Gaming isn’t perhaps the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks about travel but for me, gaming has been a part of travel since I first switched on my Gameboy while making one of many trips to coastal towns such as Whitby and Bridlington during my childhood in the wilds of Yorkshire. These days of course I’m more inclined to use my 3DS or my laptop, while travelling the rails in Europe and afar, but the feeling is much the same.
Besides, an aspect of gaming which many fail to see is that of travel within the game itself – it can form a wonderful escape – as it did for me as a youngster in a small town framed by countryside. It can also serve as inspiration to travel – seeing the world portrayed, much like reading a particularly inspiring travel book or seeing a travel photo or film, can leave one with the longing to run off into the world to form our own adventures. Additionally video games can serve as windows into other cultures and act as learning tools – opening our eyes to worlds old and new – taking us on countless untold adventures. Intriguingly, everyone from the largest magazines to, well, almost every travel blogger ever, have spoken, at length, of the impact, and indeed the influence of movies on travellers – but very few that I can find have looked at travel in video games.
With that in mind, I’d like this to serve as an introduction to those video games that have sent my mind on a lingering adventure, in particular those titles that are meant to reflect a real-world locale, and did indeed inspire me to travel – more I must say, then many books or films did – through their beautiful portrayal of a place, a city or a country.
Broken Sword 1 – Paris – (Revolution Software, 1996)
I was captivated from the opening line and the beautifully portrayed scenes of Paris – which fulfilled every cliche from the looming Eiffel Tower to the protagonist lazily sitting in a street side cafe catching the glimpses of a cute blonde waitress as she clicks over the cobbled path wearing a red dress and striking pair of red high heels.
“Paris in the Fall. The last months of the year, and the end of the millennium…”George Stobbart (Broken Sword)
Broken Sword remains one of my favourite video games. It’s an adventure with a witty narrative and excellent writing that takes the player from the romanticised streets of Paris and the fictional and yet so very Irish village of Lochmarne to Syria and Spain in search of a costumed killer, via Knights Templar conspiracies (years before the Da Vinci Code one might add – some fans of the series even believe that Dan Brown may have been “influenced” by Broken Sword) and a love story betwixt the two central characters George Stobbart – American tourist, and Nico Collard – French journalist. The series recently reached its fifth instalment and continues to show Paris in an increasingly beautiful and colourful light, while taking those that play it on adventures through incredible locales littered with Templar lore and religious iconography, and exposing along the way – tourist and country cliches with a humorous injection of English wit and some brilliant mystery writing.
Other great portrayals of Paris include the futuristic rendition in Remember Me, the beautiful noir world created in Contrast and as in the header image Broken Sword 5.
Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? – The World – (Brøderbund Software, 1996)
Essentially an educational game – used to teach geography – the “Where in the world..” games were fascinating. I played one of these as a very young child in the late 80’s too but I remember this one better – however they were very similar, save for graphical enhancements. In the game, the player tracks a ring of thieves around the world – asking questions of locals and piecing together geographical clues. With the clues, you fly around the world slowly building a warrant with which to make an arrest – also based on the outcome of questioning locals and finding clues at each call of port – until the endgame where one must find and arrest the mastermind, Carmen Sandiego herself. The stolen items are generally world-famous artefacts (or in some cases entire cities) associated with the country in question such as Italy’s Sistine Chapel, every last drop of Salsa from Mexico, the entire city of Casablanca, and and the Statue of Liberty’s torch.
The Last Express – Orient Express – (DotEmu, 1997)
As well as being a wonderful travelling adventure game – The Last Express has the honour of being one of very few games that attempts to simulate real world time, in game. It does this well, but the intertwining stories that one finds aboard the Orient Express coupled with the beautifully drawn rotoscope graphics are what draws one deeper in to the game. The Last Express made me long for train travel and still does to this day (it’s recently also seen a release on Mac and iOS). Playing as the main character, Robert Cath, you board the Paris-Constantinople express at the Gare de l’Est at the command of a close friend, but as you make your way through the introduction it’s clear that you have stumbled into a complex web of political intrigues, suspense, romance, and betrayal. The game mechanics can take some getting used to, especially, if like me, you spend too much time lingering over the endearing impressions of the train and your fellow passengers. It of course brings to mind Agathe Christie’s ‘Murder On The Orient Express’ – but it’s so much more than that – this is one of very few game interpretations of train travel, and it manages to catch the mood of both the setting and the era magnificently well. It is simply stunning in its aesthetic appeal and as captivating as any novel on the subject.
The Longest Journey – Venice & the future – (Funcom, 1999)
The Longest Journey was quite easily one of the most enthralling and most beautiful point and click adventure games of the 90’s. The hand drawn backdrops and deeply engaging narrative made it a game I went back to again and again – most recently with the iOS re-release. The game takes place in the parallel worlds of Stark – an industrial future vision of our earth and Arcadia – a world dominated by magic. In it you play April Ryan, a college student who is essentially tasked with restoring balance to the two worlds – a task that to this day remains incomplete (the final chapter of the latest instalments of the games is awaiting release). The game takes you from the neon-lit streets of the canal city of “New Venice” (it’s a very loose interpretation, I believe) to the surreal magical city of Marcuria via journeys by ship, the tube and magical portals, and stop-offs in grand cathedrals and art galleries along the way.
A puzzle in the game requires the player to repeatedly speak to a priest until you understand what he’s trying to say – there’s a hint of magic in the scene that reminds me of the first times I travelled abroad and hoped that through some kind of divine intervention, that I’d simply understand what was being said to me. Alas – in game, words in English suddenly begin to bleed through in the priest’s dialogue, whereas in real life it was a case of watching where the finger pointed, the tone of voice and keeping my eye on the context. It remains a valuable lesson in perseverance, nonetheless.
Shenmue 1 & 2 – Japan & China – (Sega, 1999/ 2001)
Shenmue is responsible for so much in the world of video games – everything from new play types and technologies to new ways of telling stories within the confines of a video game. It introduced players to a level of detail which was unprecedented at the time – though it was the kind of detail that many were underwhelmed by. I, and a legion of others, on the other hand, were beguiled. The story served for me, as an introduction to a popular trope from Chinese cinema – revenge epics, but more than that – it was a window into two entirely different and endlessly fascinating cultures. The game allows you to live quite literally in the shoes of its main protagonist, going to work, petting cats as you walk down the street, earning money and doing all the things one takes for granted each day, only in Japan with all the glorious oddities and quaint diversions that one now expects of the country, all the while getting deeper into the thick of the plot, by way of asking questions, discovering secrets and eventually, travelling from Japan to China. The 3rd instalment is currently, finally, in production and will take us one step closer to the conclusion of the game, which is planned to be a 4-part epic, spanning Japan, China and Hong Kong.
Other games with great portrayals of Japan include the Yakuza series, Catherine (for the social aspects) and Snatcher for its incredibly immersive cyberpunk rendition of Tokyo.
“By focusing on nostalgia and the ordinary, Shenmue creates a window into Japanese and Chinese culture … it shows us cultural differences through the ordinary and familiar.” Yu Suzuki (Creator of Shenmue)
GTA: San Andreas – California & Nevada (Rockstar North, 2004)
Most of these inspiring travel games are adventure games, but there are exceptions, of course, and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is one such exception. Set in a fictional city that is heavily influenced by California and the Nevada dessert, you set about a life of crime – re-united with your brother after the death of your mother – which takes you on a strange and often highly rewarding journey employing everything from air travel to island hopping, and even hiding out in the dessert with a couple of British rock stars, along the way. You can play sandbox games such as this pretty much however you want to – watching the pixel sunset from the top of a mountain, dropping money into a slot machine in a casino, sailing into the unknown and diving from the pier to find oysters – or simply following the storyline as it takes you around the gigantic map. It is true though, that I wouldn’t put this in the same category as the others here, but I do think that in this game and in the most recent GTA 5 (which is so stunning that it’s birthed a whole new genre of travel photographers using the in game ‘Snapmatic’ photo app), Rockstar have tirelessly moulded a beautiful and rich world for gamers to explore – a perfect, if slightly strange and cliched, remoulding of California and the desserts of Nevada.
Other games set in the USA include Hotel Dusk for its gritty depiction of a Los Angelian hotel and Runaway: A Road Adventure for its take on the great American road trip.
S.T.A.L.K.E.R Shadow of Chernobyl – Pripyat – (GSC Game World, 2007)
Another good example of a game in a different genre is the wonderfully unique (for its time at least) S.T.A.L.K.E.R. This game made me take a second look at Chernobyl, not necessarily because of the game itself, but because of the fascinating development notes that accompanied it – telling the story of the team’s research on Chernobyl to properly map ‘The Zone’ through a series of trips and satellite photographs of the affected areas. The game is bleak to say the least – but beautiful in its own stark way. Spotting famous Chernobyl landmarks such as the Pripyat Ferris Wheel was a hugely entertaining aspect of the game – though unfortunately second to playing to survive in a harsh post-nuclear environment – which is at S.T.A.L.K.E.R’s core.
Broken Sword 5 – London – (Revolution Software, 2013)
I could easily name all of the Broken Sword games here, as each one, even the slightly disappointing 4th instalment, utilised travelling as a major theme in a wonderfully pleasing way – however, I’ve limited myself to two. This isn’t the first time that London showed up in Broken Sword – but it was utterly charming in Broken Sword 5. Of particular note is the artist’s residence right next door to Battersea Power Station, run down, gritty and industrial, and the beautiful little gardened houses with a perfect view of Westminster (if only..) and the Big Ben where we meet Medovsky – Putin’s digital brother.
See Digital Representations of London for more video games set in London.
80 Days – Everywhere – (Inkle, 2014)
This is part of the new wave of interactive fiction that is making adventure games popular again – and this one is excellent. 80 Days makes a wonderful companion on a journey but also serves as great inspiration to start trip planning – as that is essentially the bones of the game. It follows the adventures of Phileas Fogg who, with the aid of his manservant Passepartout, has wagered that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. The game makes thousands of routes available – travelling by steam strain, airship, camel and hot air balloon (to name a small selection) – meaning that each and every playthrough is entirely different and incredibly enjoyable. The writing is stylish and central to the game – with deep and intriguing lore to explore should you desire – as well as a considerable number of characters to interact with. Each choice you make opens new doors, as you explore new routes and partake in just a bit of gossip to find cheaper alternatives (backpackers take note) or luxurious new ways in which to travel with the wealthy and famous of the world. One can even just explore – buying and selling artefacts as you travel slowly around the many routes of the game – which can be fun though ultimately ends in failure, much to the dismay of Phileas – it is still a game after all.
Honourable mentions goto Lost in Blue for making me want to get lost on a dessert island and go fishing, Sid Meier’s Pirates for filling me with the desire to become a pirate and sail the Caribbean, Grim Fandango for making me romanticise the Aztecs Land of the Dead (complete with the travel agents of the Department of Death) and finally Life is Strange for making me long to be a teenage girl in the Pacific Northwest of America… with time travel powers…naturally.