So many things go into a truly immersive video game – mechanics, aesthetics, music, voice acting, etc – but one thing that brings it all together more than any other singular aspect of the unified whole is setting. The setting of a game can make a a great game even better. Whether it’s a place that we are intimately familiar with – a cozy home in the woods, a walk through the streets of a town very much like our own home, or an office building that looks suspiciously like the one we work in – or something utterly alien – a land of monsters beneath the surface of the Earth, a fantasy world of mythical beasts, or the hollowed out and shattered husk of a Gothic nightmarescape – the setting of a game is what makes us feel like we’re truly there.
Below are our nominations for the Best Setting of 2016. As always, sound off with your nominations in the comments section below or on Facebook or Twitter (@Official_OnlySP). In the meantime, check out our other end of the year awards here and be sure to weigh in on your best of the best in this great year of gaming.
Andrea Giargiari, Feature Writer (@UndineAndrea) – Rich and beautiful open worlds are becoming more and more common, it seems. It’s easy to get immersed in the settings of modern-day games, but for me, none recently have been as immersive as Fallout 4‘s vision of post-apocalyptic greater Boston. Part of this is a matter of personal experience for me; I’ve lived a short distance from Boston my entire life, and this allows me to fully appreciate just how much attention to detail the developers put into the re-imagining of this landscape. Everything has the uncanny look and feel of New England, from rustic northern architecture to the sullen woods and underbrush of late autumn. Exploring the world of Fallout 4 is not unlike stepping outside my own door.
There are also dozens of locations and landmarks both vague and specific, some as famous as Fenway Park and others as minor as Columbus Park (and I’ll be going into much more detail about many of them soon). I’ve also been able to use a real-life sense of direction to find locations of distress signals, like the one in Concord, and that creates a special level of immersion. And the in-game states of some locations are just funny when cultural context is applied. For example, most of the accessible subway stations are a wreck, and the real-life MBTA is notoriously unreliable. Lynn, a notably rough town in the real world, is full of formidable raiders and more than one Deathclaw. The running joke in both of these cases is that nothing has changed.
It impresses me how much insight this development team had into the real Massachusetts. I know this may not have the same effect on everyone, so I hope that all of you get to experience a Fallout game at some point that you can personally relate to, if you haven’t already. But for now, Fallout 4 gets my pick for best setting of 2015.
Reid A Gacke, Editor in Chief (@OnlySP_Reid) – Well, until they make Fallout 68: Nuclear Winter in which you wander through the ravaged tundra wasteland that is Minneapolis (that actually sounds really cool), I’m afraid I’m going to have to remain an outsider looking in on the world of Fallout, Andrea.
And that means for setting, I have to look elsewhere as well (not that what little I’ve actually been able to play of Fallout 4 didn’t provide an amazing and immersive setting). And I’m sure you all know where I’m going next: Undertale.
I realized, as I’ve been nominating for these end of the year awards, that pretty much the only games I’ve had a chance to play this year were smaller indie titles, which is kind of a shame. But I can’t rightly think of a mainstream title that is likely to supplant Undertale’s quirky and bizarre setting. Witcher 3 seems like a strong contender, but I’m a bit burned out on generic fantasy (and the fact that we live in a world where I can say the phrase “generic fantasy” with a straight face). Some of the indies I’ve played – Rebel Galaxy in particular – are worthy honorable mentions, but to me, nothing beats the slightly offbeat, alien…but still somehow welcoming world of monsters in Undertale.
The way that Toby Fox intertwines the world building of the game, the game’s narrative, and the characters into the setting is masterful and I think, particularly for a smaller, indie title, it wholly deserves to stand with the big boys in this department.
Rhys Cooper, News and Editorial Writer (@Dizzee_Rhyscal) – Yet again a tough decision. The world that a game is set within could be considered the most important factor for enjoyment and immersion. The amount of love and devotion that developers put into their worlds can only be admired, especially as there are often millions of hidden aspects that only a handful of people may find. This year I thoroughly enjoyed my time slaying monsters in Velen, Skellige and Novigrad alongside Geralt in Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The steampunk wastelands from Fallout are always a joy (or incredibly depressing, in a good way) and the Commonwealth of Fallout 4 was no different. On top of this, the eponymous Blind Forest that we ventured with Ori was beautiful, yet melancholic.
My favourite for 2015 was from a slightly controversial game this year: Gotham City from Batman: Arkham Knight. I enjoyed the game as a whole, quite a lot (obscure tank missions aside). Whether it was as good as the previous two games is contentious but what can’t be denied is that the heavily detailed, majestically grim and seemingly-alive Gotham City was a huge success. Feeling like the Batman was a true achievement right from the start of Batman: Arkham Asylum but the freedom of Gotham that Wayne exhibits was lost until now. With a much bigger portion available since Arkham City, and the much sought-after yet heavily-derided Batmobile available for transport the streets of Gotham always felt like they were under your watchful eye, and how beautifully crafted each peer through that bat-eared helmet was! Gotham would even intelligently ‘transform’ with each look due to a fantastically written spoiler I won’t reveal, and the attention to detail through the constant rain was a huge fan service. Batman Arkham: Knight has become lost amongst the other huge titles of the year, admittedly falling victim to that myself, but Gotham City was certainly memorable.
Adam Railton, News and Editorial Writer (@Mr121Adam121) – This year has been quite a year for what I like to call “Harrowing Beauty.” This is an idea games such as Fallout 4 and Mad Max try to create, the idea that the player can be thrust into a world of turmoil and pain and yet still find beauty in it. So it seems only fair that my pick for top setting would have to be game in this style.
The title I feel represented this “harrowing beauty” the best is Bloodborne. Even if, like me, you are not a fan of the style the “Souls” games follow, it is not hard to find some strange beauty in the setting of Bloodborne. Yharnam is a gorgeous place. It is vast, expansive, and truly terrifying. A game doesn’t need to be bright to be beautiful. Instead, we can find pleasure in how well the setting of Yharnam portrays the fear of the player, and it perfectly walks the player through video game hell. Yharnam takes the ‘Souls’ framework and creates a whole different experience, one that feels far more ‘human’ than before. We can believe this Gothic landscape is inhabited by these disfigured beasts that masquerade as humans. This is an improvement over that fantastical settings of the previous games; it is far more unsettling to walk a beastly town than through a rat infested asylum. The setting of Bloodborne brings the fear closer to home.
There are no signs. There are no guides. The player is left alone with their wit to decide which path seems most appropriate. The setting of Yharnam is Gothic perfection, framing perfectly the horrifying monstrosities that lie around each turn. This setting pick is less about how good the setting looks, but more about how it frames the gameplay in a way that is both breathtaking and frightening.
Lance Roth, Editorial Writer (@RPGameX) – Witcher 3: Wild Hunt’s huge map, besides being absolutely gorgeous, is also the most interactive setting I can think of. Not enough can be said about the work that CD Projeckt Red put into bringing Andrzej Sapkowski’s Northern Realms to life. The game features a well-populated world with castles, large cities, villages, caves, and haunted forests, in addition to a day night cycle that affects both the narrative and the gameplay.
As an honorable mention, I’d have to include Dying Light. Techland’s representation of Harran, a fictional Turkish city is both unique, and well executed. To top it off, the game gets brutal once the sun sets.
Nick Calandra, Owner (@OnlySP_Nick) – I know I’ve gushed about the Witcher 3: Wild Hunt a lot during our awards this year, but it’s hard not to. The game was just about everything you could ask for in terms of an open world RPG. The world the game was built around was massive, beautiful, and varied. Each time you entered a new region, it gave you a sense of wonderment and curiosity that few open world games achieve in my opinion. This, combined with fantastic graphics and a fantastic score to boot, created one of the most immersive settings I’ve played through this year. I’m incredibly excited to see what CD Projekt Red brings to the table with Cyberpunk 2077 and their world building.