The Richest Sci-Fi And Fantasy Worlds In Video Games

The Richest Sci-Fi And Fantasy Worlds In Video Games

Few creative mediums let you explore stories like video games. Players don’t just watch a story – they participate in it, sometimes steering narratives to wildly divergent endings. But in order for an interactive experience to truly transport players, it needs to have a well-built world for them to live in. Here are some locales that stand out from the rest.

Image: Nintendo

The most memorable video game worlds come to the player steeped in story, teeming with possible paths to take and lives to intersect with. Characters whose existences you want to know more about, conflicts you’re compelled to join, spaces filled with mood and urgency… a good gameworld is a place you don’t want to leave.

Rapture from BioShock

When you first enter the failed undersea experiment in Objectivist utopia-building, it’s all gone to hell. As you pick through the remains of a society where genetic manipulation and unchecked ambition ran rampant, you find out about class tensions that erupted into all-out war and a twisted family reunion. BioShock 2 took players back to Rapture before it exploded, and sequel BioShock Infinite transported them to the companion city of Columbia, set in a floating metropolis where turn-of-the-20th-century nationalism curdled into jingoism. Infinite reveals a multiverse at the end of it all, teasing a whole bunch of other realities with their own versions of Rapture, making the whole enterprise feel even more epic.

The Elder Scrolls‘ Tamriel

When it comes to sheer size and volume, few video game environments match the scope of Tamriel, seen in Oblivion, Skyrim, and other installments of Bethesda Softworks’ trailblazing Elder Scrolls franchise. It’s a continent that contains the wondrous dragons, evil sorcerers and power-hungry monarchs that you’d expect, but is also rife with surprisingly poignant ground-level stories and characters with oddly quirky, but wholly believable behaviours. No matter how many times you finish, say, Skyrim, Tamriel continues to feel like like a place where there’ll always be something to do and more to explore.

The Milky Way from the Mass Effect trilogy

The sector of space that humankind already lives in gets a radical makeover thanks to alien technology in BioWare’s beloved sci-fi series. Humans have achieved a fantastical level of harmony and plenty in the Mass Effect games, but contact with other sentient races means there’s cosmic-scale melodrama to get involved with. In the aggregate, the franchise’s main plotlines, sidequests and DLC add-ons offer a rich stew of family secrets, tribal grudge matches and interplanetary political turnabout. The Mass Effect games are filled with moments where it feels as though you’re changing lives in both big and small ways, which is what make them so memorable.

World of Warcraft‘s Azeroth

Azeroth is the fictional reality where World of Warcraft happens, meaning it’s been home to millions of players in its 13-year existence. As it grew into one of the most influential MMOs ever, World of Warcraft transported players to new kingdoms, introduced new races, and sent them into the past to prevent a broken future. Whether you played through WoW‘s massive raids as Alliance or Horde, it felt like you were in the middle of a living history, something few games can lay claim to.

The Legend of Zelda‘s Hyrule

Nintendo’s re-invented the fantasy kingdom of Hyrule plenty of times over the history of its iconic game franchise. Sure, you’re always playing as a plucky boy hero named Link with a familiar set of races, allies and enemies. But the world has come to feel mutable, like it’s kinda sorta just reincarnated from entry to entry. Zelda games have bounced players back and forth from past to present, light and dark in endearingly clever ways, and Link, Zelda and Ganon have been reincarnated so many times that it’s hard to keep track of, even if you use the official timelines. No matter what, Hyrule will be a place where Nintendo fans can romp through best-in-class adventures.

Half-Life 2‘s City 17

An Eastern European city ruled by alien conquerors, the setting of both of Valve’s Half-Life 2 episodes feels like a place slowly being squeezed of its humanity. The dystopian oppression in City 17 is memorable because there’s a thread of personal familiarity and dark humour running through it. Mostly, City 17 shines as a possibility arena sketched out in the negative space of all the things you can’t do; the fact that you can’t live freely inside of it makes you want to mess things up even more.

Lordran from Dark Souls

Death is an incredibly inescapable fact of life in From Software’s Dark Souls games. In the notoriously difficult franchise, it isn’t just that every dead body in the world of Lordran has a story, it’s also the fact that they might have belonged to another real-world human player that magnifies the drama. Some adventurer just like you faced off the games’ ultra-tough enemies and suffered an ignominious end, leaving a cryptic note that could help or hurt your chances of survival. Hell, they might even invade your game to give you added grief. Truly no game series has ever offered as much sado-masochism as this one.

Thedas from Dragon Age

BioWare’s high fantasy universe grew in scale with every entry in the Dragon Age franchise. (Yes, even the recycled environments of Dragon Age 2 gave you a load of new people to meet and adventures to have.) By the time the dev studio delivered Dragon Age Inquisition, they’d made a game so giant that players had to be told that they should leave the game’s first playable environment. A game this big and particulate multiplied the inherent responsibility built into BioWare’s trademark sliding morality scale: You carried the fate of all of Thedas’ many groups of people on your shoulders. It’d take a real jerk to not care about screwing the lives of so many beings.

The Continent from The Witcher 3

One of modern video games’ most towering achievements, The Witcher 3 is the kind of game where you’re better off not knowing the scope of what awaits. Suffice it to say, when you control mystically powered hero Geralt in CD Projekt Red’s opus, you’ll be doing everything from finding lost frying pans to solving murders to acting in a play. You’ll be stunned by the level of variety and depth of execution on your first playthrough. The Witcher 3 is the kind of game you could play for hours every day for weeks at a time… in a good way. When you go back to Geralt’s adventures again, it will be a little like going to an entire library full of books that you already know and love.

Planescape: Torment‘s Sigil

As lead character of Black Isle Studio’s seminal computer RPG, the Nameless One has lived a lot. And the endlessly reincarnated hero has done it in a place where you can do a lot of living: The city of Sigil, whose neighbourhoods mirror the fiction’s Planes of Existence. These adjacent realms operate on the same axis of good/evil and lawful/chaotic that orders Dungeons & Dragons‘ famous attitude alignment, in which you’re moving through a place that can let you access differentiated versions of right and wrong. Join the wrong faction and you’ll be saying, “The chaos is too damn high!”


  • The Witcher 3 game world wins for sure. Not sure why Zelda’s world is in there. From all accounts it is basically empty. We’re talking rich, as in filled with content, right?

    • Each to their own.
      I found the land of Hyrule to be littered with secrets, enemies and places of interest in every iteration I’ve played.
      From the Light/Dark world in Link to the Past to the waterworld-esque landscape of Windwaker there’s always been a plethora of things to keep me occupied outside of the main questline.
      I enjoy Witcher 3’s world immensely but I don’t think you can truly compare the 2 unless you’ve given both a crack, hearing anecdotal accounts from others wouldn’t be enough to form a basis for a winning argument in my mind.
      As I said though, each to their own.

      • Would you honestly claim the empty devoid world of BotW is more IMMERSIVE than The Witcher 3? BotW has side quest design that you encounter in an MMO. Garbage fetch quests. Couple that with the fact that like 6 characters are voice acted…

        • It’s a good question you raise…
          Personally? Yes I would. The Witcher 3 is very shallow if you take the time to look a little bit under the surface. It seems busy and vibrant until you actually have to move around. There’s only so many variations of mud peasant they can create I suppose.
          The notice boards are a prime example – read a couple of 1 page explanations and suddenly your mini map is reminiscent of a Far Cry game.
          But we’re getting off track…
          Having actually played and completed both after many, many hours I can honestly say the world (even if we just stick to BOTW) of Hyrule is much more immersive than that of W3 – I still believe W3 is one of the best games ever to release, but I lost more time wandering the land of Zelda than I did in Witcher and I know which game I would prefer to go back for a second helping of.
          Each to their own.

          • Lol…. Mud peasant? Is that a joke? The Witcher 3 has hundreds of voiced characters with personalities and 1000s of lines of dialogue. Zelda has like? Less than 50 voices lines? Less than 5 memorable characters? 4 dungeons? The whole game is just shrine puzzles and korok seed hunting. There’s no character or depth. No living world.

            I mean. I think I spent over 50+ hours playing a Gwent in the Witcher. For someone to even compare the two is laughable.

    • “From all accounts”……

      Is that the same as “I haven’t played it, and I’m not asking around, but I like the idea that it sucks”.

      Seriously, which “all accounts” have you factored when developing your well informed assumption.

      Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule was pretty much unparalleled at the time. Wind Wakers Hyrule was full of tiny outcrops littered with interesting, handcrafted stuff. Skyward Sword’s Hyrule was half sky…. Or something.

      Shockingly, Breath of the WILD’s Hyrule has a lot of WILDERNESS!
      Wilderness where you’ll find an absurd number of things to do if you actually played it.

      Seriously it’s been a good two decades since I almost peed my pants playing a game so many times, just because I couldn’t find a break to get up. There’s stuff to do everywhere you look.

      • Foggy. The OP is talking about Breath of the Wild, obviously. If you had of actually played the two games you would realise that BotW doesn’t hold a candle to The Witcher 3s world. BotW side quests amount to things like – “I like the girl in the bar, get me flowers for her”. So you run out and gather the flowers. That’s the extent of BotW depth. All else that is on offer is the 4 main dungeons, repetitive Shrines and Korok seed hunting. Coupled with the fact that there are insanely large empty spaces, no voice acting and poor atmosphere/textures/view distance etc and the world is not very immersive. You also have like 10 enemy types with different “power” levels within them. The main enemy you encounter the whole game is just a dumb goblin. BoTW had great ideas with the interaction of weather and physics etc but it’s just so limited by the shitty Switch(AND Wii U) hardware. Imagine BotW with the scope and attention to detail that the Witcher 3 had?

        • I have most certainly played the Witcher 3 (and both expansions), and IMO it’s the objectively the best game I’ve ever played.

          My issue was that the article clearly makes reference to multiple games AND the dude hasn’t played the game. It’s completely unnecessary to complain about something you haven’t played, when the game was near unanimously the best game of last year (that’s not an opinion it won tons of awards) and the game is almost entirely about the thrill of exploring the game world.

          There’s no “all accounts” and he’s got no first hand experience to complain himself. It’s just unnecessary bitching for the sake of bitching.

      • I know people love down voting for things they don’t agree with but for you to receive 3 is sort of lol.

        Considering LoZ literally wrote the book on creating an “living” video game world, the fact people question it is humorous to say the least. We would not have any of the other titles on that list if it not for LoZ.

        Hyrule is the progenitor of all video game worlds that would allow players to delve into it in with as much depth as one would when reading a book, and continuously laid the building blocks to evolving open world design throughout its history.

  • I like the retro-scifi setting of Fallout a whole lot.

    Old world of Darkness is great too. It’s a shame there aren’t more games set in that world or in the Shadowrun universe.

    • I was going to toss Fallout in as well. There is so much detail in that world now that it seems a crime not to have it on the list.

      Was also going to give an honourable mention to Everquests Norrath, for the same reasons as WoW. The amount of lore put into building that game at the start just doesn’t get done any more, and you really felt part of the world as it developed.

      Even in vanilla it was massive as well, and only grew as expansion after expansion came along.

      • Fallout is an interesting one for me, it does have a lack of diversity in NPC models and voices making it a bit bland, but what it does is when you find somewhere special that does use new models and textures like finding vaults in 3, it leads them to having more impact.

  • Shadowrun has a fantastic world, though it came from other media initially. Some JRPGs also have great worlds like the FFs, Suikoden, Vagrant Story and Xenogears.

  • Original Elite. 8 galaxies of 256 planets. Each with individual tech ratings, ruling type (anarchy, feudal etc) and each planet had their own description/lore. Very believable universe(s) and was great fun when having to chase the Constrictor (stolen test ship) across the universes. Plus, it was all in vector graphics!!!!! 3D – 4 views – front, rear left and right.

  • Star Control II. Every race you encounter is brimming with individuality. Secrets and surprise are present in many corners of the explorable universe. So much fun to explore! Never mind you can do so for free by downloading the non-trademarked “Ur-Quan Masters”.

    Now if only they could port it to the Switch.

  • IMO. Dark souls is the king of this by far. There is so much deep lore behind this game that is there if you search for it.

  • The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild would probably take my breath away. That is going back in time 100 years earlier how Hyrule became a beautiful place filled with Hyrulean Knights the legendary King Rhoam king of Hyrule Castle spending time with Zelda and Hyrule was even home to the legendary spirited heroes. Mipha Zora champion of the Zoras, Daruk Goron champion of the Gorons home to it’s famous Goron destination Death Mountain. Revali the Rito champion, and Urbosa the Gerudo champion. Now fast forward to 100 years later and the land of Hyrule is left in ruins with Link lost in memories who has been ordered by Zelda’s spirit and King Rhoam’s spirit to defeat the evil Ganon whose taken over Hyrule Castle and to restore peace to Hyrule.

  • No Horizon Zero Dawn, again? Huge variety of stunning vistas, genuinely different cultures, the juxtaposition of primitive life and high tech, the mysteries – both human and machine. It’s a remarkable and distinctive piece of world-building.

  • Sword of the Stars has really in-depth lore and background infomation for all 7 of the playable races, and lots of information and flavour for non-playables and events that can happen within a game.

  • Good choices

    If I had to add I would say Nosgoth was a pretty amazing world for its time.
    It’s rare to see games progress through time and reach a satisfying conclusion like the story of Kain and Raziel.

    As @novasensei and @jbp mentioned, Yarnham from Bloodborne was a fantastic step away from the souls series in terms of setting.
    As much as I love the dark souls worlds, it always feels like your a few hundred years late where as BB felt like you were witnessing the end.

  • No Halo universe? That shit is deeper than almost everything on the list and is by far the most critically well received in its non-game content than anything on the list.

  • This site never includes any non mainstream games from Japan?! What about ar tonelico? They literally invented a language and script for the game and the towers have actual engineering schemata… Look beyond the normal stuff please

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