I love living in the city - while many resent the crowded streets, the tall buildings and the subtle background notes of consumerism and pollution, it's what I grew up around, and I couldn't live any differently.
What's more, no two cities are the same - From London to Leeds to Bridgetown to Paris, they're all diverse and contain an essence you won't get somewhere else. It's something that's hardly ever reflected in video games. When designing an 'expansive, immersible world' many games seem to think on a scale way too large to be detailed. Games are enamoured with the overworld, travel times between important locations and large rolling landscapes filled with not-very-much. I don't doubt that this form of escapism works perfectly for those who tire of the modern urban environment, but I just can't get into a setting like that. You can keep your Skyrims and Shadows of the Colossi, thanks.
No, what I love in a video game setting is a smaller scale and a focus on the details. A city rendered so even if there aren't a huge number of places to go, where you can go is lovingly crafted. You can almost feel what it's like to live there. GTA and Saints Row series get the location, but not the intimacy. Many have noted that the city of Steelport in Saints Row: The Third is expansive, but same-y and lacking a pulse.
Games like the Yakuza series do it better. You really get the sense of daily city life, interspersed among your regular duty of cracking skulls. You get to know the seedy back alleys and the frighteningly expensive manors, along with the kinds of people who inhabit them. What's more, the decision in the first Yakuza game to have the city explorable over different periods in time give you an impression of how things change - both architecturally and socially. Wonderful!
You can imagine the hustle and bustle easily. Who wants to hit the Pachinko parlour?
But my favourite urban setting has to be The World Ends With You's take on Shibuya. Classified as the trendiest district in Tokyo, TWEWY takes that concept and goes all-out. Every aspect of the game world is given a solid coat of subculture, from the shopping districts to the sewers.
Each of the locations are stylised from real spots in Shibuya, with the names changed to protect the innocent. Fashion and music are major aspects of the local culture, so how could they not have HMV, Tower Records and department store 109 take pride of place?
That's 104 (TWEWY's take on 109) in the distance. The weird perspectives in the battle scenes are great for making the city look imposing and twisted when it needs to be.
But what is a city without its people? The main characters in TWEWY all have the ability to read the minds of nearby people - a smart move both mechanically and aesthetically. You're playing as people who can quite literally see the pulse of the city, and know what's on everyone's mind. They're not just faceless obstructions, they're also people with senses of style and matters on their mind. Even the shopkeepers you visit have their own personalities and remember you as you return. Everyone who's played TWEWY will have their own favourite shop and shopkeeper.
It still impresses me how the game mechanics are so closely tied with the setting and themes. This is a city where the clothes you wear are your battle armour. The monsters that you face are brought about through negative emotions. Your sense of creativity and what you wear says so much about you and how you handle the problems you face. It doesn't matter if you're into elegant Gothic, punk rock, or the imported and exotic, you get by in this Shibuya by being yourself; aggressively and unrepentantly.
Look at that confident smile. She's dressed to kill the bad vibes for sure.
Urban living is a mixture of loving getting lost in the crowd and embracing a culture that lets you be yourself; something you're not going to find in an open expanse, or an insular rural community. On the surface everything may look busy and anonymous, but there is character and depth to be found if you take the time to take in the culture built up under the feet of a million people; and I've yet to find a game that reflects that sentiment better than The World End With You.