Video game worlds can usually be divided up into three fairly clean categories: overworlds, dungeons and towns.
Dungeons get a lot of love, it’s true. But nothing quite makes me fall in love with a game or setting like a really well made town, city or village. I love towns because they’re a place where you can catch your breath, play a minigame, chase some lore, find sidequests and any other number of things.
But what differentiates a good town from a great town?
VIDEO GAME TOWNS AND INTERACTIVITY
You probably remember the first town in Fallout 3, Megaton. Megaton is an very memorable town because it’s one of your first bases of operations in the Capital Wasteland, and it’s super distinct in that there’s a massive atomic bomb sitting square in the middle of town. And in an incredibly bold move, Bethesda gives the players the option of detonating that bomb and destroying the whole town.
Of course many players won’t go that route, but the mere choice brings up the first thing a good town has: Interactivity. For a town to feel like a living, breathing place that you actually care about, then you need to be able to impact it.
Now you don’t need to destroy a town in a fit of nuclear carnage to make a town interactive. No of course not!
In Xenoblade Chronicles 2, every townsperson that has something new to say will have a star next to their name. They will have new things to say after you complete various sidequests or make progress in the story. Each time you speak with a townsperson with a star, you’ll gain more development points, which will lower the prices of goods at merchants, unlock more things to purchase, unlock more side quests, give you more dialogues to read with townsfolk and more. Doing sidequests, purchasing goods, those kind of things will also give you development points.
This is a great system by Monolith Soft, that makes each place you visit feel like more than just a stop on a journey, instead they live with you and make you feel like a hero who improves every aspect of the world along his way.
FROM ZERO TO A HERO
There’s another game series that has always made villages and towns that make you feel like a hero for fixing their problems and generally improving the quality of life for everyone and that’s the Legend of Zelda. But Nintendo does more than just give you sidequests with good payoff, they go above and beyond to make the villagers and townspeople so memorable.
NPCs are so memorable in Zelda that helping them out feels like more than just padding and busy work, it’s asking you as the player to invest in a creatively realized world. It’s hard to forget Mrs. Joy and her students the Killer Bees, from Windfall Island in The Wind Waker, and some characters become so memorable they become memes of their own. Look at Prince Sidon from Breath of the Wild’s Zora’s Domain, characters as rich and memorable as him make their towns worth visiting and impossible to forget.
I’m just now getting into the Dragon Quest series, but my recent playthrough of Dragon Quest VIII showed me some new standards of what a sweeping and amazing town could look like. There are memorable characters that are on par with many Zelda NPCs, and any number of fun side quests, but what really makes the cities in Dragon Quest VIII so amazing is their visual spectacle and pathfinding.
Navigating and exploring each massive town is a joy because each town is this interwoven tangle of streets, alleys, rooftops, rooms and buildings, and secret pathways. And you are rewarded for checking out every nook and cranny with collectables and loot. Similarly, Baldur’s Gate 2’s Athkatla is a weaving mess of taverns, shops, sewers, slums, graveyards and docks. There’s awesome side content in every nook and cranny and finding it all is half the fun.
ALWAYS SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF
Beyond the characters and gameplay moments, the attention to detail in towns can really elevate a great location. I want to return to Bethesda for a moment because there’s a major question you should ask of every town you visit in a video game: “What do these people eat?”
There are a few ways to answer the question of food. In a sci-fi setting the question is barely important, since it’s pretty well assumed that most settings are in a post-scarcity situation. Major modern cities likewise have food shipped in. But in a historic or fantasy setting, this is a legitimate question.
Fallout 3 gives us an answer to the food question without an explanation: we see small ranchers in the various settlements, a couple of small gardens here and there, you can buy food likely raided from a nearby grocery store. This tells us what they eat, but when placed under a microscope it falls apart. One cow isn’t going to feed a whole settlement. A struggling garden with a few ears of corn won’t either and even the best stocked supermarket can’t last for very long between all the NPCs we see.
In New Vegas however, the game shows us larger, more functional farms. These farms themselves may not be large enough to feed everyone, but it’s a much more satisfactory answer than a few symbolic ranchers or merchants.
Similarly in Xenoblade Chronicles 2, nearly every major settlement has their foodways outlined by making the farms and ranches actual locations and tied to the local culture and occasionally the story.
Food and trade as a way to world build and culture build and tie in interactivity to the narrative
One town you’ll visit about midway through Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (so, warning, very minor spoilers) is called Theosoir in the kingdom of Tantal. The city is based inside a fully submerged titan called Genbu. And because of some complicated reasons not relevant to this specific essay, it’s almost entirely a frozen wasteland.
But the game doesn’t handwave their food sources, instead Theosoir’s complicated relationship with the rest of the civilizations in Xenoblade Chronicles 2 threatens to starve them out. Later in the game, when trade opens back up as part of the main story line and direct actions of the player, the citizens are thrilled and the goods and side quests available to the player expand.
So these are some things that really make a great video game town to me.
What are some of your favorite towns? What is it you like about them?