, Rome—both real and digitized—wasn't built in a single day.

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NOTE: The tips in this article may or may not be compatible with every game depending on the developer's vision, but they serve as general tenets that can benefit the experience when well implemented.

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Give them a fetching layout and/or architectural style

When it comes to first impressions—be it in real life or a game—people who stumble upon a new settlement tend to size up the way it's built and laid out.

Is it maze-like or simple to navigate? Ornate or spartan in its visual design?

Whatever the questions may be, getting one's bearings is one of the chief considerations a player will wield upon interacting with their surroundings. It thus falls onto developers to ensure that the settlement is not only breezy and/or engaging to trek about, but also eye-catching in terms of how buildings look and contrast with more natural environmental features.

On the one hand, a settlement must stand out so that it's easy for players to figure out which path they can take and appreciate the work that the in-game inhabitants put into making their home look the way it does. On the other hand, an overwrought approach to architecture and navigation can risk making the settlement feel especially busy in players' eyes—which can take them out of the experience should they struggle to process their bearings.

In light of this, developers can always make sure that form follows function.

In other words, figuring out how the settlement can serve players from a gameplay perspective can then make the process of imbuing said settlement with spatial details less precarious since those would complement the player's pathfinding and spice up the scenery rather than obfuscate it.

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Most settlements in The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (2002) succeed on that front, especially given the factions shaping the land's cultural profile.

From the austerity and grid-like pattern of the Imperial stronghold of Ebonheart to the symmetry and elegant architecture of House Hlaalu's Balmora, each settlement on the island of Vvardenfell boasts its own take on looking and feeling the part. This translates to each of them having a character of their own that players either easily take to or, if they don't, at least respect the effort that went into making them distinct from the rest.

The lack of loading screens between the open world and settlements also means that the latter nicely meshes with the natural makeup of Vvardenfell, whether they consist of the boggy Bitter Coast or of the lush Ascadian Isles.

Ergo, the settlements' layout and architecture feel like they arose from their wild surroundings rather than being discrete capsules that seem as if they were directly dropped down in their full form onto the untamed land without any consideration for how they'd complement or clash with the scenery. Such is the attention to detail that Bethesda Game Studios leveraged when taking into consideration how the island's inhabitants worked around the constraints of Vvardenfell's natural makeup to erect settlements suited to their needs.

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Honorable Mention: The Temple of Elemental Evil (2003). The community of Hommlet, in particular, does more than just accurately replicate its TTRPG counterpart. Via the contrast in infrastructural density between the town's eastern and western parts, and the believably quaint nature of the buildings and their inhabitants, Hommlet evokes that quintessentially rustic and hearty mood one gets from stumbling upon a settlement divorced from the hustle and bustle. The branching paths also help make the modestly-sized village feel big without increasing backtracking.

Place them in areas with noteworthy biomes and ambiances

As previously suggested, a settlement's makeup doesn't just stem from the locals' culture, but also from the area in which the inhabitants settled down.

After all, it is natural for folks to take into consideration the constraints and atmospheric factors of their environment, lest their long-term welfare and the longevity of the settlement's infrastructural sturdiness be compromised.

From verdant meadows that lend themselves well to dairy cattle grazing, to tempestuous coastlines that warrant the need to create a cordon of sandbags around easily floodable pathways, the environment is to settlements what a frame is to a painting. It can feel like an annoying restriction that throws curveballs at every turn, but time spent thinking about how to work around said restriction can beget a work of art that reflects the author's character.

Better yet, should the game sport a variety of biomes that boast unique ecosystems and geological features, the settlement itself is more likely to stand out from its contemporaries thanks to the mood and sense of scale that it draws from its surroundings. By acknowledging this factor, developers can experiment with atmospheric effects that underline the fact that nature knows no bounds, which can impact the settlers' temperament and way of thinking.

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Such an approach to literal worldbuilding is one that Horizon: Forbidden West (2022) depicts in every region and tribe that players may interact with.

From the dizzying and snowy heights of Stone Crest overlooking the Sky Clan's valley to the more temperate Long Coast that harbors the settlement of Tide's Reach, each tribal region hosts settlements that look and feel as if they couldn't exist anywhere else in the world. Not just because of the tribes' predisposition to certain climates, but also because the infrastructure in place was tailor-made for weathering the worst that the regions have to offer.

Not only are the settlements evenly spread out and able to shine on their own proverbial pedestals, but the environment in which they are based also means that negotiating one's surroundings and circumstances never feels the same.

Therefore, the protagonist seldom goes on autopilot whenever she enters a new settlement and gallivants about it. That players must be actively aware of how to trek about the space means it's easier for them to appreciate the distinct visual qualities that the settlement and its outskirts bear. The result's an innate desire to explore every corner of the settlement, if not the world.

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Honorable Mention: ELEX series (2017 - Present). The world of Magalan is as wide and multifaceted as the settlements that dot the land. Between the steely Hort that calls the volcanic region of Ignadon its home and the cluster of isles and metallic bridges that form the Crater, each settlement is designed and laid out in accordance with the tricky and harsh conditions the locals withstand. Even with their jetpack, players must treat settlements as their own obstacle course—making them less likely to blend with one another.

Feature distinct personalities within or near the settlement

Of course, one can't have a settlement without any, well, settlers to approach.

While one may be tempted to fill out the space with random NPCs and call it a day (or year if we're realistic about game development cycles), developers would be wise to individualize the settlement's identity by making its inhabitants as engrossing and/or charming as feasible. Doing so would allow players to get a better idea of the characters' mien and worldviews—which would in turn inform the choice of architecture and location for the settlement—but that wouldn't be the only boon that such an endeavor offers.

Characters who bear enlightening and/or entertaining personalities can be seen as salespeople of sorts, the items they're hawking being the settlement's vibe and—if they are actual merchants—services. By expressing themselves in their own unique way and having their interactions with the protagonist come together within players' minds, the settlement's atmosphere solidifies into a set of feelings and moods players closely associate with the settlement.

Given all this, developers must exercise care when choosing which personality to create and place in the settlement as a proverbial salesperson.

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The Monkey Island series (1990 - Present) always excelled in the characterization department, but such a level of quality is made all the more noteworthy by the placement of specific NPCs in different settlements.

The rowdy patrons that gather for a tankard or two of grog at Melee Island's Scumm Bar, the hardworking but amicable Wally B. Feed who likes to have fresh and restored maps keep him company in his Woodtick shop... Wherever the player goes, it's not until they enter buildings and aim their cursors at all sorts of colorful souls that the town's character becomes more three-dimensional compared to just having the town's look do all the heavy lifting.

While coming back to one of Monkey Island's many settlements doesn't echo the same relief one gets from, say, returning to town following a lengthy dungeon crawl (looking at you, Icewind Dale), the player will still take great pleasure in revisiting the major settlements—simply because it means interacting some more with NPCs they grew to enjoy listening to.

The beauty of Monkey Island, then, comes from playing through all the entries in the series and seeing how different Caribbean corners evoke their own character via the settlements and the souls that call the former home.

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Honorable Mention: Lake (2021). The fictional Oregonian town of Providence Oaks may be small, but its inhabitants' hearts are anything but. From the affable diner owner Maureen to the cat-loving Mildred Jenkins, the game's Pacific Northwest setting is more than happy to remind players of the palpable charm that can emanate from small-town living. That players can romance some of the denizens even adds another layer of depth to learning about the town and how folks think of the rural serenity that it provides.

Make their socioeconomic and cultural environment tangible

As players spend more time in a settlement, they'll become increasingly attuned to its surface-level nooks and crannies. At that point, they'll likely wonder if there's anything else their surroundings can offer to surprise them and further entice them to dig deeper into what makes the settlement tick.

The good news for them—and developers—is that settlements, like their inhabitants, possess an inner trait that requires scrutiny to unearth: The social, economic, and cultural attributes characterizing a setting and NPC.

From how isolationist or cosmopolitan a settlement is to the tapestry of cultures that hint at the streets' demographic makeup, the psychological and sociological facets of a settlement clue players in on how NPCs like to present themselves and which kind of individual they like/hate the most. As a form of environmental storytelling, such audiovisual and narrative cues can help take the pressure off the need to have characters spell out their beliefs.

Most importantly, and as mentioned before, it turns the settlement itself into its own character—one that players can be either drawn to or repulsed by. Therefore, it is in developers' best interest to treat the settlement as if it were a living being: Someone deserving of depth and worthy of players' attention.

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Athkatla in Baldur's Gate II: Shadows of Amn (2000) exemplifies how a single settlement can depict different shades of prosperity and culture.

From the elite-ridden Government District that looms over the rest of town (on account of its northern placement) to the impoverished Slums that sit on the other side of the bridge connecting the southern and northern parts of town, Athkatla is hardly uniform in its composition. On top of setting players' expectations with regards to how they should approach NPCs, this attention to detail also encourages the player character and their party to explore each corner of town. If not to look for quests to complete, then certainly to satiate their curiosity about how the world they shape operates.

Further depth can be spotted within these discrete areas when one brings up the likes of the Copper Coronet, which takes advantage of the Slums' lack of economic prosperity to set itself up as the sole place in the district where players can buy/sell goods, rest, and recruit companions. And then there is the guild war between the Shadow Thieves and Vampires that underscores the criminal nature of the Docks. As a crossroads of commerce and cultures, Athkatla clearly lives up to its reputation—however mixed it may be.

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Honorable Mention: Mafia III (2016). New Bordeaux makes no qualms about how socioeconomically divided the Southern city is. Between the wealthy abodes of Frisco Fields and the once-bustling district of Delray Hollow, Hangar 13 isn't shy about pointing out the injustices that lie on and beneath the surface. Add to that the fact that the speed at which police respond to crime depends on how affluent a district is, and it becomes clear that the NPCs' biased attitudes are another factor that players must deal with.

Ensure players can influence the settlement and its goings-on

As mentioned before, settlements can be more than just mere pitstops for players to recuperate in. Given the importance of player agency and how the game reacts to it, one would assume that they can make a difference that goes beyond pumping some cash into the local economy by going shopping.

That extra dose of difference involves deciding how the settlement evolves as soon as players first stumble upon it. Whether they wish to improve the settlement's quality of living via virtuous acts or drive down property values with malicious endeavors that beget a spike in crime, players have a natural desire to be at the center of the action in terms of shaping their surroundings.

Besides, few feelings trounce the one from seeing the settlement change before the player's eyes through audiovisual cues, narrative shifts, or both.

Understandably, this requires developers to determine from the very get-go the ways—subtle and overt—in which players can shape a specific settlement and reckon with their actions' ramifications. This is especially important when dealing with communities that are more complex in their economic underpinnings and sociopolitical struggles than other locations.

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To this day, Fallout: New Vegas (2010) represents one of the many gold standards for designing settlements where the locals acknowledge the player's presence and deeds. This, however, goes far beyond the title's karma and reputation systems, for the world itself similarly changes in sundry ways.

From choosing to either protect or lay waste to Goodsprings at the start of the game to obliterating NCR soldiers with a solar weapon at the HELIOS One power plant, players can leave their (bloody) mark wherever they roam. Yet the game goes the extra mile by having the consequences for their actions play out shortly afterward, such as when Caesar's Legion assumes control of HELIOS One a few days after the player vaporized NCR forces.

Yet the ripple effect extends beyond merely picking whom to side with. One early-gam,e example involves the player's having to pick one of three candidates for sheriff of Primm, with a couple of them leading to either a 25% increase or a 75% decrease in prices for goods sold within the town.

As a result of the title's commitment to letting players play any role they fancy, New Vegas's settlements highlight how sensitive post-apocalyptic America can be to change—even if it comes from a single soul's doings.

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Honorable Mention: The Saboteur (2009). In keeping with its theme of mass liberation, the game boldly uses color (or lack thereof) to emphasize the level of control the Nazis have over Paris and its surroundings. Via main and side endeavors, the protagonist can turn the tables on the invaders by restoring color to freed areas—providing players with tangible proof that their actions matter. The result is a compulsive gameplay loop that makes The Saboteur unique in terms of how players realize their power fantasy.

Have them linked to and impacted by the outside world

No man's an island, and neither are settlements—including those on actual islands. Even if the architecture and people are authentic to the marrow and oozing verisimilitude, the simple fact is that their believability stems not just from how they present themselves within the settlement's confines.

There's also the outside world to contend with. This is where the possibility for change can be greatly expanded upon gameplay- and story-wise.

A good example of how such a scenario can play out is when the world has multiple settlements that depend upon one another for resources—including food, technology, and the like. Should anything happen to any of those settlements that increases or decreases the rate at which they can churn out goods, the knock-on effect should be felt in other places that leverage the products they get from the impacted community. Something as simple as a price drop/hike can do the trick, while larger changes can include substituting an item for one that's becoming increasingly rare to acquire.

Discrete quarters within a settlement can also be impacted by what happens in other neighborhoods and the outside world—adding more layers to the possibility of change and long-lasting ramifications. A key example being...

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... the city of Karnaca in Dishonored 2 (2016).

As with cloudy Dunwall, Karnaca uses the series' chaos system to remind players of the consequences that come with making short work of enemies and sowing the seeds of panic among the masses. For instance, killing a lot of NPCs in the early stages of the game begets a higher population of guards and hostile figures in later levels. Ergo, players never get a reprieve from past actions since they are echoed in the next neighborhood they explore.

To further complicate matters, Dishonored 2 assigns one of three states to the denizens of Karnaca—sympathetic, guilty, and murderous—that can alter the amount of chaos that players generate should they stick their blades into folks' gullets instead of sticking to the shadows. This invites players to study their surroundings and circumstances, lest they accidentally kill a kind soul and subsequently end up with more trigger-happy NPCs to dodge or murder.

The icing on the cake—or the corpse, rather—is the pack of bloodflies that feast upon carcasses strewn about Karnaca's streets. Long story short, leaving a trail of bodies—even if they're hidden out of sight and mind—behind can come back to literally bite players and suck blood out of them.

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Honorable Mention: S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Clear Sky (2008). The game's Faction Wars feature and emergent AI mean that the dangers of the outside world (at least in relation to outposts) always lurk in the shadows before getting a chance to pounce on their prey. The player's participation in skirmishes can lead to locations drastically changing in terms of how they're populated, but it most importantly alters the player's reputation among factions in other parts of the Zone. Better think carefully about whom to join!

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