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.”

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