Another world. Another time. In the Age of Wonder. A thousand years ago, this land was green and good. Until the Crystal cracked...
If you're a fan of Jim Henson movies (or the Crystal Method) you'll undoubtedly recognize those words as evoking the image of a world gone wrong. This list is about video game worlds and lands that were once good but have become corrupted and ruined either before or during the course of the game. There's nothing quite like being immersed in a nightmarish hellscape to increase the tension of a game or to evoke feelings of loss, hopelessness and despair. There are definitely more places I thought of than could fit on the list but the following are the ones that I think have the greatest impact either because of the sheer magnitude of their downfall or the atmosphere and feel of their ruinous nature. Honourable mentions go out to Fallout's world and Chrono Cross' Dead Sea.
5. Dark Land - Super Mario Bros. 3
Don't let the fact that this is in an 8-bit Mario game fool you, Dark Land is a veritable hell on earth. It's especially jarring given the overall benevolence of the rest of the Mushroom World. Here the Koopa tribe's weapons of war roam the land, sea and air. The country is filled with skulls, fire, lava, ash and consuming darkness, and some environments are entirely drained of colour. Basically, it's like the Mario version of walking into Mordor. However, in the final screen of the map, you are confronted with Bowser's castle, looming over the ruins of mushroom people structures. That's right; evidently, Bowser did not originally own the land he lives in. He invaded this area from wherever he came from and literally built his empire on the bones of his enemies. This is the horror that will befall the rest of the lands should you fail. It's even worse given that the mushroom people are non aggressive so this is basically an act of genocide on par with the Roman invasion of Dacia. Bowser seems to have lost his touch in later games but in this entry he was a vicious and cruel tyrant. When you fought him it was friggin' frightening as he throws himself about the room spitting fire, attempting to crush or immolate our hero. In the end, the only way to kill him is through a relentless torrent of fireballs or to let his murderous rage consume him and bring about his own downfall, much like Satan's attempts to escape hell cause him to be trapped there in Dante's Inferno. Epic and terrifying to say the least.
Although you could say that the idea of this was lifted from Terminator, I still feel that this is pretty cool. In the year 1999, Lavos emerges from the depths of the earth and brings annihilation upon the planet. I think it was an interesting move to establish Lavos as a being beyond human comprehension so there is no way of knowing exactly what its motivations for this act are. It simply appears to be a fathomless act of genocide. 400 years later, the shattered remnants of humanity are still fending for themselves in the rubble. The feeling of loss is especially great as Chrono Trigger is a time traveling game, so you get to see the entire scope of the the world's history and see that it will all end in ruin. It's almost akin to a nuclear war: all the plans and dreams of humanity amounted to nothing because of a senseless act of colossal violence. It's also really cool that humanity is locked in a fight with a machine civilization (much like it was with reptiles in the beginning) but this is ultimately a pointless struggle. Especially in light of the fact that Lavos' spawn are wandering Death Peak, waiting to enter into space and inflict a similar fate on other worlds. It's a hopeless situation where all your actions are fruitless. No matter how many machines, mutants or Lavos spawn you kill, the world is still damned and no matter how many times you sleep in an Enertron, you're still hungry.
3. The Dark World - The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past
Compared to the lush, green forests and fields of Hyrule, the Dark World was a blighted place, filled with withering grass, polluted water, lost souls and bizarre and monstrous creatures at every turn. Nothing was normal or peaceful and everything was hostile and grotesque. Apparently, this place once was the Golden Land: a divine and imperishable realm that has been corrupted by Ganon's acquisition of the Triforce and mastery of its power. One can only imagine how far it has fallen, and leaving the nature of the Golden Land to the imagination of the player was a brilliant move on their part. For all we know, it might never have born a resemblance to Hyrule and only took that on once Ganon's heart and mind shaped it. In this regard, the Dark World also proved to be a very interesting method of giving the player an understanding of the antagonist. This environment is a reflection of Ganon's heart and thus, you are basically walking through the mind of the villain during your quest in his kingdom. Fittingly, it is not over-the-top and completely demonic and horrifying. After all, Ganondorf may be evil but he's not a psychopath or Satan's spawn or anything. The Dark World is an appropriately dark, harsh, twisted, sick and diseased version of Hyrule. It's really telling of Ganon's nature when you are inside the Dark Palace and you see all the statues of his pig-like form grasping the Triforce. It's self-aggrandizing but also accepting of his true nature, and I like the idea that Ganon does not resist the change of form that he and the Golden Land underwent. Your prolonged stay in this nightmare really draws you further into the world and mythos of Hyrule, and (although I love the Ocarina of Time to death) delivers an experience that I would argue is more dark and disturbing then that offered by any of its successors.
2. The Demise of Nosgoth - Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver
Although some of the games have found commercial success, the Legacy of Kain series seems to have only reached cult classic status as a whole. However, I count myself as a member of the cult, so the majority of you who haven't experienced these games will just have to take my word for it. The feel of Nosgoth in Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is truly like no other. The background to the story is that Kain chose to plunge the world into darkness at the end of the previous game and began an empire of vampires that ruled Nosgoth for a thousand years. During this time human civilization had been completely obliterated and most populations had been enslaved for food. However, this is not where the game begins. Oh no. You begin playing as Raziel, the resurrected specter of one of Kain's lieutenants, centuries after Kain's empire began to decline. In other words, things aren't going right for anybody. Humans, vampires and animals are all pretty much doomed. Since the fall of the empire, the humans have regained some strength and have built a solitary fortress from which they attack the languishing vampires. However, it's simply too late.
Wandering alone in a ruined and decayed land sparsely populated by mutated and decrepit vampires scavenging for food on a violent and mindless quest for vengeance is a uniquely lonely, perverse and enjoyable experience. Like in the Zelda games, the world is filled with structures and ruins that give a feeling of depth, history and richness to the environments. It's especially great when you meet the bosses, the freakishly deformed and often insane vampire brethren of Raziel. His conversations with them only serve to heighten your feelings of foreboding as you hear the boasts, curses and lamentations of Nosgoth's vampiric masters, twisted in mind and body by the ravages of time and isolation. Your experiences are also punctuated by your meetings with Kain, whose calmness, clarity and acceptance of the situation make things even more creepy. As an unmoving centre to this spiral of madness, I honestly didn't know if he was either supremely enlightened or the most insane of all of Nosgoth's denizens. If you play the other games in the series you get a sense for how Nosgoth's dark history has inexorably led it to this end, which only gives the sense of corruption more depth . In the words of Ariel: “Ghastly past. Insufferable future. Are they one and the same?”
I won't lie, I almost created this list for the sole purpose of putting Nosgoth and the ruined world of Final Fantasy VI at the top of it. One of the most powerful aspects of the World of Ruin is that the cataclysm happens during the progress of the game. At a point that gamers understandably assumed to be the climax, the true antagonist was revealed, the quest was failed and the world was plunged into chaos. The world has been utterly reshaped by the cataclysm: the location of most cities and landmarks have shifted with many areas completely destroyed or missing, and new geographical formations being raised. All plants, water and land have taken on a sickly hue and it is much more difficult for the planet to support life. However, the full gravity of what has happened doesn't hit you until you play for a few more hours and see how Kefka's actions have affected (or killed) every single person you had ever met in the game. Finally, at some point it occurs to you: this is it. There is no going back and there is no chance of the world being fully healed (at least not during the course of the game or the lifetimes of the characters). The only thing left to do is pick up the pieces and try to do the best you can in this sad state of affairs.
Unlike Zelda's Dark World, the ruined world is not some alternate dimension you can escape from. It is also not some horrible future that can be prevented. Nor is it like Nosgoth or the world of Fallout where the state of decay is immediately accepted because it is all the player knows. The only thing that I find to be close is the world of Xenogears when things get totally destroyed and virtually everybody on the planet is cannibalized to feed the resurrection of a god. But here, the ruin was more of an apocalypse. It happens towards the end and is part of the game's conclusion. Xenogears is awesome but it does not force you to live in the aftermath and go about your business, making you long for the return of a time and place that will never be again. Final Fantasy VI does exactly that. Moreover, it is the resolve that the protagonists find, to keep going in this world of ruin, that defines them as truly heroic.