This is a bit of a complicated category because this isn’t simply “Best Open World.” Open worlds certainly qualify — and may have an advantage — but these are the games that best establish a sense of place as you play them. That might be about exploration or how you interact with the world, but it could also be a combination of visual and audio execution, or even worlds with phenomenal backstory. Everything should add up to a fully realized game world. “Best Setting” is just a catchier title.
Skyrim Special Edition
5. The Witness
Man, talk about a game where the environment feels like a character in and of itself. The sense of exploration in The Witness can honestly be overwhelming at times. The biggest knock against it in this category is that actually moving around the space can feel too slow. It’s a tough balance, because you need to see all of the painstaking detail in order for some of the larger reveals to happen for the player, but it still felt like a slog when a puzzle was too hard and I wanted to move to a different part of the island. Still, the ability to create a sense of space and history with essentially no dialogue or plot-driven narrative is pretty damn impressive.
4. The Banner Saga 2
The Banner Saga 2’s world definitely isn’t one that I’d want to live in (or even visit), but it’s certainly well-realized and engrossing. Some of this is due to the excellent characters and relationships, but there’s a clear history here that doesn’t need to be explained to understand. The struggle is definitely real in this story. As a sequel, The Banner Saga 2 also does a great job in varying up the environments compared to the first game. The swamp lands in particular were great to explore, with new races and creatures to see and interact with.
3. Pokemon Uranium
I feel like I’ve been saying this about Pokemon games for years now, but giving me a new world to explore and new Pokemon to find hasn’t gotten old — yet. There’s something particularly special about Pokemon Uranium given its origins as a fan-made game. This creates an extra sense of discovery as the game hasn’t been played by millions of people and there aren’t infinite guides floating around online. When you get stuck somewhere or didn’t know where to go next, you usually have to figure it out yourself. That’s pretty refreshing in a world where walkthroughs and spoilers abound on the internet.
Similar to what I said about it in the graphics category, the sense of wonder permeates everything you do in Abzu. There’s no way I personally would want to visit the underwater places you experience in the game, but seeing them on a television screen is thankfully enough to get the full impact. The city- and shrine-like spaces in the back third of the game are especially beautiful and haunting. The exploration of the environments is also important for this category, and swimming in Abzu is probably the best underwater movement in any game I’ve ever played. That’s an admittedly low bar, but it seriously does work here.
For such a simple game in terms of environments and gameplay, Firewatch does a lot with fairly little. Of all the games on this list, Firewatch is the only one with a “real-world” setting, and I think it captures the mixture of mundanity, peace, and fear you’d experience being alone in such a vast wilderness. At night, the game is straight-up scary. Similar to Abzu, Firewatch does a smart thing in not trying to capture a “realistic” version of the visual space, instead leaning in a more painterly direction that allows them to play even more with color and texture. I could totally spend a summer by myself in the woods like Henry does. I just wouldn’t go out at night.
It’s all about the music, baby. Check out the next page for my 2016 favorites.