Few places in the US are shrouded in as much cultural mythology as California. It's even in the state's nickname – the Golden State – which carries a promise of riches, beauty, and abundance. All of that cultural baggage makes California an ideal setting for a video game, since it offers so much material for developers to work with.
They can play those mythologies straight or subvert them with an underlying darkness; they can create alternate histories built around the state's rocky political history and unique cultural signifiers; or they can just portray the blazing, sun-drunk dizziness of living in one of the most agriculturally fertile places in the world. But which games set in California are truly the cream of the crop?
10 Cyberpunk 2077
You've definitely heard of this game. Cyberpunk 2077 is set in the fictional Night City, a megacity located somewhere in between Los Angeles and San Francisco. In the game's dystopian future, the cultural division between northern and southern California has given rise to a political split, and Night City is geographically part of the state of North California.
In practice, though, the city operates independently. It's all rather complicated – the point is that Night City is a no-man's land occupied by millions of people, out on the edge of the continental United States. It's a cool setting that plays into California's unique history, equal parts Blade Runner and Grand Theft Auto. Though the game didn't quite live up to expectations, it's still a good time if you meet it on its terms.
9 L.A. Noire
L.A. Noire is – surprise, surprise – set in Los Angeles in 1947, during the height of the film noir era. The game was hailed upon release for its cinematic commitment to realism, using state-of-the-art motion capture technology for its animations. Its plot references one of the most notorious crimes of the era, the Black Dahlia murder, which came to symbolize the danger and corruption lurking in Hollywood.
L.A. Noire's commitment to time and place even extends to its soundtrack, which features licensed songs as well as original compositions inspired by films from the era. This cinematic inspiration paid off; L.A. Noire was the first game that was officially selected as a part of the Tribeca Film Festival.
8 Blade Runner
Of course, the idea of using noir tropes for a video game set in L.A. is nothing new; Blade Runner, a point-and-click adventure game based on Ridley Scott's sci-fi classic, did it way back in 1997. Heck, it even did California cyberpunk before Cyberpunk 2077!
Blade Runner was incredibly technologically advanced for its time, using a unique voxel-based engine to great effect. Even though it's over 20 years old, it's still one of the best voxel-based games out there. Fortunately, an enhanced port is currently in development for modern consoles.
7 Life Is Strange 2
The first Life is Strange was an unexpected hit, but received criticism for its occasionally simplistic writing. Life is Strange 2 goes a long way towards fixing that problem. Like its predecessor, the game follows normal people who discover that they have supernatural powers; here, a boy named Daniel Cruz discovers that he has telekinetic abilities after a police officer kills his father. You control his older brother, Sean, as the two go on the run down the West Coast, passing through California on their way to Mexico. The game sets itself apart from the first through the depth of its choice-driven storytelling, offering seven possible endings.
Which ending you get depends on the minor and major choices you make throughout the game and what those choices teach Daniel. Dontnod made the first episode of the game free last year, so there's never been a better time to experience its difficult dilemmas.
6 Hotel Dusk: Room 215
There's a running theme here of California-set games dealing with ideas of morality, crime, and life on the fringe, which makes sense for a state that exists at the edge of the country. Hotel Dusk: Room 215, an adventure game for the original DS, fits right in here. It takes place in the titular Hotel Dusk, a run-down motel on the outskirts of L.A. You play as Kyle Hyde, a former NYPD detective who left the force after a tragic incident and now works as a travelling salesman.
He arrives at the motel seeking his former partner but quickly realizes that there's something mysterious going on. The game uses the DS's features in a unique way – you hold the system sideways, like a book, and various puzzles ask you to close and reopen it like you're turning pages – and its novelistic story is unlike anything else on the handheld.
5 Driver: San Francisco
Driver: San Francisco is one of the more interesting, underappreciated games on this list. It's the fifth instalment in the long-running Driver series, set in a loosely fictionalized version of the San Francisco Bay Area; the game sees you speeding through the city's winding, hilly streets.
It does a good job of translating the freewheeling atmosphere of the city, mostly due to its bonkers "shifting" mechanic: as you race through the city, you can literally astral project into different passing cars to influence racing outcomes or get away from the police. This opens up a ton of possibilities for creative players. Unfortunately, Driver: San Francisco isn't available on digital storefronts, so you'll have to hunt for secondhand copies to experience it.
4 Watch Dogs 2
Of course, one of the biggest developments of modern-day San Francisco is the city's embrace of the tech industry, and all of the gentrification and cost-of-living increases that came with that. Watch Dogs 2, which finds the series in the sunny, winding streets of San Fran, rather than the first game's colder setting in Chicago, is a cool example of how games can engage with these ideas.
You play as Marcus Holloway, a young, talented hacker who's framed by a tech executive for crimes he didn't commit; as a result, you have to use your skills to clear your name. Though its plot engages with serious ideas, Watch Dogs 2 is goofier and more whimsical in tone, emphasizing San Francisco's traditionally weirdo-friendly character even as it engages with its more corporatized modern landscape.
3 Lollipop Chainsaw
On the goofier end of the spectrum, Lollipop Chainsaw is one of director Suda51's characteristically garish gorefests – and it's one of his best, too. You play as Juliet Starling, a popular cheerleader at the fictional San Romero High School in California. She's also the latest in a long line of zombie hunters, which is good since the town of San Romero is unfortunately in the midst of a zombie invasion.
It's not too far off from something like Buffy The Vampire Slayer, taking the ditzy California blonde stereotype and subverting it; but here, that subversion comes with a heaping side order of gore, sexuality, and decapitated heads.
2 Fallout: New Vegas
Though it suffered from a myriad of technical issues during its launch – partially due to its surprisingly short development cycle – Fallout: New Vegas has slowly grown in reputation over the years. It's a spinoff of the long-running Fallout series that takes place in and around the bombed-out Mojave Desert, tracing the various political conflicts between entities like the New California Republic and Caesar's Legion.
In series tradition, the game is an open-world RPG stuffed with optional content and opportunities for choice, and the rich, carefully crafted plot is a serious treat.
1 Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines
Like Fallout: New Vegas, Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines is sort of a technical disaster that disguises a game full of brilliant writing, thoughtful design, and deep, open-ended choices. It's set in a nocturnal version of L.A, casting you as a fledgling vampire who goes to work for the city's vampire prince. From there, the plot spirals into a few different directions based on the choices you make – the characters you ally with, the way you optimize your stats, and your actions during missions can all shift the endgame.
Bloodlines offered a depth and variety that was way beyond its contemporaries, and the cult following it's garnered over the years has been rewarded with a currently in-development sequel.
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