The "nightclub level" — every game has one. From the rough and ready Grand Theft Auto series to the cartoonish Psyconaughts, to even the warfare of Call of Duty. It's difficult to avoid the classic trope of pushing your character through a debaucherous smoky dancefloor to hunt down some ne'er-do-well. Nightclubs are a great mechanic in the gaming world - requiring minimal set dressing and character animation. Designers can get away with putting the player in a big, wide-open space full of nooks and crannies to explore, and a harsh overbearing bass can remove the need for spoken dialogue.
However, some nightclubs in games go the extra mile - with levels that will have you ready to boot your controller out of the window and get yourself down to your local dancefloor to catch the real deal. So immersive and fantastical that you'll be thinking about them long after you've completed your mission objectives.
Not limited by real-world problems that impact our night spaces — such as developers, lack of financial support or, you know, physics — game nightclubs can be completely off the wall, coming in the form of a massive blimp in the sky, a bee-themed club frequented by cyborgs or a club that specialises in allowing you to relive others good memories.
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The thing is, with nightclubs in games, sometimes they are pretty bad. To the point where you're wondering if the game developer has even been in a real nightclub, bad. Instead apparently basing their knowledge of what a dancefloor should look like on that scene in the Dark Knight where Batman punches up the patrons of Ministry of Sound. For some reason, everyone seems to be sitting down in a VIP area, unmoving, bathed in aggressive strobes.
Not this bunch. We've compiled a selection of fictional nightlife spaces that made us yearn for the dancefloor - whether that be in lockdown or before we had even been inside a club. Venues that we desperately wish were real, and some that remind us eerily of the real thing.
Mass Effect 2 — "The Afterlife"
Look, in the Mass Effect series, we love going to the club. From the Citadel's neon-tinted Dark Star Lounge to the drum 'n' bass stylings and Panorama Bar-esque shutters of the Tartarus in Mass Effect Andromeda - there's a solid selection of out-of-this-world dancefloor options for your character to lose themselves within. But, ask any fan which one they'd be willing to travel to the other side of the Milky Way to visit... it would have to be the Afterlife club from Mass Effect 2.
Set within in the mined out husk of an asteroid, Afterlife is the watering hole of choice for the shadier of the galaxy's inhabitants. The venue space is tinged in red light emanating from a massive central hologram 'tube' - like a hedonistic Hadron Collider. While the entrance has a queue of eager humans and aliens alike begging the bouncer to be allowed in, and a hall flanked by actual flames. The music bounces between electronic genres, particularly 'Techno Madness' - a track that spans electro, drum 'n' bass and trance - created by the game's composer Jesse James Allen, so beloved by fans that it's inspired several remixes.
The reason Afterlife is so great is because it pays homage to all of those Sci-Fi club tropes we have loved so much: reminiscent of movies like Star Wars, Blade Runner, Tron, Total Recall - what we hope every nightclub will be like in the future.
Grand Theft Auto 4 — "Hercules"
GTA developer Rockstar's dedication to creating true-to-life, gritty nightlife spaces is pretty unparalleled in the gaming world. I mean, Moodymann and Palms Trax are canon characters in the series for crying out loud, Joy Orbison has his own in-game radio station, and The Black Madonna, Solomun, Dixon and Tale of Us were all introduced as part of the After Hours update in 2018. GTA has not only been at the forefront of promoting underground music culture to the gaming world, but it's also arguably at the forefront of the popularisation of underground music as a whole.
So with hundreds of unique nightclubs in the series to choose from, endless updates to GTA Online with an intimate knowledge of all of our favourite DJs, why have we chosen Hercules? A basement gay bar from GTA 4? Because it's the one we all wanted to go to — duh! Situated in northern Liberty City, Hercules is described as "a slice of Olympus here on Earth," inviting patrons to "dance with the gods while Rome is burning." Approaching the club from the street in the game you can hear pumping disco - 24-hours a day, 7 days a week, with classics such as 'Disco Inferno', 'Everybody Dance', 'I Need You' and 'Young Hearts Run Free' blasting over the soundsystem. Combined with its muscular shirtless bouncer and free drinks, it's a surprisingly heartwarming experience from the crime simulator series.
Considering the graphical limitations on the PS3 and Xbox 360 at the time of the game's release the crowd in the club is animated in such a realistic way - groups clump together by the speakers, the clientele peel themselves away wiping the sweat from their brows to get to the bar. A reason for this realism could be that Hercules is based on a real gay bar - Julius' in New York City, a historic LGBT spot that served as a hub of the "sip in" resistance movement - years before Stonewall. Hercules harks back to a bygone era of NYC clubbing - a place of zero frills and joyful after-hours partying, and we love it!
Just Cause 2 — "The Mile High Club"
Not sure about you, but the ability to base drop onto an airship nightclub that's riding above the clouds is the reason we play video games in the first place. So if only for its devotion to being ludicrous, Just Cause 2's Mile High Club deserves a place on this list.
The aforementioned airship floats above the fictional East Asian country of Panau in the second instalment of the Just Cause series. You play as Rico Rodriguez, a rugged freedom fighter as he works to overthrow the country's greedy and zealous President Panay - whose crimes vary from torture and murder to syphoning off public money for his passion projects. One of these projects is The Mile High Club - a giant airship supported by two blimps that serves as a haunt for wealthy tourists.
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Jumping from a military-grade jet is the only way to reach it, but it's easily identifiable, in part due to the slamming techno you can hear from a kilometre away. For 2022 standards, the club isn't particularly graphically appealing — Just Cause 2 was released 12 years ago and it hasn't aged well. There are very few NPCs onboard apart from some "dancing girls" and it's basically some white walls and a couple of bars. But also, it's a nightclub in the SKY! The Mile High Club was such a fan favourite that there are numerous easter eggs throughout the series - from an underwater wreck in Just Cause 3 to a mountaintop version that plays Coldplay trap remixes (sigh) in Just Cause 4.
Yakuza 0 — "Maharaja"
It's difficult to describe the Yakuza series to those who may not have come across it but to contextualise: You, a hardened member of an infamous Japanese Yakuza gang, will spend a great deal of time playing mini-games such as toy car racing, karaoke, visiting cat cafes, fishing, disco dancing and running a real estate empire. There are several nightclubs in the 7-game series, and even a dedicated club management side activity, but one of the best has to be the Maharaja in Yakuza 0. The game is a prequel to the rest of the series, set in the '80s tech boom of Japan, you take control of two protagonists - Tokyo-based Kazuma Kiryu and Osaka-based Goro Majima.
The Maharaja is located in the Shinjuku red-light district of Tokyo and mostly plays host to the disco dancing mini-game but is a wonder to behold in unto itself. Packed to the brim with young people regardless of what time you visit, the Maharaja feels like it's calling back to the kitsch, over-the-top disco clubs of the era, every surface in the Maraja is either gold, a twinkling colourful light or a mirror. The multicoloured, shining dancefloor has become so iconic that someone even recreated it in Animal Crossing.
One of Maharaja's finest moments comes in the mission Miracle in Maharaja as Kiryu overhears a "western culture enthusiast" tell an "American fanboy" that missing superstar "Miracle Johnson" is dancing at the Kabukichō nightspot. The superstar in question is a Michael Jackson-like figure who challenges Kiryu to a thrilling 10-minute long dance battle that it is impossible to win - but as a consolation prize, he agrees to join your real estate business as an advisor. Never change Yakuza.
Hitman 3 — "Club Hölle"
Whether you'd like to invite the comparison or not, there's a striking similarity between Hitman 3's Club Hölle (Club Hell) and a certain Kreuzberg former power station - even down to having its own Sven Marquardt. For the uninitiated, Hitman follows titular man-for-hire Agent 47 as he traverses the kind of glamorous, exotic locations that would have James Bond checking his Avios balance. Each level "location" is filled-to-the-brim with detail - think Bollywood sets in Mumbai, the lazy tranquillity of the Amalfi Coast or surfaces drenched in gold at the Burj Khalifa. So for Hitman 3's Berlin level, Danish developer IO Interactive looked to a local staple for inspiration: massive post-industrial techno raves.
The level consists of a wide area around a former nuclear power plant - complete with a never-ending queue outside full of eager (and pretty moody) hordes trying to get through the door. The 'main room' of the club is similarly laid out to Berghain - a huge concrete expanse broken up with square pillars a trio of DJs dressed in eerie masks and boiler suits waving from the other side. But the architecture is just half of it. What IO nails are those little details: there's a guy outside asking you to smuggle in pills for him, there's an oiled up reveller in a speedo moving amid the crowd - even the sounds of birds chirping at the far end of the smoking area, reminding you that despite the dark intensity of the club its actually morning.
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Club Hölle isn't a carbon copy of 'bergs, clearly drawing on a multitude of influences like Griessmuehle, Sisyphos and Watergate - and the music and aesthetic are way off, failing to capture the fetish and goth of the city's crowds. But what it does get right is the sense you get in those spaces - being in a club so big you can get lost within it, completely removed from the outside world and reality. Considering the game dropped in January 2021, when we'd been parted from our beloved dancefloors for 10 months, we're sure there were more than a few players hearts-set-a-flutter as they made their way through this level.
Call Of Duty Black Ops 2 — "Club Solar"
Sometimes you find video game nightclubs that, despite all the carnage occurring within them, force you to take stock for a second and acknowledge that if this place existed IRL — we would 100% want to go. Solar Club in Call of Duty Black Ops 2 is one of those nightclubs. The club is part of the single-player campaign mission "Karma", set 2025 in throwes of the Second Cold War, your character David Mason must infiltrate the glamorous floating island of Colossus - including night spot Solar.
Lovingly dubbed "the dubstep level" by Black Ops fans - Solar is soundtracked with an extended cut of Skrillex's 'Try It Out (Try Harder Mix)' reworked for the game by the US producer himself. Everything goes to hell quite quickly, of course — with armed mercenaries turning on the dancefloor crowd and shooting up the place. But for the 90 or so seconds you spend in Solar before that, there is a moment of optimism where we considered: "Wow maybe there will be massive superclubs playing exclusively dubstep in 2025?" Props to developers Activision for capturing the darkness and solemnity that being in the shadows of a nightclub can give you - it's difficult to see the NPCs until the room is basked in aggressive strobe lights that almost completely change your perception of the level itself.
Cyberpunk 2077 — "Lizzie’s Bar"
Due to Cyberpunk 2077's disastrous launch in November 2020, and the fact that many players without a next-gen console are still unable to boot it up, much of developer CD Projekt's impressive world-building in the dystopian Night City is yet to have been properly spotlighted.
Due to the gam being plagued with game-breaking bugs, unfinished mechanics and some players even criticising how unchallenging it was - there was little time to talk about how incredibly rad all the futuristic nightlife spaces are that are tucked within the game. It's a real shame then, that so few players have managed to visit Lizzie's bar, a neon-tinged former strip club in the open-world city's Watson District. Open from 6:PM to 6:AM, Lizzie's boasts a huge dancefloor set around a series of hot tubs, graffiti murals covering the walls and "high-quality braindances" - a type of VR that exists in the Cyberpunk 2077 world that allows you to relive others pleasurable memories.
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But also, this is a club run by the Moxes — an all-female gang of former prostitutes with a mission to protect "working girls and guys" from abuse, violently tackling any brutality they witness throughout the city. With the Moxes around maybe, the future won't be so bad after all!
Deus Ex: Human Revolution — "The Hive"
Look, we all love a theme. In the real world, it's probably quite difficult for a club to be based around an animal or a foodstuff — or both, but not in Deus Ex: Human Revolution where a doorman can demand 1000 credits to get into the bee-themed nightspot of The Hive.
Coming from the third instalment of the much-praised Deus Ex series, the action/RPG follows cyborg Adam Jensen in the far off future of 2027, as controversial human augmentations become the norm and a shadowy organisation threatens the safety of the organisations producing them. As part of Jensen's mission to uncover the truth behind the elusive secret society, he must travel to the members-only club The Hive on the island of Hengsha.
The club is strongly-themed around honey bees with a hexagonal design (and architecture) with honey-tinted lasers bathing the room in a yellow glow. The Hive has a wicked soundtrack and a badass robot-armed owner/bartender - with tonnes of bars and rooms for the thirsty cyborg to explore. Will we be heading to Hive in five years time, apparently, you better bee-lieve.
Psychonaughts — "Millas Dance Party"
You know before when we mentioned those far-out possibilities that video game nightclubs can have? well, it doesn't get more mind-bending than a club inside someone's brain right? Enter Milla's Dance Party from Psychonauts.
The 2005 original Xbox game follows Raz, a spy with a unique gift for being able to enter peoples minds and through various means helps them overcome traumatic memories of their past. The game's levels are based around the "mind" that Raz is inhabiting's personality - such as the conspiracy-theory heavy brain of security guard Boyd Cooper or the underwater world of Linda, a fish. The fun-loving Milla Vodello's mind is one big nightclub - complete with dancing platforms, multicoloured dancefloors and a groovy disco soundtrack.
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So what is it about Millas Dance Party that we would get our psychonaut license just to be able to visit ourselves? It's the strobes on every surface, the pyramid dancefloor that rises and falls à la the Daft Punk's 'Around The World' video, not to mention the platform balancing on a giant disco boot. There are levitating speakers that dancers can climb aboard and zoom around for extra vantage and any surface that doesn't somehow emit bubbles - you guessed it, there's a lava lamp on it. We hope the party in our minds have this much finesse!
Megan Townsend is Mixmag's Deputy Digital Editor, follow her on Twitter