Book Review: Virtual Cities: An Atlas and Exploration of Video Game Cities

The cover of Virtual Cities. It's red, white, and black and has a vague idea of a map behind the title, subtitle, and author's name

Title: Virtual Cities: An Atlas & Exploration of Video Game Cities
Author: Konstantinos Dimopoulos
Maps and Illustrations by: Maria Kallikaki
Additional maps by: Vivi Papanastasiou
Published by: The Countryman Press, a division of W.W. Norton & Company
Disclaimer: I contributed to the Unbound crowdfunding campaign for Virtual Cities in ebook format, and Konstantinos Dimopoulous reached out to me on Twitter to send me a free hardbound copy for review.

Konstantinos Dimopoulos is well-known on Twitter for his enthusiasm for cities both real and imaginary. In May 2018, he launched a crowdfunding campaign through Unbound to create a video game atlas with the help of illustrators/cartographers Maria Kallikaki and Vivi Papanastasiou (his wife). The campaign was incredibly successful, attaining 210% funding from 1,993 supporters. Dimopoulos has a PhD in urban planning and geography, a MSc in urban and regional planning, and a 5-year engineering diploma along with over 10 years of experience in the gaming industry. He is uniquely positioned to explore virtual cities and what makes them work (or not).

Virtual Cities covers games from 1983 to 2018, exploring cities I’ve never seen and ones I’m extremely familiar with. Each city is presented from an in-universe perspective, making the main text feel like a travelogue. I really liked this aspect, as it made the cities feel more real and added humor at times. Games/cities I’ve never experienced (or even heard of, in some cases) became fascinating through this method, making me want to explore them. I didn’t realize that Batman: Arkham City borrows so much from two of my favorite movies, Escape from New York and Escape from LA, so now I’m very motivated to check it out! I could also appreciate aspects of games I’ve bounced off of. A great example is 1998’s Thief: The Dark Project, which I love the idea and lore of but can’t bring myself to play for very long, even after trying many times. One small thing to note is that if you haven’t played a game, the tour guide-style text can be a bit dense to wade through; I was especially lost reading about Anor Londo from Dark Souls. This wasn’t the case for the majority of entries though, and the book would serve as a great intro to video game lore for some of the most famous cities (Silent Hill, Raccoon City, Midgar).

At the end of the tour of each city, Dimopoulos provides design insights, writing on what makes the city unique, and I found his thoughts valuable and interesting. The historical perspective he provided was useful too. I didn’t realize some very early games had NPCs on schedules! I remember reading a PC Gamer preview of Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion that was super excited about this feature. It’s older than I thought. He also points out when cities are lacking something important for real life functionality; some are missing schools or fire departments! Five cities feature design insights from their own creators/designers: The Long Dark‘s Milton, 0°N 0°W‘s Anytown, Bus Simulator 18‘s Seaside Valley, Lamplight City‘s New Bretagne, and B.A.T.‘s Terrapolis.

The maps are intricate, precise, and beautiful. They’re accompanied by well-done illustrations that help you get a feel for the location at street-level, which is especially helpful if you haven’t played the game being discussed. Sometimes there are fun touches on maps, such as Arkham’s City’s compass rose being the bat signal. The color schemes of the maps compliment the games themselves, at least for those I’m familiar with, which was a great detail.

I highly recommend Virtual Cities for those who love any combination of video games, maps, and lore. It’s definitely a book I’ll return to, especially as I play more of the games within it. I’m very inspired to explore (or re-visit!) the cities in this book, and I’m sure you will be too.

You can get a copy of Virtual Cities wherever books are sold, and IndieBound will help you find your local independent bookstore! Learn more about Konstantinos Dimopoulos on his website.

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