“The aim of art is not to represent the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance.” This is what Aristotle had to say about artistry and it rings profoundly true in the video game industry. A team of people can make great graphics. They can also make great stories. But it’s how they combine the two that magnifies each one’s power.
By using the environment to punctuate the story, video games can harness symbols in shapes and colors to bring home a point that static painting and literature cannot. This is not a list of games with the most realistic environments. This is a list of games where the game can be played on mute without subtitles and the story is felt profoundly in the hearts of everyone who plays them.
Updated on January 2nd, 2023 by Hodey Johns: This original list and the games on it are all very worthy and remain intact. However, this article fell out of date and has been brought up to an easier reading standard. In addition to modernizing the format, more games have been added to this list that weren’t there before. Virtually all games utilize environments, but only a few of them attempt to use the medium as a method of communication. Some of the most beautiful narratives in gaming history are done with a screenshot instead of an audio dialogue. Those games deserve recognition for their contributions and have now been recognized and ranked for their respective installments.
There are many reasons to be disappointed in Cyberpunk 2077, but Night City stands out as a monumental labor of love as one of the best cities in the RPG universe. While the script is cringy, the gameplay is underdeveloped, the company behind it is rotten, and the characters border on hammy, Night City itself can salvage the entire game for players.
Protagonist and newcomer V can learn about the history all around them. See areas of the city where the old world still thrives between concrete, graffiti, and neon lights. Then see brand new corporate buildings amidst the remnants of the old structures they have bulldozed. The story of people versus corporations is told better through exploring Night City than the dialogue itself.
13 Batman: Arkham Knight
It’s a shame that comic books have often missed the mark when being translated into games. The art in the books is as compelling as the written words, the very look of the heroes and villains themselves sometimes tells readers more than a biographical excerpt.
However, Batman: Arkham Knight was exactly what the medium needed. The city of Gotham itself is choking on smog and clouded beneath a mysterious evil. This is well contrasted by the bright moon and shine of Batman’s outfit, highlighting the dark goodness that seems to lift the gloomy veil.
12 Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
As the Uncharted series got more serious, many wondered if Nathan Drake would ever actually have to confront himself for the murderer and thief that he is. In the past, games about raiding ruins and shooting guards were seemingly unproblematic, but that time has passed.
Drake rarely has to explicitly confess his regrets, though, as the city of Libertalia, a haven for pirates, forces him to see the fruits of his ways as he navigates through the remains of pirate captains amidst their fancy rooms. Beautifully, Drake’s conscience and future are laid before players as they navigate the past. The weather itself reflects Drake’s mood so that he never has to tell players how he’s feeling; it’s written all around.
11 Red Dead Redemption
Red Dead Redemption 2 tells the tale of a gang whose time is running out. However, there are still open skies and plenty of places to get lost. That’s not so in the first game, chronologically occurring after the events of the second. The time of the cowboys has already run out.
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Beyond the narrative that stresses this point, you can hardly find an area without cars, telephone poles, and bustling noise all around. You get glimpses into the life that was before, but it’s clear that time is up and there is no going back.
Inside Screenshot Vault On Wooden Plank
Inside tells the tale of a boy who is growing up, the zombie-like nature of the adults in the game is a fitting comparison. This kind of plot has been done in a ham-fisted way many times, but the point is important, so Limbo does the wise thing and allows the unspoken horrors tell the story in a new way.
Rewards are placed in perilous locations. Things that are impossible to understand are locked up for study. The grown-up world is violent and judgmental. The real-world parallels in the game are many and powerful.
9 The Outer Wilds
The Outer Wilds Screenshot Of Crash Landing In Valley
The story is quite literally the environment in The Outer Wilds. The very sky tells the tale of how the player last died in each playthrough. The planets themselves are falling into a deadly singularity. And there remain hidden mysteries across the universe.
Saving the galaxy means understanding the galaxy first. Each small planet has been marred, developed, or shaped in some way that is critical to solving the puzzle of what disaster is occurring and how to stop it.
Bioshock Screenshot Underwater Building With Sharks And Squid
Along with a slew of other games that went silent, we don’t know when we’ll see the next BioShock, but the first was more than enough to tell the tale of mankind’s admirable and yet self-destructive ambition. The setting of the game feels haunted, even if not by the typical supernatural ghost entities gamers are used to.
The world is enticing and begging to be explored. At times, Ayn Rand’s vision mixed with underwater Art-Deco themes seems close enough to touch. But the designers wanted to warn players about the dangers of unchecked progress and seeing this fantastic world fallen into dystopia could not have gotten that message across any more clearly.
7 Final Fantasy VII: Remake
Final Fantasy VII Remake Inside The Church
Final Fantasy: Remake is so visually-forward that even the trailer made from the gameplay is exciting. The best evidence of the balance between evolution and nature is in Final Fantasy VII: Remake. Every zone speaks on the overarching theme of progress vs. the world.
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It’s not that civilization is bad; the tone is hardly druidic. Indeed, mako energy is drawn to humanity as a resource to be carefully used. But there is a need for moderation. Areas that find this balance are beautiful and peaceful while areas that fail to ration mako are intricate and terrifying.
6 Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Hellblade Senua’s Sacrifice View Of Bodies From The River
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice decides to use the environment to show how mental illness manifests itself in the minds and eyes of those who are afflicted. This endeavor worked to haunting effect, making this indie game one of the best world-building titles ever.
Too often, being “crazy” is dismissed as simple voices inside of a person’s mind. Walking in Senua’s shoes shows players how the voices are only part of the equation. Objects blur and focus, colors change, and depth perception alters, as well. The setting is both a reflection of and counter to Senua’s mind.
5 Dragon Age: Origins
Dragon Age Origins Tree In The Elven Alienage
Though there has been a lot of development in the series since Dragon Age: Origins, no game has captured the ability to reveal the history and current events in the same way that the original has.
The alienage with decorations and life temporarily displayed over oppressive stones, the circle tower as a gilded cage in the middle of Lake Calenhad, the blighted pustules that fester on common townhouses; all of these combine to tell players what Ferelden and its inhabitants have gone through.
4 Horizon Zero Dawn
Horizon Zero Dawn Mechanical Snake Embedded In The Mountainside
When first playing Horizon Zero Dawn, do not forget to take in the environment after fighting some of gaming’s best robots. This vision of technology, primitivism, hope, and resistance all live on in a world that doesn’t understand its own foundation.
You guide Aloy through a journey to uncover not only her own past but the world’s past. Even so, Aloy is not just chasing dreams; she fights for a world that is very much alive and built upon the bones of these events that have already transpired in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn.
3 Silent Hill 2
As a series that is constantly teasing gamers about whether the world is real, imagined, or some kind of purgatory, the Silent Hill games use the setting almost exclusively to provide hints to the player. All of the games are good, but Silent Hill 2 does this the best.
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Horror games all use creepy surroundings to mold this experience but rarely do they manage to communicate a message as powerfully as this. Silent Hill 2’s signature fog, painted walls, and broken buildings force the player to confront what life is like for the inhabitants. It also evokes what they go through when carrying the emotional tolls of unresolved conflicts.
2 That Dragon, Cancer
The Dragon, Cancer Ending Cathedral Scene
Unless you’ve got a heart of stone, you can’t get through That Dragon, Cancer without sobbing. This is an effect that is only tangentially assisted by audio snippets, as the weight of the game really rests exclusively on each area’s symbolism.
Those who are losing someone or have lost someone after a lengthy sickness will have an immediate connection to the prayers floating in bottles, the flooding doctor’s office, and the cathedral’s organ. You can’t express the enormity of losing someone with mere words. This game is all too aware of that and it communicates these emotions with feelings generated through imagery instead.
1 Ghost Of Tsushima
Ghost Of Tsushima Jin Sakai Overlooking Fields And Destroyed Towns
Those who first pick up Ghost of Tsushima might do so because they are told how beautiful it is. Indeed, the fields, fireflies, farms, and animal life are all exquisitely done, even the game’s cover art is gripping. But it’s watching what an invasion does to this beauty that sells the message even more than the audible story does.
White lilacs stained red with blood, slaughtered innocent forest creatures, black craters in the middle of quiet homes; this is the reality of war. Video games can mistakenly glorify violence, but Ghost of Tsushima does the opposite. Players don’t learn to love war while playing the game, they learn to hate it. In a world full of fighting and death, this game’s message, spoken mostly without words, is a timely one.