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MARCH 11, 2015
Header Image from FAR CRY IV

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I am fascinated with the idea that travelling in a game world is becoming as rewarding — and challenging — as travelling in the real world. I love the idea that virtual travel is something people would make a specific effort for.

I am a real travel fanatic, I spend at least a few months each year out in the big wide world, looking for adventure, learning about new cultures, and finding new perspectives of this crazy planet we live on.

It’s enriching, scary, and exhilarating. It’s what living was made for.

I am also a big fan of games. I often joke that I lost my teens to the Amiga. It’s true that I spent most of my time back then playing games, hundreds and hundreds of them. And I still do occasionally dip into GTA, Far Cry, or whatever, only to realise… holy shit, it’s 4am… I have to work tomorrow…

The more games develop visually, and the more they expand in scale, the more this idea of virtual travel holds seems like it makes sense. It’s a logical next step to travel in these vast virtual worlds not because of the missions, but just for the thrill of it, purely for the adventure and the beauty.

 

Exploring

 

You see, for me personally games have never really been about the missions or the levels, or about beating the big boss at the end. I’ve always been more fascinated by the little details the game-worlds I was in could offer me, and about the personal journey they offered me.

That’s been true from my early days as a gamer, exploring the Tri-Island area of Monkey Island. It was true in my late teens, discovering inch by inch every creepy detail on the island of Myst. It was true a few years ago when I would spend minutes at a time staring in wonder at the way the sunlight streaks through the wiry, twisted old African trees in Far Cry 2. And it remains true to this day, driving around Los Santos looking for the best location to people-watch, in the warm pink late afternoon glow.

Forget about the missions, forget about your score, or if your ammo is low. Forget about the bad guys and all the rest of it.

Stop, take a deep breath, and look around you.

Journey is one game that inspires you beyond the mission you follow. From the very first steps you take in the desert, you’re distracted by the sunlight, by the way your scarf moves gently in the wind, and by how you can jump, and surf down the huge desert mountains.

In fact, the basic premise of the mission is never clearly explained to you, and your short adventure within this gorgeous, mysterious world is really a virtual travelling experience if ever there was one.

The trip you take is beautiful, a spiritual experience. The top of the mountain at the end of the game can only be reached after making new friends and meeting many challenges. The feeling of elation when you make it to that top, and the beauty of the scene you encounter, is truly a marvel.

So much so that all-through the game there really isn’t any chance of you giving up, or turning back.

Another game which for me has this sense of escapism is Mountain, by David O’Reilly. It’s a game where you take on the role of a God, without any mission at all. You create, and then you observe. And as your creation grows and develops, it becomes increasingly detached from you.

 MOUNTAIN, designed by  Ruben Feurer

MOUNTAIN, designed by Ruben Feurer

 THE ORDER, designed by  Craig Parkingson

THE ORDER, designed by Craig Parkingson

The magic of creating something and seeing it grow, of caring for this patch of dirt, is a powerful emotional experience. Having a god’s point of view is a profound journey to make.

 

Digital Selfies

 

Whether it’s the ice-cold tip of the mountain in Journey, or a gritty graffiti’d side-street in GTA V, there’s no denying that it can be hard to reach the most beautiful, dangerous or secret digital corners in the many wonderful game worlds at our disposal. It’s not hard to imagine once you get there, like in the real world, you’d whip out your phone to post a quick instagram.

That a picture taken within a game world could (and should) be posted on real-life social networks. You’ve achieved something, you’d want to share that magic moment.

Will taking selfies in game worlds, and posting them on your twitter feed, be common place in a few years time? How long before your instagram feed isn’t just real world snapshots? The day someone casually posts their digital counterpart smiling into the camera can’t be far away. Right?

In fact, you’ll soon be able to take selfies in World of Warcraft. And you already can in Wind Waker. As Ben Haddock mentioned in the comments, the best part of Wind Waker isn’t the visuals, it is having the ability to take ridiculous and silly selfies.

More over, there are a range of great side missions with GTA V involving entirely around photography, selfie or otherwise, and someone even made a mod of doom where your gun is replaced by a selfie stick.

 

Holiday from Meatspace

 

More traditionally structured games like Grand Theft Auto V are not any different from the spiritual game Journey. Making it to the top of Mount Iliad to watch the sun set out over Paleto Bay is quite a worthwhile way to spend your limited time.

In fact, if you spend your time in Grand Theft Auto not plotting bank robberies or trying to assassinate someone, you’ll be rewarded with stunning details that are as wonderful as anything you can experience during your holiday in meat space.

Playing GTA V is like taking a holiday from your own life. You travel to another city. But you also inhabit someone else’s body, and a world with different rules to the one you already know. It’s like renting someone’s house in Airbnb, but getting their life along with it.

But GTA V for me is just as much a game about wandering aimlessly in the wilderness. I’ve taken boat trips that lasted hours, I’ve done deep sea diving just to follow a school of fish slowly making it’s way way through the plants and rocks. I’ve sat in the woods, watching a deer casually wander past, grazing the tall grass. And just like in the Far Cry series, I’ve marvelled at the sunlight.

Traveling in virtual worlds makes you marvel, because the people who build our digital entertainment aren’t just creating guns and cars, they’re building living and breathing worlds. They are truly engineers of magic and wonder. The way the trees grow in Black & White, and the complexity of the animals, living and hunting each other, in Far Cry 4 are both stunning examples of the complexity at our finger tips.

 SKYRIM, designed by  Melanie HubertCrozet

SKYRIM, designed by Melanie HubertCrozet

 GTA V, designed by  Mikael Westman

GTA V, designed by Mikael Westman

You can practically smell the fresh, mountain air in Skyrim. The sound of birds, the green leaves on the trees, and the nearby stream gives you the urge to strip off and jump in. To cram everything into a backpack and just… disappear for a while.

I’m not the first person to have a life-long appreciation for the beauty within game worlds. Have a look at Dead End Thrills, by Duncan Harris. Or Other Places, by Andy Kelly.

 

Virtual Travel-Guides

 

With all this beauty, and all this space, is it crazy to imagine travel guides like the Lonely Planet expanding to include games? Providing tips and hints for places to visit and things to see? I feel like it would be a very natural way for things to develop.

I don’t mean a walkthrough. It’s not really about game play. It’s not about completing the missions. But a travel guide that helps you discover the hidden spots of beautiful details, and guides you to the very best panoramic views that one should not missed within a game.

I am talking about the things you must see aside from the central action the game was built on.

Is it weird to think there’d be a market for that? Not really, there’s already a thriving industry of websites pointing you to all the highlights, and ride-along youtube videos showing you the craziest things you probably missed.

 

Time Travel

 

Games, of course, also allow you to travel back in time. From joining the crusades to playing with dinosaurs, games have always allowed you to do the impossible. As a gamer, I must say I’ve learned lots from the many games I’ve played. Whether it’s the American revolution, the crusades, or ancient Rome. I feel like I’ve been there, and although the actions I performed within the games I played were an oversimplification of the truth, I am convinced I picked up more in the background details than the history lessons I would get at school.

I remember one game especially well — an old strategy game released for the Amiga in 1990 called Lost Patrol. The game crash-lands you in the jungle of Vietnam, and challenges you to make it out on your own with a small group of soldiers. Reminiscent of Apocalypse Now, the game was powerful, tense and nervewracking. As you loose one of your team to a claymore mine, you felt a sense of loss and rage, of helplessness.

Playing that game gave me a limited but powerful glimpse the conflict, of Vietnam as a country, and allowed me to experience a small taste of what it must have been like for soldiers on the ground.

This makes me think: travelling is also culture.

Travelling is also discovering the dark side of a place you visit. It is learning about the worlds’ past. And with that come the gritty, painful mistakes that litter history. When I travel, I do more than sip a margarita by the pool. I learn, I read, I listen. I go to museums, I study people, I learn the culture not just on the surface, but under the skin.

Games have always had a stigma attached to them — that playing them is a lighthearted thing to do. We should challenge that idea, playing is not just trivial in intent. Why not create more games that link to our fears, hopes or collective painful memories? Games can transform our way of seeing an event that’s taken place, they can be a powerful medium of learning.

And there are powerful examples of this: Shindler’s List is widely viewed and highly regarded and no one feels guilty for watching it. But when game developer Luc Bernard released an online game for children called Imagination Is The Only Escape, about the Holocaust, it was criticised for being highly inappropriate.

Gone Gitmo is a digital version of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, built in Second Life. An interactive documentary project by Nonny de la Peña and Peggy Weil, it allows visitors to travel to Cuba and experience for themselves what it is like to be transported to Gitmo.

There have always been feelings of anger in response to the idea of ‘playing’ with a sensitive subject. But games and playing are also unique in how they allow us to be somewhere with all of our energy— they can be used to deal with and understand subjects that might be uncomfortable, painful, confrontational or shocking.

”Games have a profound ability to take your entire focus… and create an immersive experience where you can really feel the feelings of the person you’re playing. It’s an opportunity for me as a creator to invite people to walk with me in my life.”

So says Ryan Green, creator of the game That Dragon, Cancer, which chronicles his son’s battle with the disease.

The great thing about travelling in games, compared to the real world, is that in games you don’t just have to go to the same world you live in. You can travel the universe, discover new planets, inhabit different physical forms.

Why limit ourselves to the same old boring planet we live on every single day? Why stick with the same human body we’ve had all this time?

When I was young, I read a lot of science fiction. Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, and many other writers magical, frightening and strange creations entered my brain, and got stuck there, feeding my imagination.

But only games brought that sense of the ‘impossible’ into the realm of the real. I am not saying games are better than books, except, they kind of are… becoming better… slowly.

“Even if a planet in No Man’s Sky is discovered every second, it’ll take 585 billion years to find them all” jokes Hello Games’ co-founder, Sean Murray.

As the power of code grows, and slowly, the limits of game worlds expand proportionately to the computing power of your machine (as opposed to the amount of data you can put onto a dvd) we’re entering procedurally generated environments that are effectively limitless.

An infinite world to explore, to literally get lost in.

 NO MAN’S SKY, designed by  Gosia Pawlak

NO MAN’S SKY, designed by Gosia Pawlak

Playing games of that size is for the real passionate gamers. Finding your way to see the c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate, that — that takes effort. Some people will want a shortcut — someone who can help you skip the hardest parts of a game, and guide you to the sweet spot.

Would it be crazy to imagine virtual guided tours? A kind of game-cruise where you’re guided through of the top moments. The must sees. All set to go, allowing you to see the best of a game without having to bother with the rest.

Imagine being escorted by someone paid to ensure the best details are not missed, but skilled in the games narrative and challenges to whisk you through without delay.

 

Virtual Reality

 

All of this leads us to the the ultimate virtual travelling experience. Virtual Reality is raising heads and getting people extremely excited. And the latest development: Microsoft’s Hololens and Magic Leap, offer a glimpse of the power of holograms and a mixture between the meatspace and the virtual. So we’re in for a real trip.

If game worlds already have some of us enthralled, then experiencing them in a fully immersed state, inside an Oculus Rift, HTC Vive will literally take you somewhere you’ve never dreamed of.

“This is the moment of a birth of a completely new medium…” says Saschka Unseld formerly of Facebook’s Oculus Story Studio.

Will it be with those devices that people might take a week off work for, just to explore a new game world?

There are many challenges to overcome before this medium is widespread, and before there’s enough of us willing and able to spend many hours at one time making a real journey in a virtual world.

But we’re getting there.

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I am a cross-disciplinary New Realities Director, exploring immersive storytelling through VR, AR, film, games, and beyond. I collaborate with brands, consult for companies, and create unique self-generated projects. Always nice to hear from you: a@anrk.co.

 

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