It ain’t easy being Adam Jensen, and not because his body had to be filled with robot parts after terrorists blew up his job and kidnapped his girlfriend. The Sarif Industries security chief and hero of last year’s Deus Ex: Human Revolution is cool enough to deal with this type of adversity. The guy has sunglasses built into his face.

But being Mister Cool is hard in 2027 Detroit. Consider this Saturday night scenario: Jensen, taking a break from brooding in the dark, is watching an X-Files marathon in his swank Chiron Building apartment when he becomes desperate for a bag of Sun Chips and some Fresca. After he dons his elaborately embroidered overcoat and makes sure the swords in his arms aren’t popping out, he heads off into the night to procure his munchies.

He can’t, though. The guy with the luxury apartment lives in the worst neighborhood, a place violent enough to make 1950s Jerusalemites nervous. Go two blocks in one direction, and he finds a blighted slum called Derelict Row that’s ruled by a paramilitary hate group. In the other direction, there’s a collection of jumbled tenements, home to gangsters and vicious spies. Present-day 8 Mile is an urban paradise by comparison—at least you can hit a gas station for some Doritos there.

Adam Jensen doesn’t have to pick up snacks, though. His Detroit was built with other concerns in mind. The Chiron doesn’t need to be in a secure neighborhood with ample parking, surrounded by robot butler-staffed dog parks. It simply needs to be surrounded by the landscapes where video game hero Adam Jensen plies his trade: walls to break through, fire escapes to scale, subtle arrangements of bombed-out cars and construction materials—ideal for ducking gunfire. And small, glistening population centers where Jensen can fade into the crowd. Jensen’s Detroit has these in abundance, and by their measurement his city is a tiny marvel that seems bigger than its few dozen blocks.

Jonathan Jacques-Belletête is one of the secret city planners that made this strange Detroit of 2027. As the art director on Deus Ex, Jacques-Belletête knows all too well that the needs of a video game city are unusual. In fact, a game’s city must be more than a city. “My first concern was to make the city look as interesting as possible,” Jacques-Belletête said in an interview.

Deus Ex Human Revolution: Detroit

It’s not that expected conveniences like bodegas aren’t useful; they just take a backseat to grander plans. “The mundane should be considered and produced in a video game,” Jacques-Belletête explained, “but there are issues: Production time, production costs, and of course gameplay and level design constraints. At the beginning, we had this whole vision of Adam living in a posh neighborhood full of cyber-renaissance-inspired buildings and skyscrapers. But we eventually had to cut this out for most of the variables I just mentioned above. Having a super-photorealistic in-game reproduction of a well-known city is all well and good, but what does it say about the themes and messages your game is trying to convey? Boring. We all know what a real city feels and looks like. In a work of fiction, it needs to be hyper-realistic. It must feel like more than what it is.”

Deus Ex’s Detroit certainly does feel like something more. Walking through the Detroit subway station feels delightfully familiar for the average city dweller, its grimy tiled walls providing a natural venue for the teenage breakdancers collecting spare change in the corner. When you emerge, though—never stopping to wonder why you didn’t even see any train tracks—you’re met with the elegant façade of the LIMB Clinic, its curved white front segmented like cells in a massive, frightening body.

The spectacle is so overwhelming, you can forget that this place is a 40-second walk away from a bombed-out demilitarized zone. In a real city, it can be hard to maintain a sense of overall structure and scope because the geography is so crowded and the sight lines so short. The constraints of a game world are well-served by this limited perspective, but even then it can be hard to shake the feeling that you’re trapped in a box.

The goal, then, isn’t to make the city big, but to make it seem big. It’s all about how you wrestle out that illusion of urbanity. “The player must feel like he has freedom of exploration, that he can be creative with the environment,” Jacques-Belletête said. “At the same time, we need to set limits and boundaries in the world and these boundaries must feel ‘natural.’ We think a lot about what these boundaries will be.”

The boundaries can be superficial. A police barricade, a boarded up door, a chain link fence that’s just too high to jump. Those boundaries can be masked, though, by any number of perceptual means. “A great trick to make the city feel bigger and livelier than it actually is with the sound. Having dogs bark in the distance, the echoes of police sirens, and people talking and babies crying when you get near windows of apartment buildings. The streets of our game don’t have cars moving in them. But with each opportunity we had, you can see moving cars in the distance—on overpasses, on the other side of fences, and other such places.”


Kamurocho

The Yakuza series’ Kamurocho, a fictional but faithful homage to the Kabukicho red light district of Tokyo, doesn’t have the same problems of scale that Deus Ex’s Detroit does. The roughly 17-block neighborhood has been used in not one but five games now, and it has changed little during that time, because it’s so effective as a setting. The street grid isn’t massive as in games like Grand Theft Auto, whose cities sprawl in realistic ways to evoke an “endless playground” vibe. Rather, Kamurocho is contained and filled with exactly the sort of domestic minutiae absent from Deus Ex

Score one for advertising executives: Kamurocho is a convincing argument in favor of, if not in-game advertising, littering a game with replicas of real-world goods. Toshihiro Nagoshi, the creator of the Yakuza series, argues that the game’s heavily populated stores and Boss Coffee vending machines create the illusion that Kamurocho is part of thriving city. “Although it may be difficult to understand for players living abroad, streets full of authentic brands indirectly contribute to generate realistic atmosphere,” Nagoshi said. “If you have an opportunity to come to Tokyo, you can understand the feeling well.”

Hearing a jaunty theme song erupt from the crowded entrance of a Don Quixote convenience store certainly goes a long way towards making Yakuza’s version of Kabukicho seem more tangible than Deus Ex’s Detroit, even though the store sits against an invisible wall that keeps you, as lion-hearted mobster Kazuma Kiryu, from wandering into Japan’s capital city. Walk outside the Don Quixote, and there’s a row of railings on the curb, where a few bikes are secured. Try to slip between them, and Kiryu will just push against the impenetrable membrane of the world. 

Those streets beyond Kamurocho’s guard rails aren’t where the game is, so Yakuza works to keep you engaged within its borders. The majority of Kamurocho’s buildings are inaccessible. Forget the interiors—in most cases, Kiryu can’t enter them. There are certainly more buildings in Kamurocho than in Detroit, and they’re more convincingly rendered, with clotheslines draping between alleyway windows and walls smeared with accumulations of dirt, but Kiryu can’t even touch them, let alone plow his body through them like Deus Ex’s Jensen does. They’re just walls, though, decorated supports keeping up the single structure that is Kiryu’s neighborhood.

Yakuza 3

The city-planning success of Kamurocho is found not in the buildings that fill the street grid but in the alcoves in between. The town is littered with dead ends, pocket-sized city parks, playgrounds, and parking lots. You don’t drive a car in Yakuza, but that doesn’t matter. All that matters in the mundane burg is that there is a place for cars to be parked, maintaining Kamurocho’s dignity as a city. Tottering into these places, like the natty little patch of dirt called Children’s Park, gives Kamurocho a hominess absent from 2027 Detroit. This place is familiar and mundane, the opposite of the LIMB plastic-surgery clinic’s bombastic futurism in Deus Ex

It seems at first like the hyperrealism Jacques-Belletête described as being so essential to game cities is missing from Kamurocho. As with any city though, Yakuza’s microcosmic metropolis comes to life through its citizens, and it is built to accommodate their peculiarities. Children’s Park isn’t empty. Sometimes it’s the site of gang violence against homeless drunks. The dirt patch proves to be a perfect array of low walls and urban detritus when Kiryu needs to slam delinquent faces into a hard surface. The parking lot on the north end of town? There’s a martial arts master that hustles cash out of people by dodging their punches, and it just so happens that the car park makes a fine arena. When the transvestite with a crush tries to get with Kiryu—who’s something of a homophobe—the untouchable façades of Kamurocho’s buildings provide a ready speedway for an old-fashioned street chase. These daylight gang fights and RuPaulian antics aren’t exactly common, but they’re the kind of outsized event that makes Kamurocho as ordinary in its strangeness as any actual city.


Rabanastre

The ordinary can dull the magical, though, if game makers are a little too exacting in their city planning. Final Fantasy XII is unique among its siblings for its dignity. It still trades in the steampunk-cum-Tolkien pastiche that’s defined the Final Fantasy series, but its story of an occupied city-state—and the deposed soldiers, royalty, and pirates who wish to save it—trades in more complex and coherent themes than “good vs. evil” (at least until the final act). Its world, Ivalice, a vaguely Persian chunk of land, is equally staid and proud. Archades, Rabanstre, and Bhujerba are all well-considered fantasy cities, convincing in their scale and regional architecture. They’re vibrant places too, full of art and activity. Their life seems more substantial than the typical display of empty bodies walking back and forth, waiting for you to press a button so they can spout a line of dialogue about some cactus-monster causing trouble outside town.

There’s a problem in all of this prettiness though. It’s impossible to tell where the hell you’re going. Rabanstre’s streets are so idiosyncratic that it’s a chore to remember where the tavern is in relation to, say, the town’s western gate. Do I take a right at the item shop or swing south once I get to the palace? This central plaza is an otherworldly delight, but I need to get back to the bar, and the signage around here leaves something to be desired.

Final Fantasy XII: Rabanstre

Familiarity breeds comfort in Ivalice’s cities, so like anywhere else, you just need to get to know it first. And until you do, there’s a map that’s just a pause button away. This is Final Fantasy, though, not Final Getting To Know The Place. Rabanstre is a believable city, but as a result, there’s a niggling barrier between you and all the things you might want to do in Ivalice, like buying swords, exploring killer-blob-infested sewers, and flying airships. Time spent wondering how to get back to the airship port is time wasted. 

Doing, not living, is the paramount concern of the video game city planner. Jonathan Jacques-Belletête may point to Future Detroit’s looks as his first interest, but it’s the city’s guts that really come first. That’s why the city is filled with accessible sewers, and the buildings are packed with man-sized ventilation shafts. How much consideration does the actual utility of those sewers and vents get? “Not much consideration, I guess,” Jacques-Belletête said. “Deus Ex is pretty much a game about walking into air ducts. Put as many of them as possible all over the place!” So what if Adam Jensen can’t go downstairs and get a Fresca? You both have better things to do in this town.

Words by Anthony John Agnello. Illustrations by Richard Hofmeier.