Video games allow us to be people we would never really be, to do things we would never really do, and to visit places that we would never really visit.
Or at least, they should.
Whilst I was playing Unravel, I was charmed by its delightful Swedishness; how the developers at Coldwood Interactive had real place names in the background and an abundance of local Scandinavian wildlife populating the levels. Thanks to the internet, it doesn’t matter that they hadn’t translated the stitch cushion in the menu screen that reads “Lycka blommar ur sma enkla ting” (“Happiness blooms from small, simple things”); rather it added to the gorgeous atmosphere of the game and immersion within its setting.
But sadly, settings like Unravel are rare. Games that portray real places (though not necessarily real situations) are overwhelmingly set in the USA – games like Firewatch and the Grand Theft Auto and Fallout series. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but the world is a big place and video games don’t reflect that well. Europe is sparsely covered, and beyond this there is very little that respectfully covers its setting.
In particular, cultural exploration isn’t usually a priority; rather the player is usually a violent visitor. Out of 321 games set at least partially in Africa, over half of them feature war, assassination, or hunting. (A further 20% are about racing or sports, and being confined to a stadium or track also limits the impact that the setting can have). To look at it another way, consider that it’s possible to visit over 30 countries in the Call of Duty series, but you’ll almost exclusively be an American or European who is there to shoot at locals. It’s not exactly a cultural learning experience. Or compare, for example, the titles that visit Tunisia (100% of which are based upon war) with the history, culture, and natural beauty that one might actually see if they took a trip there.
War and sport are not the only ways to travel the world via a controller, and below we will celebrate 18 games that take us around the globe and tell us something about the settings in which they take place. But as we journey through these worlds that straddle the virtual and the real, bear in mind which places they don’t show, and what stories don’t get told, or get told in harmful ways. And as we consider how difficult it was to put this list together and how we might be able to improve, we can also consider how many of these games are either debuts or still up and coming, and how we might support more diversity in game settings in the future.
We start out in Shropshire, my home county; a sparsely populated predominantly rural area that’s reflected beautifully in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. The beauty of Rapture comes not only from its sci-fi story but also from the sleepy and evocative backdrop in which it takes place, and you’ll see both the serenity of the natural environment and the tensions of small town life. This is one of my favourite games from 2015 and was recently released on PC, so if the console exclusivity was a barrier for you before, you should certainly pick it up now.
Taking a short hop across the Channel, and a few decades back in time, we find a story about four individuals and their families affected by World War One. Though I was reluctant to include war stories in this collection, this is an easily made exception due to its nuanced and realistic perspective that explores the actual history of the setting in France and Germany, teaching the player about the reality behind the game they are playing.
Travelling to northern Europe now, as I previously mentioned, Unravel provides a detailed recreation of some of the ground level habitats surrounding Yarny as he explores the wilds of Sweden, and sends a message about the importance of protecting them, too. Watching Yarny struggle through a radiation spill stands in stark contrast to his earlier carefree exploration of forests, gardens, and seas.
With beautiful art, a great story full of meaningful choices, and a wonderful soundtrack, this gorgeous game inspired by Viking mythology is worth sticking in Scandinavia for a while longer, and the recently released sequel also sounds wonderful.
5. UnReal World
Though it’s older than I am, this game has lasted through the years thanks to the realism and immersion provided by its Iron Age Finnish setting. And since it was recently released on Steam, it’s still being updated! A survival rogue-like with more than one kind of history.
Have you noticed how much jumping around in time as well as space we’re doing here? There aren’t a lot of historical games around either, but those that do exist have a good amount of overlap with games set internationally. Assassin’s Creed II takes us back to early modern Italy and while the fictional war between the Assassins and the Templars drives the game’s plot, there’s still a lot to learn about real history, architecture, and people; including a fantastic Leonardo da Vinci cameo.
Jumping further south to our only game set in Africa, Aurion is a Cameroonian fantasy adventure game that draws on the local culture and mythology and features both “geopolitical and existential dilemmas.” Recently released to good reviews, this is high on my “to-play” list.
Returning to this series, and not for the last time, the original game takes us into the Middle East, a place severely under- and misrepresented in video games. Assassin’s Creed’s portrayal of the crusades, however, is something a little different from the norm, and as with II it has something to teach the player about the real history as well as its fictional overlay.
Specifically designed to help improve the representation of the Middle East in popular culture, Badiya depicts the unification of Saudi Arabia, with a focus on survival elements rather than telling a historical narrative. That said, local culture is implemented in some of the activities available to the player, such as falconry and pearl diving. I was totally drawn in by the trailer and am even considering picking it up when it launches in early access; something I don’t think I’ve ever done before.
This recent Telltale-like adventure story draws on “first-hand testimonies of freedom fighters, witnesses, and casualties of the revolution.” The revolution in question is that which overthrew the Iranian Shah and installed the theocratic republic, so this game certainly promises to shine a light on a historical event that isn’t as widely known as some others.
This mobile game from Cambodian developers DirexPlay Lab has the player fight dengue fever across various Southeast Asian countries. DirexPlay specifically wanted to use local culture, such as Khmer myths, in order to contrast with the Western perspective from which we usually experience our games.
Continuing eastwards, we find ourselves in the late stages of the Ming dynasty as Shao Jun sneaks her way through monuments such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, with beautiful painted-style artwork bringing the area to life.
Though the original brief for games on this list was to be set outside America, it would be remiss to leave out the adorable puzzle platformer Never Alone; and since it’s based upon Iñupiaq culture it’s far from the mainstream representation of America.
14. The Long Dark
Staying in the frozen north, but crossing the border from Alaska into Canada, The Long Dark brings us a setting that is as beautiful as it is foreboding. Though it might be tempting to explore this snowy wilderness, survival is the aim of the game, and the two may prove incompatible.
This real time strategy simulator tasks the player with managing a Taino village in the Carribean. The Fresh Out of Tokens podcast also had an interview with developer Josh Samuels who discussed their learning experience working with a Taino educator.
Another upcoming game, Mulaka once again features an indigenous culture, this time the Rarámuri. Created with the help of anthropologists and Rarámuri leaders, some of this game’s profits will also be donated to charities that aim to aid the indigenous peoples of the Sierra. The game itself looks gorgeous and uses an accurate setting, mythological story, and interesting combat and puzzle elements.
17. Papo & Yo
This moving game takes us into Quico’s world as he runs away from his abusive father into his favela home. Though the setting quickly becomes magical, it is still informed by its real roots.
18. 80 Days
You haven’t had enough of travelling the world? Hop into 80 Days! Visit anywhere in the world, and avoid the usual tropes that plague some of these areas. Meet fully formed characters from all over the globe and have fantastic adventures – seen through the eyes of a tourist, not a coloniser.
These 18 examples show us the diversity in what’s possible for game developers when it comes to setting their stories in real world areas. Yet there is still so much to explore and the industry resoundingly fails to respectfully represent – or sometimes to represent at all – the populations of major areas of the globe. We can only hope that things will improve as more ambitious and experimental developers put their energy into representing their own diverse cultures as well as those of others in ways that are educational, fun, and respectful.
P.S. Sorry, Oceania.