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January 13, 2016

What makes a great city in a game?

By Phil Hartup

A city built for people to live in is a complex entity: the combined efforts of thousands of architects over hundreds of years, layering dwellings, fortifications, infrastructure and industries on top of one another, over and over, to create a wonder of the modern age (or house price and air pollution catastrophe, depending on your perspective).

A city designed for a videogame, by contrast, has to be a place that captures the bustling atmosphere of a real city and be a gracious host to the players within it. It has to do this on a budget, not only in terms of time and money, but also in terms of system resources.

Three of the best examples of city design, to my mind, come in recent games. They’re found in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, which is set in London in 1868; GTA V, which features a fictionalised version of modern Los Angeles, called Los Santos; and The Witcher 3, where much of the action takes place in a fantasy medieval city called Novigrad.

Assassin’s Creed‘s London

The approach taken by Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is one that strives for a degree of historical naturalism. Full on historical accuracy is not something that easily fits the worlds of games and the events that take place within them; as such, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate wisely aims only to create a sense of being true to the age.

This means you get the cobbled streets, the landmarks, and the Thames heaving with cargo ships – but you don’t get the poverty, the vice or the vast heaps of manure that would accompany the amount of horse drawn carriages in the game.

A screenshot from Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (click to expand). Image: Ubisoft.

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The city looks fantastic in the game – but the architecture poses problems. In Assassin’s Creed games, the characters are adept at free running and climbing. Scaling walls and sprinting over rooftops is their usual mode of transport.

In Syndicate’s Victorian London, these skills need some help. The buildings are flat sided and tall, with many of the streets too broad for protagonists to leap across. As you climb those steep brick walls, you’re a sitting target for your enemies. And to cross the street, you need to clamber down to ground level and scuttle through the traffic before climbing back up.

The dynamism of the earlier games in the series is lost. It’s necessitated the addition of a Batman-style grappling gun which, though it fixes the movement problems, does feel out of place. There is something very London about being an irresistible subject for a series like Assassin’s Creed, yet entirely refusing to accommodate one of its defining elements.

A screenshot from Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (click to expand). Image: Ubisoft.

While the London environment doesn’t play perhaps as smoothly as it might, the little details in the city itself are amazing. From the sound of slates underfoot when running across a roof, to finding gangs of grubby children kicking footballs around in alleys, or brass bands playing by the banks of the Thames, the city is littered with period details.

This selective attention to detail works very efficiently to draw focus from the inevitable repetition of other elements of the design. For example, if I see a group of people getting their photograph taken, I’m more likely to pay attention to the fact they are being photographed, rather than notice that they look the same as the some of the folks ambling around the market.

The Witcher 3’s Novigrad

Novigrad in the The Witcher 3 takes a contrasting approach to its design. The emphasis here is on atmosphere. As such the city is beautifully put together, and finely detailed, but not particularly accessible.

A screen shot from The Witcher 3 (click to expand). Image: CD Projekt RED.

The characters in The Witcher 3 don’t go in for much clambering about: as a result, you spend most of your time in Novigrad at ground level amongst the crowds in the street, getting grumbled at by guards and soaking up the ambiance. Because the fine details of the city don’t have to endure contact with the player, they can be built without a care for whether the player will get stuck or fall off them – a luxury cities built for a more hands on game don’t have.

Novigrad itself may be a work of fantasy, but its layout is familiar from the history books. Much of the city is crammed in behind stone walls and fortifications, further protected by a river, while those citizens deemed less important live outside the walls.

GTA V‘s Los Santos

The city of Los Santos in GTA V had to be designed to fit and run on the X360 and PS3 consoles, while at the same time taking only a fraction of the game’s map. This means that Los Santos is not an attempt to replicate a chunk of a city as in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate: instead, it;s a replica of Los Angeles designed to fit into a few square kilometres.

A screenshot from Grand Theft Auto V (click to expand). Image: Rockstar Games.

What the designers accomplished is a masterpiece in game city building.

Los Santos is in no way a convincing city, much less a convincing copy of Los Angeles (you can drive right across it in mere minutes unlike the real thing), but what it succeeds in doing is something quite remarkable. The city comprises many fleshed out locations – a country club, a suburb of houses on stilts, vast storm drains, movie studios and housing projects, to name but a few. In between these locations are transitional areas, detailed but fairly nondescript urban sprawl – enough to mean that walking somewhere feels like a trek, but it’s almost no distance by car.


A screenshot from Grand Theft Auto V (click to expand). Image: Rockstar Games.

This creates the sense that city is bigger than it is – that going from place to place is still a journey, even if you are typically only on the road for a matter of seconds to ge across town.

The population of Los Santos are a generally unpleasant bunch: rude, coarse and sometimes violent. The priority here is for a citizenry you can kill in all manner of ways without having to feel bad about it. This approach differs from that adopted in Assassins: Creed Syndicate or The Witcher 3: in GTA V the locals are props; in these other games the population are more like set dressing. You can shove them out of the way if you’re in a hurry but that’s all.

Some gameplay action.

Perhaps the most successful element of the design of Los Santos is how it functions as a space to play in. Relative to the size of the city, the road network is scaled up hugely, making it perfect for car chases and racing. The areas that aren’t roads are conveniently accessible to cars, too: pavements, alleyways and rail yards are all navigable. Most of the city is very accessible on foot too. Buildings are mostly closed off, but fire escapes provide roof access, and much of the city is built in layers, handily of the exact right height for characters to be able to climb up.

For everything that has gone into the visual aspect of Los Santos, it’s principally a giant playground. Really, that’s what any videogame city should aspire to be.


This article is from the CityMetric archive: some formatting and images may not be present.
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