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Thriving Ghost Town

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Neighborhood just hasn't been the same since they opened that Weapon-Mart.

"There may be only five of us, but this is STILL a thriving kingdom!"
The King of the Dwarves, Final Fantasy V

Due to The Law of Conservation of Detail, towns and cities in video games appear much smaller than real-life ones, rarely having an observable population of more than a dozen or two, which is of course far smaller than any realistic level of economic sustainability.

The average country town may have a population of 5-15 — a big city, like the capital of a sprawling empire, may have as many as forty. Generally, these towns consist of fewer than ten distinct buildings, all of particular interest to the player; no sign of agriculture or professional tradesmen is outwardly visible. Similarly, approximately 90% of a city's observable population will either figure into the game's plot or just stand around and repeat one line.

A typical town the heroes find themselves in usually consists of the following: an Inn, a weapons/armor shop (the true metropolis may have a separate shop for each), a general store, a specialty shop relating to the game's magic system, one unique building that relates to the plot, and five or less houses. In extreme examples, only one shop of any kind is seen, and it only stocks items relevant to gameplay. With the exception of the Non Player Characters living in those houses, the remainder of the population is apparently homeless; some NPCs seem to exist for the sole purpose of talking to passers-by on the street.

In the earlier days of video games, this was a matter of data storage economy; every kilobyte was precious and couldn't be wasted on extraneous houses or people. Today this trope exists due to design limitations — creating realistically sized cities with hundreds and thousands of people, houses and streets would be a tremendous amount of work for both developers and the player's hardware, for very little gain. Not only that — due to the Talk to Everyone convention in CRPGs, players would feel compelled to actually go through all these houses and people in the hopes of finding or learning something useful.

Some games handwave this by implying that the town is much larger via expansive background images; our heroes, for whatever reason, are only visiting a small portion of it. Some modern games try to downplay this by adding numbers of generic or non-interactive pedestrians into city scenes, or buildings that the player cannot enter, to give the illusion of a larger populace and settlement. This also makes it a case of Notice This — if some house is visitable while the vast majority aren't, or some NPC looks unique and/or is given a name, it must have something of interest.

An example of Space Compression. See Ghost Town for towns that are actually abandoned. See also Overworld Not to Scale.


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    Action Adventure 
  • The Legend of Zelda:
    • Zelda II: The Adventure of Link tries to avert this by depicting towns with houses that serve no plot or game purpose and where Non Player Characters are constantly walking past you and off screen. Of course, there are still a small number of character sprites and most of the extra Non Player Characters just repeat the same generic dialogue.
    • While Clock Town in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask is relatively small, every character has a place to go at night, and you can in fact watch them walk home. This is largely done because of the "Groundhog Day" Loop mechanic. Justified in that aside from some stubborn business owners and government officials, most of the townsfolk have fled because the moon is falling.
    • The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess has several Thriving Ghost Town locations as well as several not-so-thriving towns which are nearly deserted. Castle Town, however, includes many random passersby who will ignore you. You can interact with them... if watching them scream, cower, and brandish weapons at Link's wolf form counts as interaction.
    • Continued in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword with Skyloft. Despite being the sole town in the game and the only remnant of Hylian civilization, it has just over three dozen residents and half as many buildings altogether. And even without performing any sidequests, the player will meet nearly every single character during the course of the game.
    • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom make efforts to justify this. The story takes place After the End, when a good chunk of Hyrule's population was massacred by Calamity Ganon. The villages that are still around each have about three dozen or so named NPCs living in them, with many more scattered across the wilderness.
  • Mimiga Village in Cave Story. The small population is justified in that the Big Bad had already kidnapped most of the Mimigas before the start of the game, but there's also a noticeably small number of houses, meaning either most of the Mimigas were homeless or their houses were perfectly destroyed.
  • Batman: Arkham Origins has the somewhat old part of Gotham, while in City it's justified as being essentially a prison camp with mostly nothing but criminals. In this game, the streets are mostly bare save for the criminals wandering around, despite the fact that the area of the city was still thriving at the time (because it's the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, when few people will be out and about if they can avoid it, even on years when the city isn't being hit by a massive blizzard).
  • The Borderlands series:
    • The town of Fyrestone in the first game, Borderlands, is described as having two dozen residents, despite having only one human inhabitant you actually see or hear. Midway through the game the NPC moves to another town, leaving the town seemingly abandoned.
    • Borderlands 2:
      • Sanctuary, the Crimson Raiders' home base and last bastion of resistance against Hyperion, has maybe thirty-five inhabitants, maybe a third of which are plot important and not just generic Non Player Characters.
      • Overlook is justified at first, as the inhabitant never go outside as the result of a strict Hyperion curfew and a quarantine enforced due to a mortal and contagious disease; however, the town seemingly only has two residents that you actually interact with, one of whom dies.
      • Opportunity is a deliberate example: it was built by personal order from Handsome Jack with the specific purpose of showing off his wealth and might, everything else about the infinite and multidisciplinary topic that is urban development be damned. At a first glance it looks like a shiny mini-metropolis made of perfectly polished glass and steel, bustling with advertisements, broadcast screens, tickers, attractions, office districts and shopping centers that could easily house more than 5000 people; but you just need to spend a few minutes in that place to find out it's all just a lie, it's deep down such a rotten place that Handsome Jack has to pay people to get them to settle, and its regular population is entirely made of forcibly assigned Hyperion security forces.
    • Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! and Borderlands 3 avert this for the allied base town by doing away with cities altogether: in the former game it's a spaceport, and in the latter game it's first a dingy shanty seized from the Children of the Vault and then a Global Airship.

    Adventure Game 
  • The old freeware adventure game Omega has a starting town that is pretty huge by the standards of its time, but the only people you see on the streets are guards; everyone else is conspicuously absent - unless you drop a few coins (where there's a sudden rush to pick up what you dropped), or do ritual magic (where you get coins from townsfolk.)
  • Quest for Glory is predominantly an aversion of the trope: although the first installment plays it mostly straight (the town isn't very large, but there are places you never go and people you never get to meet), the 2nd, 3rd, & 5th games are all bustling metropolises full of townsfolk passing through that have no bearing on your story (and don't speak your language). The 4th game subverts it, as Mordavia is not thriving in the least: its isolation & danger have rendered its town stagnant with its population dying. If it seems like there are too many houses in the background, it's only because it was a thriving town before it got cut off.

    First-Person Shooter 
  • The S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series takes place in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone where, in an alternate timeline, abandoned settlements that were made evident after the 1986 and 2006 disasters have devastated the area around them are now repopulated by adventurous explorers known eponymously as 'stalkers'. These settlements are used as camps and trading posts for these explorers in order to take a break from the dangerous undertakings they often have to put up with in the Zone. Usually the average population of a settlement rounds up to about less than two dozen, but depending on the frequency of traveling stalkers that pass through from time to time, that number can add up to about fifty or more as far as the total population count goes in the Zone.

  • World of Warcraft cleverly plays with this trope. Towns are nearly always too small, but cities have plenty of buildings. It's just that the developers didn't model the insides of a great many of those buildings and locked the doors shut. This has the added bonus of creating walls where the players aren't supposed to go, and giving Blizzard a place to add buildings—Stormwind's Auction House, or the barber shops, for example, were originally just those empty shell-buildings.
    • Those empty buildings make cities look bigger than they actually are, but they're still quite a bit smaller than the lore or storyline would suggest. A census by counting Non Player Characters would suggest that the population of Stormwind - the largest human city in the world - is probably around one to two hundred people, eighty percent of whom are guards. A census by counting houses and extrapolating from there, even assuming medieval population density, would suggest that the population is probably around two to four thousand, maybe as much as 10,000.
    • Echo Isles is supposed to be the home of most of the Darkspear Trolls, but ingame, it is only about four huts and several NPCs, most of them guards. Notably in the Real-Time Strategy game, Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne, the island and the civilization on it was far larger.
    • Many cities have bars in them, and the bars are always packed with drinkers - some provide quests but most are just patrons who also respawn.
    • Blizzard has also improved on this in the later expansions. Vanilla towns tend to only contain quest givers and merchants whereas towns in Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King contain tons of flavor characters, sometimes named, just to give the appearance of a populated town. Heading back from Northrend to the old world can make players very aware of this trope. Until, however, Cataclysm came out and upgraded the towns.
    • It also becomes obvious when looking at towns used as quest hubs and towns used as killing fields. Southshore, for example, is nearly empty compared to the nearby Hillsbrad Fields and Dun Garok, both of which contain quest mobs for horde players.
    • Highlighted by a particular quest late in Cataclysm. By this point, you're pretty used to the idea that the population you see is only representative of those who are working in the background and who aren't present due to the Law of Conservation of Detail. Then you get a quest to kill 1000 gnomes, probably more than all of the gnomes who exist anywhere else in the world combined.
    • Sometimes quests are removed from the game. However the characters that GIVE the quests or are in some way a part of the quest are not removed. Some of them are still shopkeepers and others have other quests to offer, but many become empty, but still named individuals wandering around or even just standing aimlessly outside empty buildings. Generally, a character that becomes "useless" in this manner isn't actually removed without good reason (i.e. for story purposes), or at least without a Lampshade Hanging or Hand Wave. If a character goes missing and it isn't explained, chances are that character will show up somewhere else.
  • Guild Wars zig-zags this. A couple places that are implied to be capitals or important towns actually look really really small. (Lion's Arch in particular) However, many of them have backgrounds that the player can't really access. Factions is probably the biggest aversion ever - Kaineng City takes up half the continent. While the Kurzick locations play this straight, it's actually a little more justified with the Luxon areas (Luxons are a bit more nomadic.)
    • Guild Wars 2 averts this. There are hundreds of NPCs just wandering the city streets that serve no purpose other than ambience, making it feel like it's truly alive. Notably, as well as those who just pass by to add to the atmosphere the cities have many named NPCs with no relevance to the player's quest who have their own individual designs and topics to discuss- their current crush, their missing brother, etc.- and you can overhear conversations between NPCs who have clear cut personalities.
    • All of the capital cities are bustling with people, but Divinity's Reach most of all. Understandable, since the vast majority of the human population are living there just to be safe from the many threats within their lands (most notably the centaurs).
  • Most of the Phantasy Star MMORPGs (namely Phantasy Star Online, Phantasy Star Universe, and Phantasy Star Online 2 play with the trope through the design of populated areas. While the accessible areas of a city, space station, or colony ship—and the number of NPCs to interact with—are comparable to that of a Thriving Ghost Town played straight, the skyline and other background scenery afforded clearly shows that players only have access to part of a much larger place. Special mention goes to Pioneer 2 in PSO, Clyez City and Holtes City in PSU, where airborne traffic regularly flies by overhead or in the distance.
    • Phantasy Star Universe averts the Gateless Ghetto with metrorail stations in a number of the visitable cities, even though players can only use them to get to areas of interest. PSU also attempts to give the impression of many more people walking through the accessible (and background) areas of visitable cities with generic NPCs wandering aimlessly. However, they are transparent, tinted a random color, and disappear when approached.

  • Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy: Sandover Village and Rock Village. The former is notable for having unique homes for every NPC the player meets in the starting set of levels... and nothing else. Not even Jak or Daxter get a home! It makes the Mayor's worries for reelection seem a bit odd (or even having a mayor at all), in a town of less than a dozen people. Rock Village, meanwhile, basically consists of a meeting hall and a bazaar awning, though the houses can be seen in the sides of the rock promontories.

    Real Time Strategy 
  • Unusually for a real time strategy game, Star Wars: Empire at War features small to sizable civilian populations and are interactive in that they'll either side with you and be controllable by the player, or side with the enemy, depending on that planet's pre-determined allegiance. Not only that, some of these units are capable of taking down tanks (Geonosians or Ewoks, for example) and if nothing else can make for very useful distractions or at minimum scouting (they respawn until their buildings are destroyed). Also, they can capture points, meaning you don't have to drop your own infantry.
  • Likewise, in Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2, large cities usually have a (sparse) civilian population spread throughout the city, which for the most part the player can't interact with beyond using them as target practice. In multiplayer, Soviets can mind control them with Yuri (and they have unique civilian soundbites when controlled), and wrap them in explosives with Ivan—-this even works on cattle. The expansion pack Yuri's Revenge expands the set of mind control units and provides a "grinder" building you can feed them to for resources. Soylent Tank is people.
  • Universe at War has a strange example. Most of the maps are fought in urban areas, but there are no civilians on the field. If you start to collect resources (buildings and stuff), people will start to run out. So they hide in houses, makes sense, but for some strange reason around 10-15 people live in one suburb house.
  • Total War plays this straight and averts it in some installments. During siege battles, there are no civilians to be seen, even in massive cities like Rome or London. It is later averted when Rome allowed the player to view cities in the battle map. They were filled with thousands of peasants milling around.
    • Played straight, however, in that while city sizes are at least above the threshold of sustainability (unlike most games), they're still ridiculously small for the cities in question, to provide better game balance and the possibility of a player actually upgrading a city within a reasonable amount of time. This is most notable in Rome, where the practical upper limit on population is ~36000; whereas in Real Life one of Rome's many advantages was its effectively infinite manpower compared to its rivals (the city itself having a population of roughly a million. In the ancient world.).
    • Total War: Attila manages to somewhat avert this by putting civilians on siege maps that flee from advancing armies or try to stand and fight. However, city sizes are still fairly small compared to real life, with the exception being a few in-game megalopolises like Constantinople or Rome.

  • One of your goals in Tainted Grail: Conquest is to rebuild your village by recruiting people to join it. The total population you can achieve: 8.

    Role-Playing Game 
  • Arcanum: Shrouded Hills is the first town in the game, and zigzags between being played straight and being a subversion. Played straight in that it has the usual junk merchant (one of the most-visited PCs in the game, as stealing his key means you can access his chest and repeatedly sell his own stuff and your own back to him until he runs out of money, not to mention selling magic items automatically identifies them), smith, general store, and magic store despite the source of income (the silver mine) drying up and being haunted, later subverted in that you can help restore the town's economy by removing the ghost. It also has a bank you can save from being robbed.
  • Several of the later Ultima games, Ultima VII in particular, have towns larger than the norm, where every NPC has a home they return to at night. Still, even the capital city of Britain has a population of fifty or so. The entire game clocks in at slightly over 100.
  • The Elder Scrolls series started out with averting this trope, but later titles play it straight. This goes hand in hand with the switch to Space Compression; the examples there have more information on that. To note by game:
    • Arena and Daggerfall thoroughly avert this trope. Both cover massive areas the size of real-world counties with countless villages, towns, and cities to visit. Each is a realistic size and have populations which justify their local economy. That said, virtually all of the locations and NPCs who aren't quest related are randomly or procedurally generated. Cities get repetitive and the vast majority of NPCs end up as virtual clones of one another.
    • Morrowind is the point where the series plays the trope straight along with being the first game in the series follow its Video Game 3D Leap, fully utilizing Space Compression. Bethesda did this on purpose to address criticisms of Daggerfall that, despite the sheer size of locations and cities, they don't have a whole lot of individuality or character to them. This results in stated-to-be-massive cities like Vivec being small with populations of barely 100, while smaller towns and villages end up with single digit populations. As Tropes Are Not Bad, the space compression allows for far greater content density while the smaller cities and lower populations prevent CPU resources from being wasted rendering superfluous buildings and tracking random NPCs.
    • Oblivion offers one of the most blatant examples in the series with the Imperial City. According to one interpretation of the series' lore, the Imperial City Isle is said to be the size of Great Britain. However, in-game, you can swim a lap around the entire island in about 20 real life minutes.
    • Skyrim:
      • Skyrim continues the series' trend of playing this straight. Towns with a believable population are reduced to shadows of their former selves thanks to the Space Compression. The way the world has shrunken down stands out when comparing locations featured in Arena to Skyrim, such as the town of Riverwood. In Arena it's a bustling town that contains 200 or 300 buildings, but in Skyrim it's a hamlet with seven houses.
      • Particularly noteworthy in Skyrim is the complete removal of about 4-5 small towns entirely from the world map, with 3 being just random inns along the road. This wouldn't be so notable if it wasn't for the fact that one of towns reduced to an inn was Old Hroldan, which was the site of a major battle that would be the start of The Empire (you know, the most dominant political faction in Tamriel). The game even mentions that Hroldan should be a town and calls attention to it with a quest due to its historical significance.
  • In Kingdom Hearts, Traverse Town and Twilight Town (both First Towns) have large numbers of random citizens irrelevant to the story; the other cities, however, are populated almost entirely by Disney licensed characters. But then again, the other cities are essentially town-shaped dungeons.
    • In Twilight Town, this makes sense, since they're replicas of the people in the real Twilight Town; when the simulation is interrupted, the literal NPCs disappear.
    • Although, by nature of them being large Dungeon Towns, this trope is handled slightly more tastefully - Twilight Town, Radiant Garden/Hollow Bastion and Traverse Town both have multiple districts, plenty of houses and (for Twilight Town only) modes of public transportation. There are enough homes (most of them unenterable) to qualify them as small settlements (with the population ranging in the hundreds or so), although the conspicuous lack of citizens is rather jarring. Perhaps they're all hiding from the Heartless and Nobodies?
    • Dungeon town or not, though, The World That Never Was probably has it worst to the point of being creepy. It has a huge metropolis, with giant skyscrapers that would put Tokyo to shame, ignited by constant electricity that should mean that the city is at least functioning...but no activity other than Heartless and Nobody-slaying is present, nay, the city doesn't even have a single citizen; all activities are instead centered on a giant floating castle populated by only 13-14 people who are not even normal humans, who get slaughtered one by one as the heroes make their way to the top. Its first appearance can be forgiven since it's the game's The Very Definitely Final Dungeon, but when it appears in 358/2 Days, it's treated as a hub, an empty hub, that is. While this can be handwaved by the fact that the world is located close to the Realm of Darkness meaning people come to live there at their own risk, that doesn't answer the question of why the city was built in the first place. Did Organization XIII construct it, but for what purpose, since they live in the castle anyway? And what's up with the constant electricity?
  • Mother
  • While Baldur's Gate definitely has less citizens than you'd expect, there are still a lot of people hanging around, a lot of houses are inhabited, and there are always a lot of people at the local pub. It's about a fiftieth the size of the pen-and-paper game's map of the city, but it's about the same shape and the landmarks are roughly in the right places.
    • There are many houses and doors around Athkatla that you can see, but not go in; those are handwaved by saying there's nothing of interest within. This actually works out in many cases: numerous Mods creating new shops or locations can take the 'useless' doors and tag them to the new custom content. With enough mods on deck, Athkatla can go from a busy place, something that would be time-consuming to fully explore, to downright overwhelming.
  • Neverwinter Nights 2 gives the eponymous city only a few guards and peasants but has an NPC count accurate to the official count of the city; oddly, they all seem to be guards or thieves that get slaughtered en masse by the PC! Discounting the poor encounter design, this is played straight.
  • In Gothic, you visit three prison camps rather than actual cities. The smallest one is the Swamp Camp with over 80 people inside, and the biggest one is the Old Camp with over 130 people, not counting over 60 people working in the Old Mine but also belonging to the Old Camp. Gothic II isn't as realistic, with the actual city not being much more populated than the camps, and Gothic III is a good example of this trope.
  • The Dragonriders of Pern game for the Dreamcast has an example that can only be attributable to actual ghosts: in one town, you enter a vast chamber with thick stone walls, and few entrances or exits. There are perhaps a half dozen people or so milling around a space the size of a convention center, and judging from the soundtrack, those people are able to completely fill the space with the sound of hustle and bustle and conversation. If you revisit the chamber later on, you'll discover it's still filled with the sounds of countless people shuffling about and chatting together, even though the room is now completely empty.
  • Jay's Journey mostly has houses with locked doors, but the only actual house (as opposed to shop) in one town belongs to the Ms. Fanservice playable character... the Unfortunate Implications of which are not left unremarked.
  • Dragon Age: Origins: Zig-zagged. Denerim and Amaranthine are implied to be much larger than you actually show. It also helps that Denerim is so big that it requires its own map screen, and you don't explore every inch of the city, only the parts that are relevant. Likewise, Orzrammar does not have a map screen like Denerim, but it's implied that the action is just that close together, plus it looks a bit like they might have been tiered. Justified with the Dalish "towns" because it's a nomadic camp. However played entirely straight with Redcliffe and Lothering.
  • Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines is rather obvious about this. True, there are substantial numbers of buildings in all the main hubs (a large proportion of which can be entered) and numerous NPCs walking around, and various distant, inaccessible areas are occasionally seen, but the game is still asking you to believe that Santa Monica consists of three streets.
  • Tales of Xillia: Most of the Tales series tends to play it straight, but Tales of Xillia averts it for the most part. Every individual area of a town or city usually has as many as a couple dozen or so NPCs milling around that the player is unable to interact with, in addition to the 5 or 6 that they are able to. Most of the cities in the game large enough to have a massive population go with the "lots of buildings in the distance that the player can't reach" model as well. Still, the marketplaces and such of cities tend to have much less people around than you'd expect.
  • Fallout:
    • Fallout actually featured some semi-notable aversions of this—visit Shady Sands, and you see farmland, wells, and all sorts of things you'd expect of a somewhat thriving village. On the other hand, Vault 13 has a population scarcely cracking double digits.
    • Fallout 2 is unique in that it has an in-game document that gives realistic estimates of towns' populations, with most being in hundreds and the biggest reaching thousands. The exception was Vault City at 103. 103 citizens, that is (there's a non-citizen slave population that lives in the slums and outskirts). It justified the relatively small towns you see by making it clear you were only visiting a small area of most of them. The exception is, again, Vault City; the in-universe map indicates that the part you see is all of it, which is actually consistent with the 103 population.
    • Fallout 3 justifies this in that all of the towns you find are, in fact, ghost towns. They're just abandoned ruins of old decaying buildings that a handful of people manage to scrape by in. Usually there are about one or two houses, as with only a few limited guards and resources, there can only be so many capable of living in the area. Still, the populations of the settlements seem unrealistically small- Megaton, for instance, is supposed to be a major settlement and trade hub, yet its in-game population is barely 50. It's clear that the populations and sizes are compressed for technical reasons.
    • Fallout: New Vegas has Primm and Novac, which appear to rely entirely on small local farms and traders passing through just to feed the dozen or so inhabitants. Exaggerated after one update removed a large portion of the game's unnamed NPCs (to keep the game cache small when the DLC packs were added). Towns and military bases ended up being almost completely empty. This gets pretty comical sometimes: for example, when the NCR President arrives to give a speech to a crowd of four soldiers, two of which are assassins in disguise. Mods exist to reverse this.
  • Final Fantasy:
    • While most games play this straight, Final Fantasy XII averts it. The main city is big, with lots of people milling about. It displays why this trope can be a good thing, though, as if you want to Talk to Everyone, you need to use your minimap to find NPCs you can actually talk to.
    • Final Fantasy XIII averts this by simply not having any towns you can go to.
    • Final Fantasy Dimensions apparently has a Thriving Ghost Empire. Avalon is a technologically and militarily advanced empire, and as such you would expect several major cities in its territory, and yet when you obtain the airship and fly over Avalon's territory, it is devoid of any organized settlements apart from the castle. This is justified in that when the world became whole again, some pieces went missing, including all of Avalon's cities.
    • Final Fantasy XIV mostly averts this by having NPCs wandering around or doing things that you just can't interact with, but plays it straight in Mor Dhona, the last hub area in the game. Every NPC is a merchant or otherwise interactable, usually give you end-game quests and content for level 50 characters. However, because it's where the end-game quests and content for level 50 characters are, there are always a large number players milling around, even after the release of the additional expansion packs moved the end game areas to other locations entirely.
  • Breath of Death VII, aside from typical underdeveloped JRPG villagesnote , also features two dungeons set in Ruins of the Modern Age, which are quite expansive (especially the second one).
  • Mass Effect: Although the Citadel has a lot of people for a video game hub, and you only visit a small section, the Lore Codex specifically mentions it being extremely crowded "akin to Earth cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore", which is not at all what you witness in the quite uncongested corridors.
  • Xenogears handles this in an interesting way. While the trope is played straight with small towns like Lahan and Dazil, larger cities, like Nisan, Bledavik, and Norturne, have their own overworld-style maps, indicating that the cities are realistically-sized, but only certain sections have anything of interest to the party.
  • The world of Undertale appears to house 12,000 monsters at the very least, if the fight with Mettaton EX is anything to go by. It goes without saying that you'll only see a tiny, tiny fraction of them. Even in a No Mercy run where the goal is to kill literally everyone, you'll off less than 1% of the population during gameplay.
  • Mostly averted in The Witcher 3 with the large city of Novigrad being large enough for a player to get lost in and many extraneous NPCs walking around Oxenfurt and many small villages. Still played straight in the Skellige Isles, where every individual isle is supposed to have its own ruling clan with a distinct identity, who are able to man several longships full of experienced warriors. Apart from the main isle, all the others are absolutely minuscule and only contain one, tiny village, each, with maybe a couple of dozen people.
  • The World Ends with You uses faceless masses to avert this by having the player be a literal ghost, explaining why you can't interact with most people on the street, only with Reapers, designated shopkeepers, and the small number of people playing the game. It also sets the entire game in just one neighborhood, making the scale a bit more credible.
  • Pokémon: Most towns and cities tend to have rather scant populations. Even cities noted for being large have populations at most comparable to small real-life towns — Lumiose City, the largest settlement in the games, has only 416 inhabitants (for quick comparison, Paris, Lumiose's real life counterpart, has a population of around 2 million in the city proper). Some particularly extreme examples include Lavaridge Town and Ever Grande City in Hoenn: the first consists of a Gym, a Poké Mart, a Pokémon Center and a herb shop alongside a single residential house, which combined with its rather out-of-the-way location raises questions about where the stores find enough business to stay afloat; the second consist of nothing besides the Pokémon League and a Pokémon Center. Likewise, most starting towns rarely have more than ten inhabitants. In contrast, the anime depicts cities more realistically.
  • Persona 5, Shin Megami Tensei V, Tokyo Mirage Sessions ♯FE, and Akiba's Beat avert this by using monochromatic faceless mobs to fill the illusion of their metropolitan Japanese city settings (literally Tokyo for two of them) be full of life and people. Characters you could interact with have actual character designs.
    • The previous Akiba's simply filled the locations with a variety of looping NPCs, all of whom could be fought.
  • Divinity: Original Sin II: The Arx — one of Rivellon's great cities and the capital of the Divine Order — has a grand total of seven homes, four public buildings, and a few market stalls in the city proper, plus a harbour and guardhouse outside.
  • Justified in Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne - the world has literally ended, so the majority of people you meet are literal ghosts. Otherwise, the areas are populated by demons. Why aren't they on the map? Well, who do you think you're fighting in the random encounters? (SMT demons have long held to a Might Makes Right philosophy, so it's entirely sensible for them to be jumping you every few minutes as you're passing through town.)

    Simulation Game 
  • Traffic Giant gives you cities with many buildings and thousands of inhabitants, and individually keeps track of each one.
  • Most of the games in both the Harvest Moon and Spin-Off Rune Factory series tend to have the player settle into one of these. Island of Happiness and Rune Factory 3 are major exceptions: IoH has multiple Non Player Characters move to the island and RF3 has NPCs moving in and out of Sharance Village all the time; visiting, shopping or just travelling through.
    • Hometown Story downplays this. The town clocks at 100 inhabitants at 100% Completion, and has the same set of businesses as the Harvest Moon games, but somehow manages to make a living for not only one but two blacksmith shops, one of which is run by a pair of twins.
  • It almost goes without saying that Dwarf Fortress averts this one pretty thoroughly.
    • In Dwarf Mode, a city of two hundred individuals isn't exactly gigantic, as the game considers them to be (kings will usually start arriving around that time), but definitely much better than most in this page. Nations also have thousands upon thousands of citizens, further averting (or at least downplaying) this trope.
    • In its world-generation logic, the game both works around and invokes this trope by having a few "historical" figures of note worth tracking (who will actually appear when you play) plus a much larger population of generic people represented only by numbers, which the game uses to generate historical figures as necessary. The transition to an actual world only leaves the historical figures, so if you look too closely and do the math you'll realize there still aren't enough people in the cities, but the numbers are much higher than typical for the genre.
  • Rimworld averts it even harder than its inspiration Dwarf Fortress mentioned above. For starters, almost all settlements on the planet are small, self-sufficient colonies of between one and two dozen people, each of which phyiscally exists as a unique individual who lives in one of the buildings on the map, has at least one assigned job, and can be interacted with (usually through combat). Each colony belongs to one of about a dozen factions spread out across the world. Friendly or neutral factions trade between each other, with their caravans again being sensibly sized groups of pawns one can interact with, so there's definitely a working economy in play. And that is just the base game. Mods exist that spawn entire cities with dozens of buildings that can be entered, raided or destroyed, and because the number of pawns on the map scales with your colony's wealth, these cities can easily be populated by hundreds of pawns, to the point that the engine can get into real trouble rendering them all.
  • The population of your town in the Animal Crossing games is not nearly high enough to justify all of the buildings in it. To whit: In New Leaf, your fully-upgraded town contains a town hall, a general store (which eventually becomes a department store), a used-items store, a home-renovation store, a home showcase, a post office, a clothing store, a hair salon, a shoe store, a café, a nightclub, a photo booth, a Dream Suite, a fortune teller, a police station, a campground, and a museum which can potentially be filled with numerous priceless artifacts. The maximum population of this town? 14.note 
  • An extreme example here in Cities: Skylines.
  • Stardew Valley, much like its inspiration Harvest Moon, is set in one of these. About 30 Non Player Characters reside in the area designated as "Pelican Town", the primary settlement in the valley, and there are perhaps three dozen (human) inhabitants in the entire valley.
  • Played totally straight in PowerWash Simulator. Although the city of Muckingham seems to be doing quite well, the only person you'll ever get to see is your Player Character, and even that only in the ten-seconds time lapse shown upon completing any job. Your clients only exist as ghosts that send you text messages, and the rest of the populace doesn't even get an honorable mention.

    Wide Open Sandbox 
  • A typical village generated in a Minecraft world generally consists of a few buildings and a dozen NPCs. Not that this stops players from expanding them, or building their own.
  • In Terraria, a world can have a maximum of twenty-five friendly Non Player Characters (twenty-six during the Christmas season). Although Terraria requires each of these NPCs to have a home to live in (and thus would constitute a small Thriving Ghost Town if a player built an actual house for each NPC), a "home" can be as simple as a room in a much larger structure, so it's more commonplace for players to construct a base or fortress instead of a town. Which makes it either mystifying or disturbing when you wonder where all these zombies are coming from...
  • The Grand Theft Auto game series, particularly later ones, are masters at maintaining the illusion of a thriving metropolis but conserving resources. In Grand Theft Auto IV and Grand Theft Auto V, while there are may be dozens of NPC characters seen walking around a particular area, and just as many vehicles, the number of buildings one can actually enter and interact with (do activities, etc) is actually very small. And while one can interact with Non Player Characters and vehicles - hijacking the cars, attacking, and even in GTA V speaking to a little - the number of plot relevant NPCs that one can interact with is very small.

Non-video game examples:

    Anime and Manga 
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion: Tokyo-3 seems to be very sparsely populated, seeing how Misato is seemingly the only tenant in her department, the almost always deserted roads shown in the panoramic shoots of the city and the scenes of the school where Shinji and co. go are always full of empty classrooms. It would be safe to assume that NERV's staff are the only people who still live in the city.
  • A good way to see this trope in action is to compare the cities and towns in the Pokémon: The Series to those in the video games. For example, Viridian City in the games is just five or six buildings, but in the anime, it looks like a proper big city.
  • Shimeji Simulation: West Yomogi is often considered as a ghost town, due to most of it being largely unpopulated by people, despite being thriving as such even in times when Sis altered it. Only small pockets of the town itself are populated as such. A few instances of this trope playing straight includes the danchis, where its large size contrasts with the drastically small tenancy count of four; West Yomogi High School only has few students mostly from Class 1-D, where most of its classrooms are hauntingly vacant, despite the huge size.

  • The paintings of Edward Hopper (1882-1967). Many of them show New York City and small New England towns full of structures but very few inhabitants. When people are shown in said works, they are few in number and seem to be ignoring each other, lost in their own thoughts.

    Comic Books 
  • Sunnyville Stories: Noticeable when Rusty and Sam are shown walking around town. Buildings, houses, and shops can be seen in the backgrounds, but few townspeople are actually shown on the streets.

  • The first Noob novel has a Fictional Video Game hamlet whose only attractions are a windmill, a tavern and an auction house. Aside from the shopkeepers presumably taking care of the two latter places, the hamlet is populated by a single Non-Player Character that keeps going back and fourth between his home and the tavern.

  • Deconstructed in Erfworld. All non-plot important buildings in the city are completely empty, and seemingly serve merely to "be the city"; though they get occupied and used based on what they resemble. For example the slaughterhouse somehow feeds the troops through its mere existence, as there are no workers, and no slaughtering going on. Of course, the world they're in is based on Turn-Based Strategy tropes, where abstractions of this sort are commonplace. Not to mention other odd things; Farms "pop" piglets/calves/chicks, which get progressively older and fatter over the course of a few turns, until eventually they disappear and are replaced by pork/beef/chicken food items teleported directly to the consumer. Seriously.
    • The process is more efficient (for instance, a slaughterhouse creates more food to feed a larger army) if a warlord or equivalent unit in charge of the city keeps an eye on things. He doesn't have to do anything, just make an inspection tour each turn (day).

    Western Animation 
  • Ratatoing turns Rio de Janeiro into one.
  • Ed, Edd n Eddy is usually justified in having such a small cast by being set in a single neighborhood, but the episodes set in school feature no more than the same cast of a dozen characters.
  • The CGI Angelina Ballerina series has this in both Angelina's school and in the town of Chipping Cheddar. It's quite rare to see any other inhabitants other than the cast strolling about town. As for Angelina's school, Camembert Academy, the building is shown both on the inside and outside to be huge; yet, apart from the occasional extras, we don't see anyone except Angelina, Miss Mimi and Angelina's friends.
  • Beach City in Steven Universe has a whopping 20 people on a good day, and most of them own businesses. Lampshaded in a few episodes:
    • In "Steven and the Stevens", when Steven claims the whole town will be at a music festival, his dad notes that's only about 15 people.
    • In "Dewey Wins", Steven tries to reassure Mayor Dewey about an embarrassing video of him getting hit with a tomato has only been seen by twelve people. Dewey replies "Twelve people?! That's half the town!"
  • The whole Southern Water Tribe in Avatar: The Last Airbender appears to be nothing but a small village whose population barely scratches the double digits. Lampshaded when Katara introduces Aang to "the whole town", done really quickly when she gestures to a small group. Justified somewhat, since the men are out fighting in the war against the Fire Nation, and also the South Pole has suffered several Fire Nation attacks in the last 100 years, most of them with the intent of wiping out or capturing as many Waterbenders as possible. One of those eventually led to the invention of Bloodbending by a captured Waterbender driven mad, and the last one ended with Katara and Sokka's mother murdered. Another realistic detail is how it took at least a generation to get so depopulated, since the older generation remembers when it used to be a Shining City like the Northern Water Tribe. It also doesn't stay a ghost town; by the time of the Sequel Series The Legend of Korra, the South Pole regrown into a large, busy port town after 70 years of peace and mended economic relationships.
  • Scary Godmother: No one but Scary and her friends seem to live in the Fright Side.
  • Darkwing Duck: The only people seen in Nega-St. Canard are Nega-Launchpad, Nega-Gosalyn, the Nega-Muddlefoots and the Friendly Four. Oh, and a news anchor.

    Real Life 
  • Many North American cities experienced a massive flight of working class residents in the 1950's and 60's as the government subsidized suburban housing and roads to connect the urban cores where the jobs were with the suburbs where people lived. The result was cities that continued to thrive (to some extent), but after 5pm on weeknights were almost completely devoid of people, creating an environment that closely resembled a newly minted Zombie Apocalypse.
    • Parts of central London—particularly the City—can be like this as well, which is how 28 Days Later managed to film there on location.
    • The population of Manhattan was much larger around 1900 than it is today. In addition to the suburban flight, the very expensive real estate prices in the heart of today's New York City have also contributed to this.
  • Niagara Falls on the American side of the border. The most you'll see in that area are a few hotels and maybe some residents. The Canadian city of the same name on the other side of the border, however, is stuffed to the brim with museums, chain hotels, indoor water parks and other attractions.
  • China's ghost cities. Large cities with full infrastructure and lots of construction, but very few people. They are built during the construction boom of the 2010s, but real estate speculation rapidly pushed the cost of the house out of the reach of regular Chinese citizens. Most of these cities are now rapidly being filled as the housing price boom cooled. These days, a lot of the hand-wringing over these ghost cities has been repudiated (including by the analyst who coined the term) as simply cities that were still in construction and unfit for human habitation.
  • Adamstown, which serves as the capital (and only settlement) of the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific. It is the least populous national jurisdiction in the world, having a population of forty-seven people and falling, mainly due to the fact that the Islands' government is very suspicious of newcomers (making it extremely hard to immigrate there), and a slow but steady trickle of the existing population are either dying of old age or leaving for pastures new.
  • In a few of America's university towns (such as Durham, New Hampshire and Laramie, Wyoming note ) the local economy is entirely devoted to catering to the student population. The town becomes this during the summer months, with the students gone and most of the town's services shutting down for the summer, leaving only a skeleton crew to take care of the remaining faculty.
  • Towns built around seasonal tourism and summer homes are like this in the Winter. For instance, Wildwood, New Jersey, has a population of about 5200 in the winter, but this swells to 250,000 in the summer. So for half the year, a town built for a quarter million people only has about 2% of that number living there. This also applies to Bourton-on-the-Water, a small village located in Gloucestershire, that has tourism in the thousands.
  • The "regenerated" docklands area of Dublin can appear as this as well, filled with towering office blocks and construction sites, and almost entirely devoid of people outside the morning rush hour.
  • You'll still see a few of these in the boonies of America's Midwest, though they're mostly privately-owned reconstructed tourist traps by now.
  • There are plenty of areas of otherwise economically sustainable countries that are so sparsely populated that they can give this impression. Places like Mongolia, Iceland, Australia...
  • Given that there's no worldwide definition of a 'city' (as in, a minimum amount of people living there to classify it as such), quite a few actual 'cities' could be seen as being about as populated as those in video games. Indeed, a few actual such places exist with a population of less than a hundred people, including one city with just twelve people living in it.
    • Quite a few cities in 20th century U.S. were incorporated on the strength of signatures from a handful of people, who literally represented all or most of the residents at the time (yes, as few as a dozen people in a single nursing home). (Cities of Irwindale and Industry in California, for example.) They were often designed as tax havens for the local businesses who did not feel like paying extra taxes to the city governments.
    • Olonkinbyen is the capital city of Norway's overseas territory, Jan Mayen. It is also the largest and only city on the Island, with a population of 18 people.