What brings a virtual city to life?

"The truly magical thing about virtual cities is that they often imprint themselves on our lives in much the same way that physical geographies do." Columnist Katherine Cross examines where virtual worlds succeed--and fail.

In a recent column for Giant Bomb critic Austin Walker penned an extended meditation on how the urban-scape of Batman: Arkham Night lacked soul. One of his more interesting conclusions was that the lifelessness of the city throughout the course of the game, packed only as it was with enemies waiting to be attacked, robbed the series of one its core characters: Gotham City itself, and in the process, the characterisations that flow from the nature of the city, perhaps especially for its signature supervillains. As he writes:

“It isn’t only that Arkham Knight fails to humanize these villains, it’s that because of the way the game presents Gotham--empty of life, stuck in a state of emergency--it actually can’t. Those other Batman stories demonstrate the history, humanity, and purpose of the bad guys through scenes of Gotham alive and filled with people. Those stories offer us orphanages in disrepair, villains going on dates, ex-cons out of work and out of options, and criminal brilliance put to surprisingly moral use.”

The entire essay is worth a close read, of course. Walker highlights something that often feels overlooked in many games: the importance of cities and the profound ways in which they are characters unto themselves in artwork.


I’ll never forget my disappointment upon entering the Imperial City in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. This was the grand capital of the Tamrielic Empire, marble towers, throngs of buildings crowded together that conjured all the majesty and torment of the Eternal City at its ancient height. And yet in Oblivion, while it was at last brought to life, it felt like nothing more than a large town blessed with a single tall tower. It felt mostly empty and small, with hints of what should’ve been; even the shantytown was more of a shanty-hamlet with next to no character. None of the bustling diversity and life that would have befitted this high fantasy Rome.

Of course, since the time of Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind at least, where higher quality graphics put severe constraints on the size of certain environments and the characters within them, Tamrielic cities and towns were smaller affairs. But the difference between Oblivion and Morrowind was that one took place at the frontier and the other at the Metropole. At that distance from the heart of the empire, cities could afford to be small and still feel alive. The further north you went, the more any collection of dwellings felt like a precious grasp of civilized earth, perfectly nestled into the rough environment.

"Making cities lifelike in a single-player game requires giving players a means of interacting with the place without violence."

But if one wishes to make a truly large city that lives up to the way one’s lore builds it up, this requires a good deal more effort. A spectacular failure in this regard is the way Star Wars: The Old Republic (TOR) handled Coruscant, a planet whose entire biome is literally Giant City.

The game as a whole suffered from unimmersive environments on each of its planets; leveling zones were very utilitarian in their makeup, mere corridors through which one quested and killed monsters and foes, lacking even the theme-park pretense of other titles like World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online which attempt to disguise their treadmills through more open-ended zones distantly bounded by impassable mountains. But TOR’s cities were especially bad in this regard, becoming flagships of the game’s entire problem with its storied environments.

To put it very simply, TOR only gave its players places to grind, but few places to live. Coruscant was mostly a waste of space whose sole virtue was providing a lovely vista of the gargantuan Senate Building. Outside of that, merely an auction house and bank, as well as several low-level questing zones fully taken over by red-named enemies. In a massively multiplayer online setting, this can be an enormous problem, one parallel to the more narrative-based issues that Walker identified in his essay.


Making cities lifelike in a single-player game requires giving players a means of interacting with the place without violence. Dontnod’s Remember Me and its “look but don’t touch” atmosphere, even in towny places like Saint-Michel, typify the problem. There was no way to experience the city outside of seeing it as a three dimensional tourist’s photograph. In a multiplayer game, the players themselves have to complete the gesture of life-giving, and they must be given space to do so. They should be given things to do, places to roleplay where they can fill in the blanks, peaceful and rewarding activities, and means of exploring every nook and cranny the city has to offer. Throw open the doors to once-closed houses and shops, give them things to pick up, and examine, give them NPCs to talk to who have something more than boilerplate dialog.

If Elder Scrolls excelled at anything regarding its cities and towns it was their tactility. Every book in every house could be read cover to cover. Indeed, it was that extensive in-game, diegetic lore that raised my expectations regarding the Imperial City.

Take this paragraph from The Real Barenziah, one of the most riveting in-game texts:

“They came to the great bridge that crossed into the Imperial City at sunset. The rosy glow turned the stark white marble edifices of the metropolis a delicate pink. It all looked very new and grand and immaculate. A broad avenue led north toward the Palace. A crowd of people of all sorts and races filled the wide concourse. Lights winked out in the shops and on in the inns as dusk fell and stars came out singly then by twos and threes. Even the side streets were broad and brightly illuminated. Near the Palace the towers of an immense Mages Guildhall reared toward the east, while westward the stained glass windows of a huge tabernacle glittered in the dying light.”

It’s incredible how, when reduced solely to the medium of text, a metropolis can spring to life, all tabernacles and boulevards.

CD Projekt Red’s Novigrad in The Witcher 3 points the way to what an ideal single-player city might look like, and that should give us some hope as this wildly successful title should--at least in this particular way--set an example that should stave off the declension we’ve been experiencing in the quality of our in-game cities.

"The truly magical thing about virtual cities is that they often imprint themselves on our lives in much the same way that physical geographies do."

Doubtless many developers find themselves constantly frustrated by the technical limitations imposed on them, to say nothing of rarely being given the resources to realize the flights of fancy that most excite our imaginations. But Arkham Knight clearly had no excuse in that regard; from a distance its Gotham is one of the most evocative in the exhaustive Batman canon and yet up close it fails rather dramatically. Nevertheless the question remains: what help can be offered to developers working with far fewer resources than those Rocksteady and Warner Brothers blessed their devs with? 

Remember Me offers a good template for an example.

The artwork was all there, but the nature of the game demanded a railroad path through the plot; it was an action adventure title rather than an open-world RPG. Even so, Neo Paris could have had considerably more life. Minor changes to the landscape could've accomplished this. More NPC conversations, the ability to see what wares are for sale at a given market stall, being able to poke your head into a small storefront, being able to watch a group of children at play. Giving the player small things to interact with, even if they're easily programmable and come with few added graphical assets or voice-overs, can make a world of difference.


The truly magical thing about virtual cities is that they often imprint themselves on our lives in much the same way that physical geographies do. I have a fondness and nostalgia for Stormwind as surely as I do for Toronto, say. That beauty is one more thing creators should endeavor to hold onto and cultivate in virtual worlds, keeping those sources of joy and beauty singing long into the night, much as their real-world inspirations do.

Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.

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