The biggest video games tend to fall into one of a few different genres: there are the huge fantasy epics, and the vast sci-fi universes. Over the past few years the medium has also become inundated with a deluge of post-apocalyptic titles showing a vision of the end of the world (usually with lots of zombies). But at E3 in Los Angeles this year, some of the most exciting titles on display have found a new playground to explore: worlds where once-great ancient civilizations leave behind destruction and mystery in their wake. Dilapidated ruins might just be the hottest thing in video games.
By far the biggest example of this is the new Legend of Zelda, now known as Breath of the Wild. Like virtually every game in the series, it takes place in the land of Hyrule, and stars Link, a would-be hero who starts out with little more than a stick and the clothes on his back. But this new version of Hyrule is different — instead of a magical fantasy realm, it's a completely ruined place, one where the shells of lumbering, magical machines litter the landscape. From the earliest moments of the game you're confronted with mysterious devices of unknown origin (the game opens with Link awakening in some sort of dark chamber that almost has a sci-fi feel) and as soon as you venture out into the world you'll start spotting ancient ruins that hint at a once great empire. There are no friendly towns to take refuge in like in past games — this is Hyrule well past its prime, with lots to unearth.
Breath of the Wild is joined by one of Sony's biggest PlayStation 4 titles for next year, Horizon Zero Dawn. At first glance, the setting of the game is hard to place. It looks like a mashup of prehistoric Earth and some kind of weird, Transformers-style sci-fi where dinosaurs are also robots. According to developer Guerrilla Games, the studio behind the long-running Killzone series of shooters, Horizon takes place 1,000 years into the future, and it's described as having a "very rich robot ecosystem." You take on the role of Aloy, a bounty hunter with a bow and arrow and — you guessed it — a mysterious past. Horizon's world is one full of superstition; when the mechanical creatures start acting violent and erratic, people pray to a goddess to make things right. Aloy, on the other hand, wants to find out the truth — and that truth also includes just what happened to the world over the previous thousand years.
It's not just blockbuster games that are going this route, though. Absolver, an exciting new fighting game from a small team of former Ubisoft developers, also takes place in a world where virtually everything is a relic from years past. The game itself lets you team up with or against other players in hand-to-hand combat, and it features a surprisingly robust and complex fighting system, with real-world stances and combat styles. It also takes place in an open online world, where you look to join the ranks of the titular absolvers, sworn protectors of what remains of a formerly opulent empire. According to developer Sloclap, "players will wander these forsaken lands and encounter other prospects online in order to learn their place in this world and eventually become absolvers." It's not the kind of game that bombards you with backstory, but instead builds its narrative slowly as you explore the quiet, desolate world.
It's unlikely that classic genres will be going away anytime soon; this year's E3 was still full of spaceships, magic spells, and hordes of the undead. But that just makes these three games, which take a quieter, more solemn approach to world building, stand out even more. This kind of setting can make a somewhat stale formula like Zelda feel fresh again, while also creating new worlds that feel exciting and new. They're the kinds of places you want to explore because you don't really know what's waiting for you — aside from an ancient mystery.