When even walking to the store can be a risky proposition, travel became one of those things I had to put on hold this year. I cancelled one trip to Charleston, South Carolina and didn’t even bother booking the others I had planned. But the itch to explore didn’t go away; in fact it intensified as the months dragged on, and I’ve had to turn to video games to scratch it.
At first my needs were relatively modest. Like many others, I dove headfirst into Animal Crossing: New Horizons, making my island into a giant campground and picnic area of sorts — a replica of the parks I couldn’t visit now. Of course it wasn’t exactly the same, since I couldn’t go birdwatching or hiking or breathe in some fresh air. When I found myself missing New York City, I ended up playing a lot of Marvel’s Spider-Man, thanks to its incredibly detailed model of Manhattan. And it was fun -- if way more crime-ridden than the real thing and missing some important buildings like the Engadget office.
The problem with these examples is that they’re overly familiar; I built my Animal Crossing island myself, so there was nothing new to discover once I’d unlocked everything. And the Manhattan of Spider-Man is, well, Manhattan. (Except without being able to actually enter the shops and museums.) I was missing the thrill of travel, which is to see new things.
The idea of using video games as a way of “traveling” is nothing new, and plenty of games can scratch that itch if you like detailed world building. I could spend days in Breath of the Wild alone, and I’ve always enjoyed the historical tourism of the Assassin’s Creed games. But you also run the risk of being attacked, or falling off a tall building or cliff. There’s danger.
No, what I needed was something more laid-back, something casual. What I ultimately wanted has been derisively called a “walking simulator.”
My colleague Devindra wrote about A Short Hike earlier this year, and I gave that a shot, because it is, at its heart, a travel game. You’re walking around a small island where there’s plenty of little trails to explore, beaches to comb and several islands you can swim to. It’s a surprisingly apt recreation of a weekend getaway, even down to the glut of characters you bump into everywhere. The magic of reaching the peak is akin to finding those one or two solitary moments in a public forest, when everything is beautiful and it belongs only to you.
However, reaching the peak is the end of the game — you could continue to explore, but I’ve never been a completionist. I’m fine with being shown the door after the credits. And besides, I wanted to continue to travel, but now with an eye toward recapturing the look and feel of A Short Hike. Wide Ocean Big Jacket is another game I’ve played (and written about) this year with a similar feel, though more narratively driven.
I ended up gravitating toward itch.io, which trends more toward experimental thanks to its low barrier of entry for creators, and also has a wider variety of what are now called “wholesome games.” [Be sure to check out our roundup of favorite titles from itch.io’s Bundle for Racial Justice!] Games like Animal Crossing in that they engender warm, happy feelings with an emphasis on being nice or cute instead of mean or violent. They’re also easy to spot because they use a decidedly different color palette from more mainstream titles, embracing soft yellows and oranges and plenty of pink. (They make me think of creamsicles.)
The first title that caught my eye was a short meditative title called Terracotta. As you can guess, there’s a lot of soft reds and browns punctuated with yellow and pink. It’s a fairly simple play, you’re just walking from your house to the store. As you walk, dialogue reveals that you’ve suffered from depression, and this short walk is a bigger deal because of it since you hardly leave your house. It was strangely appropriate in this time of social isolation, when there were months where I only left my apartment to go to the store. Familiar sites outside tend to gain more meaning when you haven’t looked at them in a while, and the game represents that alienness with strange moving chalk drawings. It’s a very minimalistic and short title, but it left an impact on my psyche.
I then looked for something a little more far afield, and found Forgotten Fields from Frostwood Interactive. The download available on Itch.io is only a demo, but it was enough to capture those feelings I hoped it would: The game has a strong sense of mood and place, with beautiful shots of homes and fauna, you even get to ride a scooter near the ocean down a road flanked by palm trees. For me it strongly evoked my grandmother’s town in Puerto Rico, even if the setting of the game is on the other side of the planet. The story is a little less comforting, that of a writer suffering from writer’s block (ugh). But the parts where he’s brainstorming are interesting because the game lets you play that fantasy story as well — at least until he loses his train of thought.
One more promising game I took a look at was Venice 2089. Aha, I thought, a game that lets me explore a city I’m unlikely to visit any time soon! And it does lovingly recreate the buildings, tiled streets and canals of the Italian city — I can’t speak to its accuracy, but it feels close enough. And the story encourages exploration of the city, with a main character who rides around on a hoverboard (it’s the future, after all). There are items to collect, tasks to perform and people to talk to, and I was eager to do so. What ultimately stopped me wasn’t the short length of the demo, but the fact that at this stage it’s very janky. When I looked at the comments a low frame rate seemed to be a common problem, one that the developers are working to correct. But if you have a higher-spec machine it might still be worth a look.
Even though more places are starting to open up to visitors and I find myself longingly browsing deals on travel websites, I don’t think my love of wholesome games with a strong sense of place is going away any time soon. If anything, I need those quick getaways more than ever, especially as the weather cools down again. I’m happy to support any developers trying to capture that special feeling, the one you feel when you’ve wandered into a sun-dappled glen with only the sounds of birds and a cool breeze as your companion.