In these immersive games, there is a whole world to explore

Payal Dhar

THE WASHINGTON POST – Social distancing and travel are two things, much like Kipling’s East and West, that you would imagine would never meet. Then the coronavirus made it clear that the tourism industry needed strategies to survive beyond the pandemic. Thus, we can now wander virtual galleries and museums, take off on digital safaris, and experience remote guided tours. Even university researchers have been taking an interest in the matter – consider this Cornell University project to re-sample photos of renowned landmarks into 4-D glory.

But there is another way to be transported to new worlds and challenged in mind and, sometimes, body. We are talking about gaming.

Long before the pandemic encouraged the travel sector to go virtual, free-roaming or open-world games – where players can move about more or less without restraint – were taking us into fantastic, surrealistic times and places. They allowed us to live out impossible fantasies without worrying about life, limb or legal consequence, and they were far ahead of the travel industry when it came to offering digital excursions.

“For years, clubs and groups have been meeting in spaces like GTA (Grand Theft Auto) and WoW (World of Warcraft) to go on virtual tours,” University of California at Riverside Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies Derek Burrill said. “Since gamification is such a buzzword right now across so many industries, gamelike elements are finding their way into virtual tours, and vice versa. … This will continue to be true while augmented reality is rolled out with 5G.”

Until the travel industry catches up or the pandemic ends, here are some incredible immersive games that will help you slake your thirst for new adventure and experiences.

Ghost of Tsushima. PHOTO: SUCKER PUNCH PRODUCTIONS
Far Cry Primal. PHOTO: UBISOFT MONTREAL

HIGH-STAKES ADVENTURE

What was it like to live in the Wild West? An institution like the Pioneer Living History Museum in Arizona can tell you all about life in the frontier ages. But to be an outlaw in that period, coming face to face with a bounty hunter, or with feds on your heels, or staying out of the way of a gang with a bone to pick – what would that be like?

The critically acclaimed 2018 title Red Dead Redemption 2 pitches you headlong into a no-holds-barred adventure that plays out in one of the most spectacular open-world settings of our time. The expansive landscapes are breathtaking, never-ending wilderness infused with weather effects, ambient sounds, wildlife and flora. There, you can hunt, explore and enjoy your own company when the bloody demands of your occupation give you a moment to breathe. Not to mention, the game has an excellent story line as well.

Games give us the thrills of risk-taking but none of the ramifications. In the 2014 remake of the classic stealth game Thief, you experience a Gothic landscape from a completely new perspective – the rooftops and back alleys of a pre-modernist city – as a thief who roams in the shadows. In Half-Life: Alyx, the latest in the classic Half-Life series, you get to go behind the scenes of a fledgling resistance movement in the fictional City 17, in virtual reality. The ever-popular GTA games are set in locales inspired by actual United States (US) cities, and you partake in activities that would land you in jail in real life. In the stealth-adventure Hitman series, you travel the world and rub shoulders with the rich and famous as a contract killer of exceptional skill, infiltrating their inner domains.

OUT OF PLACE AND TIME

While modern-day gaming hardware has a lot to do with hyper-realistic environs, do not let the early-21st-century graphics of Deus Ex put you off a tremendous experience. Even though this game has since spawned numerous sequels, the original was revolutionary in giving the player choices that led to different outcomes. Deus Ex’s cyberpunk dystopia of the 2050s would not qualify as a holiday destination by any stretch of the imagination, but as an engrossing sci-fi experience, with players in the shoes of a nano-augmented United Nations anti-terrorism agent on a mission, it takes you into a time and place you will want to return to.

You might get to Japan once the pandemic is over, but what if you could travel back to the 13th century there and take on the mantle of a samurai? In Ghost of Tsushima, you get to do that, as well as grapple with existential dilemmas generated by the philosophy you live by. Here, you have almost limitless rein to explore, over landscape and inside buildings, and the setting meshes brilliantly with an unforgettable narrative journey. Want to journey back even further? Assassins Creed Origins takes you to ancient Egypt, while Far Cry Primal lets you live like prehistoric humans of the Upper Paleolithic era.

For truly epic adventures set in a vast open world inspired by the Roman Empire, the Elder Scrolls series has no equal. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is particularly worthy of mention, having revolutionised the open-world fantasy saga. You are virtually free to do just about anything in Skyrim, including buy a house and get married. Only ‘til death will you part.

Game developers love to re-create historic events and locales, but sometimes they generate stunning alternate-history landscapes, as in Wolfenstein II: The New Collosus, set in a post-World War II era in which the Nazis have won and you come face to face with Adolf Hitler. Or they might create an imagined future on a grand scale, like in the Mass Effect trilogy, an incredible military sci-fi space opera in which you command a starship and orchestrate an alliance to take on a political enemy. Talk about out of this world.

PANDEMIC ALERT!

Sites that commemorate crimes against humanity or natural and other disasters have always drawn visitors. Travellers throng to places such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial; the Killing Fields of Phnom Penh; the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum; the Chernobyl nuclear site; or neighbourhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina, which creates an uncomfortable kind of tourism.

Games, however, allow us to experience the aftermath of disasters without any of the ethical considerations. And – for better or for worse – the gaming universe does have a rather unhealthy obsession with pandemics (pardon the pun). If there is one solace, it is that humankind always (er, almost always) comes back from the worst of times. One of the best post-pandemic stories is the critically acclaimed The Last of Us Part II set in the aftermath of a deadly infection that turns humans into zombielike creatures.

WORLD 2.0

But it is not all thrills and new experiences. Research shows that gaming can offer psychological rewards – including social and emotional benefits – that are similar to those we get from travel. Gaming communities “can be used to increase social connectedness and decrease isolation,” said Dylan Poulus, a researcher at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia who studies the competitive gaming industry (known as esports).

Multiplayer gaming, for example, can allow you to be with friends and family at a time when travel is impossible or very difficult. “There is no way that you can, at the drop of a hat, go and kick a football ball around with your friend in Sweden and your friend in the US,” Poulus said.

“But you can log on to pretty much any sport (or game) that the three of you have, and you can be playing in five minutes.”

Games can also create inclusive spaces, both Poulus and Burrill point out.

“There is … a long tradition of using virtual spaces as places of mobility for disabled and differently abled gamers and viewers,” Burrill explained.

In his experience at a muscular dystrophy camp, video games were one of the most-sought-after activities, particularly with non-ambulatory campers, because games allowed them full, often supercharged mobility.

“With the current environmental catastrophe and pandemic,” Burrill added, “some people are eschewing travel and opting for virtual travel instead (to reduce) their carbon footprint. I’m not sure it can ever replace the liveness of ‘being there,’ but as the technology continues to develop, virtual travel can only become more popular.”

He called it World 2.0.

While we may not be able to taste the salt of the sea in the air, run our hands on weathered rocks or devour unidentifiable freshly prepared street food, there will still be adventure, excitement, anticipation, companionship and intoxication in a game.

All we will have to do is choose our adventure and press play.