My Travel Wish for Those with Planted Feet

The Pantheon: My very favorite spot in Rome.
The Pantheon: My very favorite spot in Rome.

I wrote this right after getting back from our trip to Europe, and sat on it for a few weeks. After such an amazing adventure, I felt compelled to encourage others to experience it, too—moreso than I always do. So many people close to me have preconceived notions about travel. It’s expensive. It’s scary—dangerous, even. “It’s nice for you, but not for me.” But I want you to know it’s possible. And it’s something that I PROMISE you, you’ll never regret. So, here is my wish for all those whose feet seem glued to the ground. For those afraid to step beyond their comfort zones. For those who can’t even begin to fathom what they’re missing. 

Just go. Go see all the beauty in the world.

I wish I could string together the right combination of words to tell you about the beauty of the world. I wish I could show you the most amazing collection of images that would inspire you to go see it for yourself. I know you’re scared. I know you don’t think it’s possible. But the world is full of wonders just waiting for you to see them. If we were meant to stay in one place, we’d have roots instead of wings.

Rainbow over Costa Rica

I believe wholeheartedly that it’s true what they say: Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer. Standing in the presence of the Colosseum, I knew that no item I could put on a credit card would ever make me trade that moment. I was a richer person for having stood there, marveling at the magnificence of it all. It’s something I will carry with me forever.

I wish you could have those moments. I wish you could look out over the beauty of the Grand Canyon and realize how completely insignificant your place is in the world. I wish you could be moved in that moment, knowing it’s as if the Creator took a palette and a brush, and painted the most breathtaking scene for you to witness.

I wish you could stand atop the Acropolis, and look far out into the distant hills, where you can see the gouges of missing marble—marble used to build the Parthenon where you stand. I wish you could realize that civilizations centuries before you lived a completely different life, but made the most of their moment in time. They probably had no idea that their handiwork would one day attract millions of tourists with their cameras in tow. It makes you wonder what we’ll leave behind, at which future generations can marvel.

I wish you could stand beneath a cascading waterfall in Hawaii, and wonder about the journey the water has taken to get there. I wish you could look out over the Cliffs of Moher and feel as though you’re at the edge of the world. I wish you could see the Eiffel Tower light up at night, and fall head over heels in love with Paris. I wish you could get wonderfully lost in the streets of Florence. I wish you could take a road trip through the United States and marvel at the enormity—and beauty—of your own country. I wish you could watch orca whales glide effortlessly through the waterways of Alaska. I wish you could wake up to the howler monkeys that call Costa Rica home. I wish you could see the sun rise above the clouds from your window seat view on a plane, and know that you’re embarking upon a journey that will make you a better person than you were before.

I believe that the best stories are found between the pages of a passport. I believe that travel brings balance back into our lives. It gives us perspective; clarity. It makes us more tolerant of others. It provides us with a better education than we could hope to find in any classroom. It revitalizes. It invigorates. It has the power to change us.

I wish you believed me when I tell you it’s all possible for you, too. Travel doesn’t have to be expensive or extravagant. It just has to be meaningful. I wish I could convince you that our culture of instant gratification has a big impact on our means to travel. If you look at my pictures with envy, I wish I could convince you to reassess your priorities. If you really have the desire to travel, you can make it happen.

I know I’m lucky. I feel it each and every time I stand in the presence of something I’ve only seen in history books. My heart swells just a little. My breath catches in my throat. Sometimes I have to pinch myself just to make sure it isn’t all a dream.

I wish with all my heart you could experience it, too.

Digital Escapes: Outta This World

Kaer Morhen
The Witcher 3's main fortress: Kaer Morhen.

I mentioned in the introduction to the Digital Escapes series that a little game called Baldur’s Gate was one of the first games that made me realize just how much I love video games. Since then, I’ve talked about some of my favorite games that retain some relevance to our world either in setting or actions. However, sometimes you just want to get away – to experience something so terrifically different or new that games that feel too real won’t really help you feel like you’ve made your escape from the hum-drum of the day-to-day. Sometimes, you just need to play something that is pure fantasy and adventure.

Good news! Many games fit into this category, but as usual – some are better at providing a believable world for you to spend your precious free-time in. Only the best-of-the-best of these games can truly provide you someplace befitting a digital “vacation.”

A few weeks ago, I finished a game called The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The timing couldn’t have been better because I’ve been planning this article since I first started dreaming up the Digital Escapes series six months ago. Granted, I started playing The Witcher 3 the day it came out back in mid-May, so I planned on at least touching on it in this article because the game grabbed me instantly, but after more than 100 hours of escaping into the game’s world, it was clear to me that this game deserved to be the focus of this article.

The Witcher 3 is a massive role-playing game (RPG) based heavily on the works of Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. It’s world is dark and it’s characters are dealing with several issues similar to those in our world: war, poverty, racism and general discrimination run rampant in the game’s beautifully realized world. This may not sound like a fun place to escape to, but the politics of the place merely form a backdrop. Much of the game’s huge open world feels as if it is on the frontier and it’s large forests, swamps, mountains and ruins leave tons of space to be explored. Also, the game is frequently darkly humorous as you quickly discover that few things are ever what they seem.

For example, trolls are big, dumb monsters sure – but they are rarely immediately violent. Speaking to them can be entertaining as you try to work out what they mean by their… interesting grammatical choices. They rarely mean harm outside of their basic survival and encounters with them can usually be solved with words before swords. Like many of the best games I’ve talked about in this series of articles, The Witcher 3 is often best and worthy of your in-between real travelling time when it’s at its quietest. Frequently, the game slides into longer periods of dialog and story or just opens up for you to explore – allowing you to both figuratively and literally read its environment and interpret what is going on.

Don’t get me wrong, combat is quite common, but the developers of The Witcher 3, CD Project Red, fully understand the benefits of show, don’t tell. The wonders of modern technology have allowed them to create a beautifully realized world that is enormous and easy to get lost in, which has in turn opened them up to more subtle story-telling methods. Naturally, it also opens up the game for the player to spend much of their time just exploring this richly detailed world.

In fact, that’s where several of the best science-fiction and fantasy games do things best. Great digital escapes are those that feel like places that I can visit and get lost in. Games like The Witcher 3 and Bioware’s Mass Effect give me environments and characters that I actually want to spend time getting lost in. I have to know what’s in that cave or on top of that mountain – if I can see it, I should be able to get there and when I do, there better be something of interest for me to see. Open world or semi-open world games do this best and I’ve been known to get lost exploring their landscapes, both alien and familiar for hours. On that note, let’s close this up with a quick look at some of my favorite non-realistic digital escapes. Keep in mind that these are digital vacations set in the distant future or on fantastical worlds with magic and monsters.

Guild Wars 2

The Guild Wars series has been around for a while, but Guild Wars 2 is by far my favorite MMORPG – play this game if you don’t want your fantasy escape to feel entirely devoid of other heroes. The whole point of GW2 is to play with friends. They have a new expansion releasing soon, so the game’s world is about to get just a bit bigger.

The Fallout series

It’s pretty difficult to actually classify what Fallout is – picture if the 1950s vision of the future actually existed and then nuclear Armageddon happened. The Fallout series is set in a world a few hundred years after that apocalyptic event and is known for its dark humor and bizarre characters. Since Bethesda became the stewards of the series and brought it into the world of 3D, this series has gone from cult-classic to mainstay series. Check out the trailer for the upcoming Fallout 4.

The Elder Scrolls series

This is a series that has been around for a long time, but each entry gets better and better. I wasn’t particularly happy with The Elder Scrolls: Online, but the last main entry into the series, Skyrim was fantastic. Another Bethesda developed series, these games are well-known for their enormous worlds that are filled with plenty to do. I’ve never actually beaten one of these games because I spend too much time getting side-tracked by all of their worlds’ little nooks and crannies.

The Mass Effect series

Created by Bioware, the Mass Effect series was a set of games that started off well and only got better as they went on. While many complain about the end of the original trilogy, quite frankly, I thought it was really well done. These games are a bit more linear in nature than the other games I’m recommending, but their open hub-areas and characters are top-notch. If you want to enjoy a richly detailed science fiction story, check these games out.

Mass Effect 3

Screenshot courtesy of Bioware.

What to know if you go

As a quick note, keep in mind that some of the games I wrote about in the title above are rated mature. Games are an awesome way to unwind and even have fun as a family, but parents those ratings labels on video games are there for a reason.

Digitial Escapes: Travel Games

Uncharted 4
A shot from the upcoming Uncharted 4. (Courtesy of Naughty Dog)

In the first article in our Digital Escapes series, I touched on how video games can give you that feeling of adventure and excitement that can come from travelling to a new place. As the fidelity of games has improved over the past decade, more and more games are coming out with either digital recreations or at least facsimiles of real places. These digital recreations have become more convincing as rendering technology has improved, allowing us to experience real-world locales in new ways and in some cases, for the first time.

In all fairness, very few games set in real-world locations fully capture the environment of the place with 1-to-1 detail; however, games have gotten very good at recreating the flavor of a place. Many studios send teams to photograph and video locations to ensure that they come as close as possible when they create their game worlds based on the real place. Ubisoft is a publisher that has become very adept at encouraging their development studios to create huge digital environs that capture the feeling of globe-spanning locations with intense detail. Their Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry series are well-known for their huge open worlds that are convincingly set in real world locations or locations heavily based on the real world.

AC:U Notre Dame

Checking out the sites from the top of Notre Dame!

Last year, Ubisoft released Assassin’s Creed: Unity, a game set in Paris during the French Revolution. Unity features one of the most faithfully recreated video game cities of all time and while the game has numerous performance issues, the scenery is undeniably epic and extremely evocative of France’s most famous city. Far Cry 4, another of Ubisoft’s games transports players to the fictional country of Kyrat, which is heavily influenced by Nepal and other Himalayan environments. The scenery of Kyrat is breathtaking.

It’s games like Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed that have helped to form a sub-genre of games that I have begun to call travel games. A travel game isn’t necessarily open world in nature – it could be linear. However, travel games are evocative of real-world environments. They should make the player feel like they are somewhere they could really get on a plane or in a car and visit, right now. They don’t necessarily have to be set in the present or even in the real world, but the game world should be heavily representative of a place in the real world.

The other requirement I have for classifying a game as a travel game is that it must feel grounded in reality. There may be way more intrigue, magic and explosions in most of these games than even a modern conflict may feature (and way more surviving falls from asinine heights), but as I said, they capture the essence of what it’s like to visit these places on a base audio-visual level.

Sure, these games will never live up to the real thing, but they’re a great substitute when you just want to hop over to Rome and you just can’t jump far enough in real life. Boot up your gaming platform of choice, through in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and BAM, you’re free to run around the Coliseum to your heart’s content. Got work in the morning, but wanna take a road trip across the US? Throw in Ubisoft’s The Crew and you can drive straight from NYC to LA and back. Hell, you can even swing by DC on the way if you want. The best part is you can do it all in one night and still wake up with mostly enough sleep to drive yourself into the office the next morning!

So, when you want to travel and you just can’t swing it soon enough, pop in one of these games and go on a little digital sightseeing:

The Assassin’s Creed series

If you want to visit anywhere from Renaissance era Italy to the Caribbean during the Age of Discovery and beyond, this is the series for you. Filled with historical, natural and architectural detail, this series offers you a way to visit many of the world’s most famous locales at some of the most interesting points in history. The games range in quality related to how much fun they actually are to play outside the basic of just wandering around their richly detailed worlds with Assassin’s Creed II, Brotherhood and Black Flag being the pinnacles of the series.

The Crew

While it certainly isn’t a perfect 1:1 recreation of the US, The Crew’s map is a pretty good facsimile of the 48 contiguous United States. Capturing the flavor of many of our biggest cities and even that of some of our more famous small towns, this game is great for those who just love to drive around and sight see (or those who have always wanted to hit 200 mph in Time’s Square and not have to have a death wish to do so).

Far Cry 2-4

The original Far Cry is vastly different from the remainder of the series and doesn’t quite fall into this sub-genre for me. That said, the Far Cry series has captured the essence of several states/locations during some of their more tumultuous periods in modern history. War-torn sections of Africa, pirate (of the modern variety) ridden islands in the Indian/Pacific ocean and the Himalayas during a terrible civil war are all represented. Far Cry is certainly the grittiest series on this list and while it rarely does it perfectly, offers some interesting commentary on the nature of armed conflict, modern colonialism, sanity and other topics. Don’t let that drive you off though – tonally it falls a little closer to the bombastic exploits of James Bond than the hard hitting examination of war you would find in films like Black Hawk DownFar Cry 4 is particularly great because it frequently is happy to let you do your own thing – Kim and I ignored the core mechanics of the game (shooting) one night and simply drove around on a safari of sorts to take pictures of the animals we spotted.

Watch_Dogs

Watch_Dogs is interesting because gamers expected it to be this incredible game that showed everyone what their new expensive next-generation consoles could do. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to those expectations, but it’s not entirely a bad game. This decent open world cyber thriller is set in the Chicago area and features pretty good recreations of the city’s most famous landmarks and features. It can be very fun to just drive around and hack random bits of the city’s infrastructure to cause a little mayhem. That or hop in a car and just go sightseeing.

Watch Dogs

Boating through downtown Chicago. (Courtesy of Ubisoft)

Uncharted

This series is for those who love the pulpy goodness of Indiana Jones. The games are almost as fun to watch as they are to play. They feature globe-trotting stories that take you everywhere from downtown London to the heights of the Himalayas and the endless dunes of the Sahara. The story is absolutely top-notch and each of these games, particularly Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception are masterclasses in fantastic game design and story telling. These games are far more linear than any of the other games on this list, but in my opinion are some of the best on this list. Keep an eye out for some of the quieter moments of these games – they can be amazingly cathartic after the highs of the action beats of these pulp masterpieces. There’s even a collection of the first three bags coming out soon in anticipation of the next game in the series being released early 2016!

Uncharted 3

Drake walks through a desert market.

Tomb Raider (2013)

The series that brought pulpy action to video games recently got a refreshing reboot. While femme fatale Lara Croft was dearly loved by fans of the series, it’s great to see a much more believable (both proportionally and personality-wise) version of Lara grace the screen. With games dominated by white dudes with chiseled jaws (look I’m a white dude with an okay jaw – I like playing as myself too, but still) it was refreshing for me to see a game that saw a girl go from graduate student/travel enthusiast to bad ass action star. The newest game in the series is fairly linear with open hub-areas, this game fits squarely in the pulp action genre of the Uncharted series. Set on the semi-historical, but lost island of Yamatai (Yamatai-koku) somewhere in the vicinity of Japan, it’s battered Pacific island locales are both beautiful and terrifying.

Tomb Raider

Lara gets her bearings after being shipwrecked on Yamatai.


 

There are many other games out there that may fall into this sub-genre, but these are just some of my favorites. There are also several that sort of approach my definition of a travel game, but can’t quite be defined this way. I’ll be covering these games later because they are some of my favorites and still make for fantastic escapism. There are hundreds of games out there offer fantastic escapism, this list was more focused on games that capture the essence of real places well and in such a fashion that they would be recognizable if I visited that place today.

What to know if you go

As a quick note, keep in mind that some of the games I wrote about in the title above are rated mature. Games are an awesome way to unwind and even have fun as a family, but parents those ratings labels on video games are there for a reason.

Digital Escapes: Introduction

Baldur's Gate II - Athkatla
The streets of Athkatla (Baldur's Gate II: Enhanced Edition - screenshot courtesy of Beamdog)

If you have been around for a bit and maybe read my author blurb, you may know that I’m an avid gamer. While I don’t do it professionally, I like working on and designing games and I love playing games. It’s a hobby I’ve enjoyed since the early days of Nintendo’s SNES home console, but became absolutely integral to my life when a friend introduced me to a game known as Baldur’s Gate, while I was spending the night at his house.

Baldur’s Gate is exactly the type of video game you’d expect it to be based on that name: a deep, fantasy role-playing game set in one of the main Dungeons and Dragons universes, the Forgotten Realms. It was released in 1998 and I believe I first got my hands on it somewhere in late 1999 (way back when being nerdy was REALLY not cool). I spent months begging my mom to let me get a copy after my initial all-nighter with the game. Finally, with my own money, I managed to snag a copy of Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn from Wal*Mart sometime after its release in September of 2000.

Baldur's Gate II

(Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition – screenshot courtesy of Beamdog)

I’ll never forget endlessly leafing through the manual for the game in between getting to actually play it (this was in the days where game manuals were actually manuals, not just legal mumbo jumbo). I envisioned every possible character I could create and all the amazing spells I was reading about. I tried to understand the confusing rules that governed the game: a simplified version of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons rules (yup the table-top game). Acronyms like THAC0 and AC flew through my brain.

But all of that nerdy stuff, was unimportant when I finally got a little bit of time on the computer to actually play BGII. I was transported to a world of high adventure, magic and political intrigue (most of which was way over my head at the time). I met fascinating people like Minsc, the jovial though quick to anger fighter who always carried his miniature giant space hamster, Boo, and crawled through the foulest of dungeons. I roamed the streets of the beautiful city of Athkatla, capital of Amn. Needless to say, I was hooked.

Kyle at Mendenhall

Me, on a real-life adventure!

It wouldn’t be until I met Kim and really started travelling a lot that I would understand what it was that drew me initially to games like Baldur’s Gate and why I still love the video game industry as a whole today. My family took a few vacations and we did more as I got older. I even got to go on a trip to the UK with the People to People program, but when Kim and I started taking any excuse we could to go out and explore the world, that was when I got that old feeling again. That unbelievable high that hit me as my band of characters first stepped blinking from Irenicus’ dungeon into the shining streets of Athkatla.

I’m not sure when it specifically hit me – probably as we hiked around Mendenhall Glacier during one of our excursions on our honeymoon to Alaska. It didn’t take me long though to add up that I love video games because while I’m not escaping to amazing places physically, I am mentally. Sure, movies and books give you a bit of that escapism as well (and I love both of those things too), but there is something special about your participation in a game. Movies and books are largely passive.

It’s this participation that has led me to more conclusions about travel and life. Games have come a long way since Baldur’s Gate and in recent years have started telling stories in our world. I’ve seen faithful recreations of places that I haven’t gotten to go to yet as the fidelity of games has improved, but I’ve also experienced things that happen in real life that I will in all likelihood never experience. I’m not just talking about fighting in wars or extreme sports that I have no physical right to participate in – I’m talking about the fascinating adventures that some people embark on when just living their lives.

Gone Home

Just arrived home and a storm is brewing…

Games like Gone Home (2013), which starts with the simple premise that you are a teenage girl who is returning home from a year studying abroad late at night and you find your family missing, have taken environmental storytelling to new highs. Gone Home features no combat and has very simple mechanics (you can walk and you can pick items up) and at its core tells a story that I found both timely and important. Seriously, if you haven’t played it (or maybe you don’t even play games) check it out. It takes around 2-3 hours to beat and is very easy to get through. If you do decide to play it, do your best to go in blind – don’t read reviews or anything because it will ruin the game for you.

It is games like Gone Home that really can help us understand each other better, but also show us that every day life can have quite a bit of adventure packed into it. That’s why I am writing this Digital Escapes series. I hope that these articles will help people understand the “byte” in Byte-Size Travel and help show people why I think that video games and travel go hand-in-hand. Games are an especially great hobby for those of us who don’t get to travel all the time – they can help us travel even when travel doesn’t suit the 9-to-5 and allow us to explore situations and places that no amount of travel will ever allow us to – games don’t surpass travel, but they can certainly elevate how we travel and how we feel in that downtime between trips.

Gone Home - Post Card

“Hey it’s a post card I sent.”

Travel Movies: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Walter Mitty
Copyright 20th Century Fox

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty tells the story of a reserved Negative Assets Manager, Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller), working for Life magazine as it goes through an acquisition that will see most of its staff “downsized” in its transition to an online-only format. Nothing in Walter’s life is interesting. Since the death of his father at a young age, he has been the responsible one in the family. Nothing went according to Walter’s boyhood plans, but everything is routine and stable. The monotony of maintaining this stability leads Walter to frequently daydream; imagining incredible scenarios where he is the hero… or at least one of the most interesting people on the planet.

Walter is seen as a space case, but is generally liked and very reliable when it comes to managing Life‘s photo assets. That is, until a very important negative comes up missing. This particular negative was intended to be the cover shot for the final print issue of Life. The missing negative sends Walter on a globe-spanning journey to track down the elusive photographer, Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn) who took it, so Walter can ask him why the photo wasn’t included in the negative roll he sent and where it might be.

Reviews for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were pretty mixed when it came out, but Kim and I saw it in theaters and it flew to the top of my list as one of my favorite movies of all time. I bought a copy as soon as it came out and have watched it several times since.

Walter’s daydreams, while extreme for some people, are something that we can all relate to on some level. We all have fantasies where we’re better looking or more athletic or just generally more interesting that we really are. It’s a mechanism to cope with the boredom that can stem from routine. Most of the criticism for the movie was about Walter’s absurd fantasies, but quite frankly, I related to them quite a bit. Fantasy is a fantastic way to deal with the sometimes boredom and frustration of working an office job (especially during long stints between travel).

That said, the movie really takes off when Walter is convinced by his love interest, Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig) to chase down the elusive Sean and solve the mystery of the missing negative. This journey takes Walter from New York to Greenland, Iceland, Yemen and the Himalayas in Afghanistan. While the movie was not shot in most of these places, Iceland is used as a fantastic stand-in for most of them.

This is where the movie truly shines – sweeping shots of scenery that are some of the best I’ve ever seen in a film. They really bring us into Walter’s journey as he is reminded that sometimes, life can truly be more incredible than any fantasy. It’s in these moments of travel that the landscape becomes as much of a character as any that the actor’s are portraying. The movie highlights those moments of travel bliss that have happened to anyone from the once-in-a-blue-moon vacationer to the seasoned globetrotter. Those moments where our mind goes, “Holy shit- am I really here right now? Is this really happening!?”

There are several scenes in the movie that highlight the benefits of travel for me. Some point out the sheer personal joy of the unexpected and unique experiences that happen while traveling, like Walter’s biking through Iceland or skateboarding trip down a beautiful, curving road in the same country. Others highlight another lesson that traveling has taught me – that people are generally good-natured and welcoming, regardless of nationality. Walter meets quite a crew of characters on his travels, but a scene near the end of the movie involving some highland variation of soccer in the Himilayas really highlight this lesson for me.

It is this unadulterated positivity that permeates the movie. Some may call it sap, but for me The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is likely my favorite feel-good movie. It captures everything I love about traveling and wraps it in a story that I related to on every level. Seriously, check this movie out on your next long flight (or when your longing to get out of town).

Have you seen the movie? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

All Pictures and Video are Copyright of 20th Century Fox.

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