Did you ever felt oddly nostalgic, awed or charmed by evocative places in videogames? As if those polygons could swallow your soul into a dreamlike limbo?
Today we’ll see all those levels which, in my opinion, deserve nicknames such as “surreal” or “liminal”.
20. Kula World
A few blocks suspended in the sunset skies of an unspecified Aztec territory, adorned with jewels and hourglasses; a beach ball is moving on top of said blocks, changing their perspective, thus the gravity itself.
It’s not a fever dream, it’s the premise of Kula World (Roll Away in North America), a puzzle game made for the first Playstation console.
The OST adds a lot to its mystic halo too:
19. Risk of Rain 2
This game features a pot-pourri of unearthly levels, but the one I’m more enamored with is the ‘Bazaar Between Time‘, a magic place located somewhere in a far, alien world.
18. Hotline Miami
One of the most fascinating indie games of the last decade, Hotline Miami showcases — between a cold blooded carnage and another — some interesting cutscenes, most notably, the notorious dream sequences.
17. Mr. Bones
A multi-genre title written by the same mind behind Ecco The Dolphin, Ettore Annunziata. The gameplay, the cutscenes, the art… Everything just screams “surreal” — whereas the soundtrack is generally more worldy (albeit very catchy).
16. Heretic: Shadow of the Serpent Riders
DOOM meets dark fantasy, and the result is a frantic gameplay featuring magic weapons, repugnant monsters and jaw-dropping scenarios.
15. Shadow Man
This hard but rewarding adventure game is best known for its beautiful story and for the spooky setting. In that regard, it’s at times very reminiscent of the beloved masterpiece ‘Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver’.
14. Mirror’s Edge
I know what you’re thinking: where’s the liminal stuff at?
The original Mirror’s Edge is a valid contender for that and if the premise of a hybrid between FPS and parkour appeals you, then this is the game for you.
This groundbreaking FPS welcomes you with a plethora of beautiful levels, most notably, the mesmerizing NyLeve’s Falls.
12. Bugs Bunny & Taz: Time Busters
The Moon Valley from Bugs Bunny & Taz: Time Busters is a great example of atmospheric levels in videogames.
If DOOM and Wolfenstein 3D are respectively the granddad and great granddad, Quake is the big daddy of the first person shooter genre, pioneer of addicting mechanics such as rocket jumping and strafe jumping, and overall the game that single-handedly revolutionized the competitive online multiplayer scene.
Oh and of course, lots of surreal scenery fully imbued with Lovecraftian abominations and dark Medieval buildings.
A trippy collectathon spawned from the mind of Tim Schafer, a very important game designer. In Psychonauts, the protagonist roams the dreams and the nightmares, the regrets and the ambitions of a variety of peculiar characters.
This translates into a handful of surreal and finely crafted levels.
9. Dino Crisis 2
The thing with pre-rendered backgrounds from CAPCOM’s survival horror games is that you either love them or hate them. One thing is for certain though, they have a certain unmatched aesthetic that exudes vaporware and nostalgia.
For me, the 3rd Energy Facility in Dino Crisis 2 gets the point across for one of the best examples of liminality in video games.
Bonus points if you juxtapose it with the save theme.
8. Ecco The Dolphin
Ah, good ol’ Ecco.
Swimming around the oceans, shores, coral reefs, electrical circuits…
Wait, electrical circuits? And what’s the deal with that hellspawn over there?
I didn’t mean to…
…Yeah, sure! Of course I’ll not talk with you or your son ever again!
(Thanks for fueling my nightmares, Mr. Alien).
Every level from this majestic platformer seems straight out of a dream, but the Blue Mountains are surely the winners when it comes to soothing and meditative landscapes.
This time, I’ll link the entire OST since it’s perfect in its entirety.
6. Rayman 2
I know, I know. Two titles of the same series in a row.
But it’s for good reasons: The Glade of Dreams from Rayman 2 is one of the most iconic surreal places in video games. There’s pretty much everything it needs: starry sky, an intimidating moon, the calm ocean and last but not least, a little island with bizarre creatures and a divine being called Polokus in it.
The Hall of Heroes from the very first MediEvil is a sacred place where the spirits of valiant fighters can roam in eternity. They drink, eat, laugh, dance and play darts — all while the world beneath them is perishing from hordes of undeads and other malevolent creatures.
4. Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
North Point Mall from Vice City is one of those supermarkets that you could swear you dreamed about, or even visited, back in your young days.
For me, it’s a place filled with nostalgia, and the tune that plays when you wander on those smooth pavements really helps portraying a foggy, almost forgotten past.
And now, the TOP 3…
If anyone would ever ask me what are my favorite skyboxes in video games, I would quickly answer with Deus Ex, Ratchet & Clank, but most importantly, the ones from the original trilogy of Spyro, Playstation 1.
However, it’s not just about the skyboxes. Spyro is a magical and calming experience thanks to the funny characters too, the humble gameplay, the amazing soundtrack and of course, all those colorful, surreal worlds.
Here’s a combo of three melodies from Spyro 2, one per hub world:
2. Crash Bandicoot
It’s undeniable, certain levels from the original series of our favorite bandicoot made by Naughty Dog are nothing short of hypnotic, especially the so called Warp Rooms.
Regarding specific worlds, the honorable mention goes to Sunset Vista and Polar Panic.
1. Silent Hill
My favorite survival horror game happens to be the best contender for both liminality and surreality.
Wikipedia says: “In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete.”; Whereas surreality is “The state of being incongruous or surreal”.
Now let’s go back to Silent Hill: it’s a story where you often find yourself transitioning into the most twisted, horrifying and recondite realities, so it literally fits both criteria.
That being said, the town of Silent Hill would probably be the worst place to visit in a vivid dream, even more so than the blazoned Raccoon City from Resident Evil… And if you already played the game, you will probably agree with me.
Of course, there’s tons of worlds like these in videogames and that’s why I’ll ask you! What are your favorite surreal places in video games? What about your favorite, liminal ones?