With the pandemic keeping everyone inside just as spring brings good weather and longer days, many of us are missing simply wandering outdoors. Fortunately, there are video games offering beautiful landscapes where you can lose yourself in (virtual) nature. You’re in good company if you do – as film and media professor Alenda Chang points out in her book, Playing Nature: “For many people, the hours spent in game environments vastly outnumber those spent in wilderness areas”, even without a public health crisis.
Replaying favourite games for comfort is a trend now, and some are revisiting recent open-world adventures, such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, and even Far Cry 5 with the guns put away. But these blockbuster action games tend to feature enemies —not ideal if all you want is a peaceful ramble around a beautiful place.
Luckily, there’s a genre of video games called walking simulators, where the goal is simply to wander around an unknown space. Many of the best-known walking sims take place in confined indoor spaces (if you haven’t already, you need to try Gone Home, The Stanley Parable and What Remains of Edith Finch), but there are plenty that offer broad, natural landscapes to explore (Firewatch, Abzû, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture are great examples, and great worlds to wander). For some recent and unequivocally comforting virtual walks – all friendly to first-time players – try one of these.
A Short Hike
You’re a cute teenage bird visiting Aunt May in her seaside village. But mobile reception is nonexistent, so you hike up a mountain to try and find some. At your own pace, you can chat with neighbours, collect shiny things, and hike, swim and fly up to Hawk Peak. The in-game hiking trails make this a perfect outdoor escape from being cooped up inside.
• Adamgryu, 2019; PC/Mac, £5
The dappled air of Eastshade sparkles, beckoning you into villages brimming with cosy cheer. You’re a traveling painter whose commissions take you to all corners of the island: windmill-covered cliffs, balloon rides to snow-capped mountaintops, ancient forest paths that lead to the beach. There’s golden light, supernaturally beautiful eclipses once a day, and low-pressure tasks assigned by kind anthropomorphic creatures. Playing Eastshade feels like the loveliest respite for anyone who dreams of travelling to a faraway land to drink tea and pursue creative passions.
• Eastshade Studios, 2019; PC, PS4, Xbox One, £20
You’re a lost soul inhabiting the body of one animal after another, traversing a post-human world long after those inhabitants have disappeared. You were once one of them. Sometimes, as you come across the shadows of your family and friends, bits of your past return to you. While the story gradually takes shape, the most fun is in gasping at the gorgeous vistas and switching perspectives from majestic wolf to darting fish to adorably rotund wombat. Each animal’s capabilities show you new ways to explore the flourishing ecospheres, none of which you’ll want to leave.
• Mooneye Studios, 2019; PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, £26
This new idle/adventure game is dark in tone but the poignant concept and cosy execution make it worth exploring. Far beneath the ground lives a king who plans to sleep for 400 days – real days, which will pass whether or not you’re playing. In a plea all too relevant, all the king asks of you “is to wait and never to leave these caves”. With that, Shade, your elf-like character, begins the lonely vigil, trudging around the vast underground network to find small treasures. Time becomes a landscape and waiting your tool of exploration, as days and weeks of actual time must pass before you can continue some excursions. As it passes, Shade begins to feel like your friend, as small footsteps patter around in a background window of your computer. They could really use a friend to pass the time with – who couldn’t.
• Studio Seufz, 2020; PC/Mac, £12
Walden, a game
Go the woods and play in this contemplative adaptation of Henry David Thoreau’s masterpiece. You can perform basic tasks – observe all kinds of plants and animals, journal about solitude and many other peaceful activities – but above all, you can walk around the glorious Walden pond and find inspiration from these thoughtful transcendentalist concepts in video game form.
• USC Game Innovation Lab, 2017; PC, PS4, Xbox One, £15
Melissa Kagen writes for Game Studies, Gamevironments and the Journal of Gaming and Virtual Worlds, where she is associate editor
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