Game Design,  Travel

video games for 3 types of travel lovers: explorers, adventurers and experts

2020 has been a year of lockdowns, quarantines and social distancing.  For travel enthusiasts, or even those of us who were looking forward to a drive away for the weekend or a trip home for the holidays, it’s been difficult.  And while it’s not the biggest problem to have in this chaotic year, I’ve missed going out, exploring a new part of town and finding nice shops or restaurants.  So while at home, I’ve turned to video games to see if I can scratch the travel itch from my living room.

If you do a quick Google search for “video games about travel”, you’ll come up with articles that recommend several types of games.  In this post, I will discuss the design of three categories of “travel” video games and the kind of traveller they might appeal to.  And in a future post, I will dive into a case study of what makes a game truly capture the spirit of travelling.

World of Warcraft environment art from the October 2020 Shadowlands expansion.  Image from: Blizzard Entertainment Press Center.

1. Open-World Games or MMOs with a Fictional Setting

The first recommended type of game is often something like World of Warcraft or The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, games with large, well-developed worlds.  These games provide plenty to do, often including many sidequests, achievements and vanity tasks (e.g. setting up your home) with no clear endgame scenario outside of the main quest, if there even is one.  There’s a wide range of these sort of games and they aren’t all epic fantasies.  The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a single player adventure that fits into this category, as is the vastly different procedurally-generated survival game No Man’s Sky.

As far as capturing the spirit of travel, these games do a great job of making their worlds fun to explore.  In Bartle taxonomy speak, they appeal to explorers, players who enjoy delving into every nook and cranny of the game world.  However, while these games support the spirit of exploration, they do not enforce it.  As a result, other types of players (non-explorers) won’t get the same sense of exploration because they’ll go straight for other objectives like the kills, the quests or the main story.

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The most expansive open-world games in this category are set in fictional worlds.  High budget, beautifully designed and graphically impressive, these immersive experiences are about transporting the player to another world entirely.

Travel Style: Best Suited for Explorers

  • For someone who enjoys exploring new places without much of a plan or itinerary
  • Exploration in these games is self-driven and self-directed, resulting in unique personal stories through emergent gameplay
  • Game worlds are large and immersive with many discoverable areas that can be very rewarding for explorers
Assassin’s Creed Unity is set in Paris, with gameplay happening in and around the iconic Notre-Dame cathedral.  Image from: Ubisoft.

2. Games Set in Different Real-World Locations with a Fictional Story

I was looking for some way of exploring the real world through video games, so the next step was to move on to the games that are set in real-world locations.  The most prominent example is the Assassin’s Creed series, which weaves adventure game and historical fiction, with installments set in Renaissance Italy, Revolutionary America and Ancient Egypt and so forth.

While it was wonderful to catch glimpses or even complete missions in and around actual historical landmarks, there is not much opportunity to explore the place on your own.  The Assassin’s Creed games have storylines that keep the player mostly on rails.  It’s the story rather than exploration that is the main focus of gameplay.  The story pulls the player into espionage, trickery and revenge at the cost of pushing the player away from the travel side of things.

While there is a nod to real-world history in the Assassin’s Creed games, there is a lot of other stuff, like combat and stealth, that the player needs to master.  This is exciting for players who want action-packed or skill-based gameplay as the driving force behind the story, while getting a little bit of a sightseeing trip in a historical period.

Travel Style: Best Suited for Adventurers

  • For someone who enjoys thrilling activities in new locations on their travels
  • Travel or sightseeing occurs as a by-product of the main gameplay (designer controlled), which is set in exotic or historical locations
  • Games are about the excitement of combat, stealth or chases with a fast-paced story containing mission-to-mission progression
Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (1985) screenshot now shows outdated country trivia and information.

3. Educational Games About Geography

It was surprising to me that using travel as the main mechanic is not often done in video games.  My search largely turned up retro educational games about geography.  Eventually, I watched a YouTube playthrough of Globetrotter 2, and had a go at Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? on a DOS emulator.

While these games were a fun throwback, I immediately realised that they were more like interactive geography lessons than travel video games.  These early “edutainment” games have a characteristic quiz format, where players have to answer questions about countries and cities.  There are limitations to this — 1985’s Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?‘s question bank is now outdated, and limits the number of fun replays once you’ve learned the answers to the questions.

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Still, these games capture certain aspects of travelling better than their counterparts.  One of the main reasons for this is that the player has a choice of where to go next.  Granted, in the case of Carmen Sandiego, this freedom is stymied by the fact that there’s a right and wrong choice of location to track down the criminal, leading to a win or lose condition.

Additionally, the clock in Carmen Sandiego communicates the passage of time, which creates the feeling of a long journey.  Taking a flight takes several hours, as does visiting a library to do research.  In the graphics of the time, a simple UI with the map and the time of day cleverly made the game feel like it was about going places.

Many of the games in this category are outdated.  However, there is a mobile version of Backpacker (the PC game was first released in 1995) available for mobile (iOS/Android) that involves answering trivia questions about places around the world.  It’s not particularly showstopping and is rather US-centric, but it’s a good idea of the sort of game I would expect to appeal to travellers who enjoy knowing all the facts.

Travel Style: Best Suited for Experts

  • For someone who enjoys knowing details and facts about the places they visit
  • Can feel like a quiz or lesson rather than a game, often aimed at kids and treated as an educational tool
  • Game depends on player’s external knowledge of the real world over internal knowledge of how the game world works

Next Up…

I’ve discussed how each of these types of games appeals to different types of travellers.  But when it comes to capturing the feeling of travelling, I think there’s some good design elements we can take from each of them.  In an upcoming post, I will do a case study and game design analysis to discuss just that.