The problem with these examples is that they are too familiar. I built mine Deer crossing Island itself so there was nothing new to discover once I unlocked everything. And the Manhattan of Spider Man is Manhattan. (Except without actually being able to enter the shops and museums.) I missed the thrill of traveling, namely seeing new things.
The idea of using video games as a means of “travel”
No, I needed something more relaxed, something casual. What I ultimately wanted was derisively referred to as the “running simulator”.
My colleague Devindra wrote about it A short hike Earlier this year, and I tried this because it’s essentially a travel game. You walk around a small island that has many small paths to explore, beaches to comb and several islands to which you can swim. It’s a surprisingly accurate recreation of a weekend getaway, even when it comes to the barrage of characters one encounters everywhere. The magic of reaching the top is akin to finding those lonely moment or two in a public forest where everything is beautiful and only yours.
However, reaching the climax is the end of the game – you could explore further, but I was never a completer. I’m fine when shown the door after the credits. I also wanted to continue traveling, but now with the aim of regaining the appearance of A short hike. Wide ocean big jacket is another game I’ve played (and written about) with a similar feel this year, although it’s more narrative.
In the end, I became interested in itch.io, which, thanks to its low entry barrier for developers, is more experimental and also offers a larger selection of so-called “healthy games”. [Be sure to check out our roundup of favorite titles from itch.io’s Bundle for Racial Justice!] Games like Deer crossing by creating warm, happy feelings with an emphasis on being nice or sweet rather than mean or violent. They’re also easy to spot because they use a significantly different color palette than the more popular titles, and include pale yellows and oranges and lots of pink. (They make me think of creamsicles.)
The first title I noticed was a short meditative title called terracotta. As you can imagine, there are many soft reds and browns punctuated with yellow and pink. It’s a pretty simple piece, you just walk from your house to the store. As you walk, the dialogue shows that you have suffered from depression, and this short walk is a bigger deal because you rarely leave your home. It was oddly appropriate during this period of social isolation when there were months when I only left my apartment to go to the store. Well-known locations outside tend to gain more meaning after you’ve been away from looking at them in a while, and the game represents that strangeness with oddly moving chalk drawings. It’s a very minimalist and short title, but it influenced my psyche.
I then looked a little further away and found something Forgotten fields by Frostwood Interactive. The download available on Itch.io is just a demo, but it was enough to capture the feelings I was hoping for: the game has a strong sense of mood and place, with beautiful shots of houses and fauna, you can even one is driving a scooter near the ocean down a road flanked by palm trees. For me it was very reminiscent of my grandmother’s town in Puerto Rico, even if the game is on the other side of the planet. The story is a little less comforting, that of a writer with writer’s block (ugh). But the parts he brainstorms are interesting because the game lets you play that fantasy story too – at least until he loses his train of thought.
Another promising game that I checked out was Venice 2089. Aha, I thought, a game with which I can explore a city that I probably won’t be visiting any time soon! And it lovingly recreates the buildings, tiled streets and canals of the Italian city – I can’t speak with their accuracy, but it feels close enough. And the story encourages exploration of the city with a main character riding around on a hoverboard (it’s the future, after all). There are items to collect, chores to do, and people to talk to, and I was excited about it. What finally stopped me wasn’t the short length of the demo, but the fact that it is very choppy at this point. As I looked at the comments, low frame rate seemed to be a common problem that the developers are working on to fix. But if you have a machine with higher specs, it might still be worth a look.
Although more and more places are opening up to visitors and I longingly rummaging through travel websites for offers, I don’t think my love for healthy games with a strong sense of place will soon go away. If anything, I need these short breaks more than ever, especially when the weather cools down again. I am excited to support all developers trying to capture that special feeling you feel when you have hiked into a sun-drenched canyon with only the sounds of birds and a cool breeze as your companions.