Urban Fantasy in Video Games - why so uncommon?


#1

In preparing for my yearly Halloween tabletop night with some friends (this year we’re running a Stranger Things-style game using the Tales from the Loop system) we started talking about the games we had been playing recently, particularly that we all hopped back on The Secret World for the Halloween event. I have an unexplainable affinity for The Secret World - it’s unique blend of modern-day settings and horror / conspiracy / fantasy styling that I don’t think I’ve ever seen replicated in another game. This got me thinking about why we see so few “urban fantasy” style video games. It’s a hugely popular setting for tabletop - all of the Chronicles of Darkness games, Monsterhearts, Urban Shadows, etc - even the most high profile example from video games (VTM:B) is based on a tabletop RPG.

What I can’t figure out is why we don’t see this genre explored more often in games - VTM:B has never gotten a proper sequel and every attempt at a new World of Darkness game has gone nowhere, the incredibly unique quest design and setting felt kind of wasted on The Secret World being an MMO, etc. The Wolf Among Us from Telltale was a beautiful mixture of detective thriller and magic/fantasy and we’re thankfully getting a sequel for that. There was that Bioware game that was unfortunately cancelled before we ever learned much about it.

With all the enduring popularity of shows like Supernatural, the X-Files, Twin Peaks, Buffy and more it just feels like there’s a lot of room for games to explore this genre and it still baffles me. Also, if anyone has any tips of games that might scratch this itch please recommend them!


#2

The Shin Megami Tensei games are probably what you’re looking for.


#3

I feel like the Shin Megami Tensei games fit into this category to some extent (taking place in a ruined Tokyo), although they also have a post-apocalypse element to the setting, so maybe that moves more away from what you’d like, even if it is still inhabited.

Edit: Whoops, beat me to it.


#4

I am super ashamed that I forgot to mention the SMT/Persona series in my OP, because yeah I love them for exactly this reason.

Also a shout out to Life is Strange for similar reasons.


#5

Persona is basically this.


#6

Would Pokémon count as urban fantasy? While you spend plenty of time out adventuring in nature, cities and urban environments tend to play a big part. I’ve found it most noticeable in Generations 1 and 5, but all Pokémon games have a healthy mix.


#7

Does Shadowrun count? Shadowrun has to count, right?


#8

I definitely consider cyberpunk to be a part of the “urban fantasy” genre and enjoy them a lot, I just happen to have an affinity for a modern day setting.


#9

I wouldn’t neccesarily include most Cyberpunk in this category, but shadowrun actually has fantasy creatures, magic etc. which is why I thought it might fit…


#10

It certainly is, though like Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines, it’s based on a tabletop property.

I guess we could count some of the Final Fantasy games as urban fantasy to some extend. A game like FFXV for example, while open world, features a lot of man-made environments.


#11

Yeah, but Shadowrun is also way in the future, with cyberspace and robot arms and AI and whatnot. Feels like OP’s talking more about “today (± 20yrs), real world, but also magic.”

So Dresden Files, Supernatural, Stranger Things, Twilight, etc. Arguably Harry Potter to an extent (although they spend so much time in Wizard-only areas; maybe that Fantastic Beasts movie fits better? Never saw it myself).

Honestly I’d put Dishonored closer to what OP’s talking about than Shadowrun. It’s definitely got some steampunky stuff going on, but it’s always felt closer to the real world than Shadowrun. Also, there’s some element of “magic is secret/hidden” in a lot of the stuff OP’s mentioning, which isn’t really a thing in SR but is, to an extent, in Dishonored.


#12

I’m not sure I’d consider shadowrun and cyberpunk to be urban fantasy. One part of urban fantasy to me is that the fantasy part is hidden from the rest of the world.


#13

That’s my understanding as well. Urban Fantasy is typically a contemporary (or modern historical) setting, where some degree of magic is real. Weather the existence of magic is hidden (a la White Wolf/Harry Potter), or public knowledge (a al To Cast a Deadly Spell) doesn’t seem to matter too much.

IMO I think the difficulty of doing Urban Fantasy well has a lot to do with it. V:TM Bloodlines is a pretty rare game. And it was apparently a really difficult game to get made. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the EVE devs didn’t do anything with the White Wolf licence, and that Paradox hasn’t done anything yet either.

The Wolf Among Us is a pretty good example of an typical Urban Fantasy setting in a video game. I think the fact that it is a Telltale game says a lot about the difficulty of getting that particular genre right. There’s limited exploration, and the narrative style means that magic can do really strange things, when the story calls for it.

To do a AAA urban fantasy, I think you need a pretty believable urban environment. Most people know what modern cities are really like, so anything that’s wrong would really stick out. Not that that’s impossible, Deep Silver or Rockstar could definitely get the city right. Plenty of superhero games have done a decent job with cities too. You also need to integrate the fantasy well visually and thematically. That’s where you need a pretty ace art department. Dishonoured does really well with it’s steampunk setting. Secret World did really well here too. But all these games were pretty high budget, and therefore high risk.

The genre is also pretty heavy on relationship building, and tackling themes of being different in a contemporary setting. You need good writers to nail that, which likely represents another risk from the perspective of developers.

IMO, someone has to do and make a good bit of money at it first. Then you’ll see tons of them :slight_smile:


#14

I wish more games used settings like this, especially MMOs. It’s part of why I loved the RP community in City Of Heroes, a lot of characters leaned towards that, and in a superhero setting it adds a lot of interesting stuff to work with.

The only reason I can think of this not getting more use in games is the same as it’s always been, people making games are too focused on making as safe as bet as possible. So they just go either full fantasy or full sci-fi and everything else falls by the wayside. It sucks but the only way it will change is if something in other genres gets a real budget and chance to thrive, and has a big enough impact to get copied by everyone else for a while.


#15

I had no idea there was going to be a second season of The Wolf Among Us. Completely flew under my radar, excellent news. Anyways, on topic I’ve been playing Alan Wake recently, that’s a good game that might scratch your urban fantasy itch.


#16

Does the Costume Quest games and Eathbound games count?

Also wondering wouldn’t a majority of Horror games go under Urban fantasy? Games such as Silent Hill?


#17

The Shin Megami Tensei spin-offs fit better than the mainline saga as the main games end up sooner or later on post-apocalyptic settings. However Devil Survivor series (SRPG) and Soul Hackers (dungeon crawler) are really good options and coincidentally, dirt cheap in the 3DS eShop thanks to the Halloween sales.

Also, The World Ends With You on the Nintendo DS.


#18

This might be a silly thing to get hung up about, but how are we defining the “urban” in urban fantasy here?

To me, it seems like these different sorts of communities and built environments have fundamentally different narrative and thematic implications.

A few of the titles going around here happen in pretty rural or downright pastoral settings. Twin Peak’s latest season includes some more urban areas, but I think that the isolation of the titular town is kind of a key component in building the world and sort of hemming in the relationships everybody has in a way distinct from a story set in a city. I’d argue that applies to spiritual successors like Arcadia Bay, Greenvale, Inaba, and Silent Hill as well. If those places were crowded (even if the protagonist were still metaphorically or socially isolated) it’d be a very different vibe.

Of course, I don’t really have a better alternative term to use here, and I totally see why having even a small town with a hidden mystical element could be arguably considered “urban fantasy.” But now I’m thinking about this a lot.


#19

I personally think that urban fantasy is more about the interaction of modern society with fantastical elements. The scale doesn’t matter so much to me, though obviously a small town setting is going to differ greatly from a sprawling metropolis.

Another game that’s good if you have a Wii U is Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. It’s part of the SMT/Persona family, but it’s a game many people overlook. I need to get around to finishing it myself one of these days.


#20

This is a good point - a lot of what I’m really talking about could be called contemporary or modern fantasy - that mixture of everyday life with supernatural or magical elements. I think urban fantasy is just oft-used shorthand for it because the most popular settings for the genre tend to be, I think, more recognizable urban/densely populated areas where the magical and supernatural are more easily hidden or lost among all the people.