How Games Let Me Travel When I Couldn't Otherwise
Coming off a year where I experienced both personal and professional turmoil, 2020 was going to be the year I turned it all around. I decided that as much as I traveled in 2019, I was going to do even more in 2020. Not just that, but I was going to do more in general: I couldn't wait to set up more times to meet up at bars and restaurants with friends, and I was even planning to throw a house party or two. Unfortunately, as we all learned, 2020 was not the year any of us expected, and nearly all of my plans were put on hold.
We know the story of 2020 all too well, but with travel such a key component of how I planned to heal from a 2019 that, quite frankly, left me emotionally upended, I was left to my own devices. Thankfully, while 2020 was an often terrible year, it delivered a ton of awesome games that provided escapism. As I played through the various adventures the year brought us, I came to a realization that I was experiencing so many of the destinations I love through the real world in the virtual world.
Don't get me wrong: Visiting Japan in a video game doesn't even hold a candle to experiencing the wonders of that country in real life, but when so much of my gaming time was spent in digital recreations of that country, I couldn't help feel warm and fuzzy. My real-life experience with Japan is limited to Tokyo, so I loved exploring the places I visited just a few months prior with Persona 5 Royal. Not only is that game among my favorite RPGs of all time, but Shibuya and the other prominent areas of Tokyo are so prominently featured they almost feel like characters themselves. I was able to further explore Japan through Yakuza: Like a Dragon, which highlights other parts of Tokyo and the surrounding region, while Ghost of Tsushima gave me another roundtrip ticket (plus a time machine) in arguably the most beautiful game I've ever played.
It didn't stop with Japan, though. The Last of Us Part II let me venture across the country to various familiar locales in Seattle, my favorite Pacific Northwest city. Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales let me visit another city I miss dearly, Manhattan, though being able to stare across the bridge at Brooklyn without the ability to go there was a bit of a tease. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2 allowed me to visit very loose interpretations of many cities around the globe, though I admit that it was more of a warm blanket of nostalgia that harkened back to simpler, more normal times than anything else.
Even fantastical locations I could immerse myself in became mini vacations; say what you will about Cyberpunk 2077, but Night City is a big, colorful place to lose yourself in. The same could be said about worlds like Midgar and the Golden Isle in Final Fantasy VII Remake and Immortals Fenyx Rising respectively; I know those aren't based on real places, but they were worlds I could fall into without much effort.
Oddly enough, I didn't spend very much time with the game that perhaps would have been the best way to cope with a lack of travel: Microsoft Flight Simulator. Not only would that experience allow me to visit any place on the planet with photorealistic visuals, but also the joys of travel itself, complete with seeing the gates of my most familiar airports. You would think this would almost serve as an unexpectedly comforting reminder of the most mundane moments of the trips I hoped to take, but to be honest, since relocating my primary workstation to my gaming PC at home, it has been so difficult to force myself to sit at my computer any longer than I need to for the workday. I'll revisit Microsoft Flight Simulator when it comes to Xbox or when I'm able to work in our office again – whichever comes first.
Even other moments in games seemed to hit different this year; hearing the roar of the full crowd in EA Sports UFC 4 or Madden NFL 21 just felt nice. Or the feeling of commanding a massive music-festival crowd in Fuser. Even something like island hopping and errand running in The Touryst felt out of the ordinary in 2020, but somehow, comforting.
Of course, one of the best parts of traveling is seeing the friends and family you don't live near. This year's experiences allowed me to spend remote quality time with them. Outside of a Zoom trivia group I joined in the early months of the pandemic, games like Fall Guys and Overwatch (yeah, I know it's not a 2020 game, but I'm still playing it!) gave me fun excuses to catch up with friends I can't otherwise see this year, but no game better encapsulated the notion of traveling to visit friends than Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Hitting at the perfect time, Animal Crossing: New Horizons allowed me to visit the virtual homes of friends to not only hang out with them, but receive inspiration for my own island. While multiplayer is arguably the worst component of Animal Crossing: New Horizons in terms of gameplay function and convenience, it was just what I needed.
I'm still desperately hoping to be able to do some travel in 2021 – I miss my family and friends, plus the sheer wonder of getting lost in an unfamiliar city. But as I reflect on the gaming experiences delivered by developers throughout 2020, so many of them brought experiences similar to the ones I felt were missing from my real life over the majority of the year. For that, I'm beyond thankful to the creators of those experiences.