One of the most powerful things a videogame can do is make you feel like you’ve been completely transported to another world. That’s what makes this medium the most effective form of escapism, particularly in the following PC games. For different reasons these are all incredible virtual places to lose yourself in, from the desolation of Mad Max to the sweeping grandeur of The Witcher 3—and you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your chair to visit them.
The Witcher 3
Whether it’s the rugged European expanses of Wild Hunt or the lush Mediterranean charms of Blood & Wine, the world of The Witcher 3 is always stunning. From the deep boreal forests and dramatic, mist-shrouded mountains of the Skellige archipelago, to the rolling vineyards and fairytale castles of Toussaint, every location feels wild, organic, and alive.
With its mix of strange magic, Victorian imperialism, and whale oil-powered steampunk, the rat-infested city of Dunwall is an incredibly unique, evocative setting. And in the sequel’s own city, Karnaca, the cobbles and smokestacks are replaced by jungles, colonial architecture, and sweltering sunshine, giving a sense of this world’s cultural and geographical richness.
American Truck Simulator
No, really. This truck simulator might not have the lavish production values of some of the other games on this list, but in the dead of night its deserts are beautifully atmospheric. There’s something compelling about those quiet, lonely stretches of road, dark except for the glow of your headlights and the occasional neon motel sign buzzing in the distance.
Grand Theft Auto 5
The city of Los Santos is an intricate, staggeringly detailed urban sprawl, and one of the most incredible cities and open world games on PC. Then you leave the city limits behind and find yourself in a vast expanse of countryside dominated by the towering silhouette of the colossal Mt. Chiliad, where, from its peak, you can see the skyscrapers of downtown Los Santos far in the distance.
In this vivid ocean you’ll find fields of dancing kelp, caves illuminated by fluorescent fungi, bubbling thermal vents, and sandy plains sprinkled with glowing plants. It’s a diverse, vibrant setting that feels truly alien, and the hand-crafted nature of the world means exploration is genuinely rewarding. The deeper you go, the deeper the mystery becomes.
In 1940s, Empire Bay is bleak and wintry, with military planes in the sky and off-duty soldiers on the streets reminding you that World War II is still in full force. Then Vito ends up in jail, returning in the 1950s to find the city sunny, optimistic, and vividly colourful. It’s not as detailed or big as the cities of GTA, but makes up for it with an incredible sense of place and atmosphere.
Avalanche’s vast desert wasteland has a surprising amount of colour, variety, and unexpected weather effects, which collectively create an intoxicating vision of the post-apocalyptic expanse the movies are famous for. It captures the desolation and loneliness of a post-nuclear world better than most games, including the cluttered, distraction-filled Fallout series.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
The dystopian city of Hengsha isn’t huge, but the use of neon lights, colourful advertising, and narrow streets creates a convincing sense that you’re at the bottom rung of a two-tiered futuristic city. Nothing feels over-designed, which cyberpunk settings are frequently guilty of, and while Mankind Divided is technically superior, this is a more compelling space.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
This slice of rural Britain is one of the most lavish and well-observed settings on PC. The sleepy villages, rolling farmland, and holiday camps of Shropshire perfectly capture the feel of the British countryside, and provide an eerie, unsettling backdrop for the game’s melancholy sci-fi storyline. The marriage of the mundanely pastoral and frighteningly supernatural is incredibly eerie.
Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag
Black Flag absolutely nails the feeling of being a pirate, giving you the freedom to explore a huge chunk of the West Indies including Cuba, Jamaica, the Bahamas, and countless other small islands. Sailing those crystal blue waters, listening to your crew sing shanties, is absolutely transporting, and arguably the best-realised setting in the series’ long history.
While Rockstar seems mainly interested in bringing American cities to life, Sleeping Dogs is a strong attempt at replicating another part of the world. United Front’s vision of contemporary Hong Kong is a beautifully constructed thing, with neon advertising signs reflecting in puddles, crowded markets, traffic-clogged streets, and food stalls you can almost smell.
Read more Sleeping Dogs review
Dark Souls 3
From the faded grandeur of the colossal Lothric Castle to the haunting, wintry Irithyll of the Boreal Valley, this is one of FromSoftware’s greatest artistic achievements. And as well as looking pretty, the locations fill in the blanks left by the sparse, enigmatic story, with places such as the Cemetery of Ash providing subtle clues about the series’ rich mythology.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
You get a sense that Skyrim is a vast country, rather than a small section of a larger world. Each area has its own distinctive history, culture, and climate, from the bubbling, sulphuric hot springs of Eastmarch to the icy, snow-battered coastline of Winterhold. Skyrim is still one of the most enjoyable virtual worlds to just exist in for a while.
Read more An Illusionist in Skyrim
Batman: Arkham Knight
Rocksteady went from creating a convincing but isolated setting in Arkham Asylum to a wonderfully grim and complex urban sprawl in Arkham Knight. Decorated with a Blade Runner-ish mix of neon lights and endless rainfall, it’s one of the best open world settings around, even if the game’s tiring use of the Batmobile muddies your perception of it a little bit.
The Yakuza series has finally come to PC, and this prequel features two beautiful, atmospheric chunks of Japanese cities to explore: Kamurocho in Tokyo and Sotenbori in Osaka. Both perfectly capture the feeling of being in a bustling, vibrant Japanese city, and the 1980s setting is brilliantly fleshed out with era-appropriate technology and fashion.
Read more Yakuza 0 review
From the muted streets of City 17 to the zombie-infested Ravenholm (we don’t go there), Valve’s visual storytelling is still unparalleled. Half-Life 2 has dated, inevitably, but its environments still have the power to dazzle. Over the course of the game a detailed picture of this bleak, hopeless world is subtly pieced together, and all through details in the environment.
Read more Half-Life 2 review
Metro: Last Light
The Metro series offers the most beguiling and tonally bleak post-apocalypse around, whether you’re in the irradiated overworld or one of those detailed underground settlements filled with NPCs. From a wrecked passenger plane, skeletons still buckled into their seats, to an abandoned, rain-soaked tenement block, misery has never looked quite so attractive.
Read more Going underground in Metro: Last Light
Alan Wake’s misty forests, empty cabins and eerily unpopulated towns are the perfect setting for this mostly nighttime horror shooter. A clever recurring technique used by Remedy is the teasing of enemies and new locations in the far distance, something made possible by game engine tech originally put in place when Alan Wake was going to be open-world.
Read more Alan Wake review
Campo Santo’s stylised Shoshone National Forest feels sun-parched, wild, and rambling, which combined with some remarkable ambient sound design makes for an incredibly convincing natural setting. The game is linear, but there are plenty of opportunities to ramble, finding clues about the other lonely people who have escaped there over the decades.
Read more Firewatch review
Rapture is so bloody strange in its mix of sci-fi otherworldliness and art deco. It’s perhaps the strongest instance of fiction and setting working together on this list. An unforgettable journey under the sea, to a setting soaked with history and purpose. You feel like people actually lived and worked here before everything went to shit, with echoes of life all around you.
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