The Grand Tour: Recreating Recreation

I want to play a game about tourism. It’s odd that I can fight in so many wars, across so many continents, planets and timeframes, but I can’t simply take a stroll around a city orf national park, taking photos and writing postcards as I go. I’m sure there are games about tourism but they’re probably adventure games, or hidden object games. Something will be in the way of the pleasure of being in a place simply to be in that place. From Street View to The Crew, I’m looking for my next grand tour.

Games are many things but at their root, they are forms of recreation as well as challenge and tests of skill. I have plenty of games that test my skill – I’d like a few more that recreate recreational activities, and tourism seems like a fine place to start.

There’s a crossover with walking simulators to an extent but a game about tourism would provide more than a place to wander in. There would be a guidebook, providing objectives of a sort in the form of landmarks to see and museums to visit. There would be expenses to pay and an inventory to manage, as well as the possibility of a party of adventurers to control, relationships and all, during road trips and weekend breaks.

I use the Assassin’s Creed games as tourism simulators. Wildly inaccurate though they may be, the historical places are beautiful and it’s even possible to tick off locations as you visit them, with a little description added into the memory banks for your troubles. If the Animus existed, it would surely be repurposed as a Total Recall device, allowing people to take vacations in places and times otherwise impossible to visit.

The lure of driving sims often crosses over with tourism as well. How many people want to play The Crew simply to see the sights? Jim has written about Fuel’s world as a place for touring and I play Euro Truck Simulator in a similar way. As much as I’d enjoy exploring a city, I’d love to have a game about a road trip, a coast to coast simulator, with no races, no puzzles and no narrative arc other than the story of a person or group of people intending to have a good time.

I treat Google Maps like a game. Pick a city or town, or have the internet choose a location for you, and then search for the nearest hotel or bar. Trace the points in between. Find the nearest train station or Greyhound Bus depot and find the next actual vehicle leaving from that point, by consulting actual timetables. Plot a route across the US or Europe. Find the unknown routes between your current place in the world and your childhood home.

Since the addition of historical images, Street View has become a beautiful respository of melancholy possibilities. A street photographed in 2013 might look almost identical in the 2011 shot, except for a couple of different vehicles parked in front of houses. Closer examination of those points of change reveals other differences – a new front door, a redesigned garden. A ‘For Sale’ sign.

Whether there’s truth in the telling or not, the few clues add up to possible stories and as well as facilitating armchair tourism, Street View is a place for unusual acts of detective work. Meaningless and mundane they may be, but they’re triggered by at least some of the same impulses that crackle through Larkin’s Whitsun Weddings.

A game about tourism wouldn’t necessarily be a game about travel – it would be a game about seeing things, usually for the first time, and of interpreting those things. Monuments, museums and the history of streets and houses would be a part of it, but it would also capture the moments that are only mysterious because they are outside our own lives. A train loaded with commuters takes on new significance when the details of that commute, and the people performing it, are unknown.

I think we’re coming closer to the possibility of tourism as a perhaps unintended aspect of many experiences. Procedurally generated places have the potential to be new and strange forever, and in the handcrafted worlds that they create, developers are often facilitating the simple act of admiration.

This photojournal shot within Grand Theft Auto V might be my favourite document about games this year and Other Places is a regular source of delight. Observation and admiration allow us to explore the world at a pace out of keeping with the familiar beat of work, play, sleep. They also allow us to see the fringes, jettisoning the perfection of a postcard for the messiness of life occurring at the edge of the object that we attempt to frame. Rome is not the Colosseum.

I’m always looking for new places to explore, with my actual legs as well as the thousands of virtual bodies and vehicles I’ve crammed my mind into over the years. Games have always provided a perfect environment for exploration and admiration, but I’d like to play something that is dedicated to just those things. I can’t remember a game describing my character as a tourist and giving me free reign to discover new worlds since NetHack. Time for that to change.

Let’s finish with a snippet of Whitsun Weddings so that Larkin can embarrass my every turn of phrase.

and it was nearly done, this frail
Traveling coincidence; and what it held
Stood ready to be loosed with all the power
That being changed can give. We slowed again,
And as the tightened brakes took hold, there swelled
A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower
Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain.

That’ll do.

24 Comments

  1. Gap Gen says:

    I really want to get into the AC games, but largely as a tourist in a world rather than as a stabbing contractor. I love cities as growing and evolving artefacts of human creativity and development, figuring out how they changed over the years. I’ve spent the last few years living in France (turns out no-one in the UK wants to give me a job), and European cities are great monuments to hundreds of years of history, whether it’s the concentric canals of Strasbourg with each ring a new era of architecture, or Lyon slowly sliding down a hill and across two rivers, or Paris’s medieval heart riven with 1800s boulevards and encroached by concrete and glass suburbs booming outwards in the post-War era, or even Brest’s WWII-imposed concrete reconstruction. London is a kind of hybrid anything-goes mongrel of a city, whereas Bath actively erased its post-war district and replaced it with (neo-neo-classical?) sandstone Apple stores and fashion shops. One of my biggest disappointments about Bioshock was that it wasn’t a living world, but rather something that died, and you were merely glimpsing what had been.

    EDIT: Man, I’m so glad that 404 error didn’t force me to retype all of this.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Lexx87 says:

    There was a ‘game’ I played on PC as a youngster – devloped by the Discovery channel or Encyclopedia Brittanica or something like that which was literally tourism.

    You flew, sailed, drove, trained (?), or walked all over the world, collecting stamps and notes in your passport for each location, leaning about each place you visited. It was a big interactive world map you just clicked around on.

    Not a clue what it was called though, and its rather old but I remember getting a lot out of it.

  3. whbboyd says:

    How many people’s favorite (or highly-ranked) experience in e.g. Skyrim is wandering around and seeing the beautiful sights? I know it’s one of my favorite activities, and people talk about it constantly. But nobody’s really tried to capitalize on it; there has to be a “real game” there, with killing people or driving fast or something in it, or it’s a “non-game”, a “walking simulator” and gets sidelined as something niche. Even though massive loads of people clearly enjoy that sort of thing.

    There are games that do push it a little bit; Mirror’s Edge, for instance, is much more about finding your way through the world than beating the baddies. (No exploration, though, because everything’s on poorly-marked rails, and it doesn’t manage to entirely escape the murder cliché.) Fuel gives a giant world to drive through. And of course, the Elder Scrolls has a huge aspect of exploring and sightseeing in this giant world. But it’s never the main focus, and it feels frustratingly delegitimized.

    • LTK says:

      I totally played Skyrim as a tourist. Just a very violent one who will not let anyone stand in his way to see the sights. Getting phat loot was just a bonus.

      I think that among the completionists, I’m in the minority in that I didn’t complete the Thieves’ or Assassin’s Guild quests, as it didn’t fit into my playstyle. Any place I could steal from or murder someone in I can also simply visit. And once I felt like I’d explored Skyrim sufficiently, I didn’t see any reason to go back to it.

    • Lobster9 says:

      I once started a Skyrim character who’s primary goal was to collect as many of the in-game books as possible. I refused to engage in combat beyond clubbing hostile wolves with a stick, and taking hirelings to defend me in various dungeons. I also added a couple of survival mods to make things a little more engaging.

      I thought of her as a kind of archeologist, trying to preserve knowledge before it is lost to the war, and the game supported me pretty well. The main quest got in the way a little bit -as it always does- but immersing myself in the geography and lore of the world was a unique experience I hadn’t discovered before.

      I really believe that the unprecedented success of Skyrim on PC can be attributed to the fact that the game offers an unrivaled role playing sandbox. You can twist the game to your own will in a variety of ways, and never feel bound to a specific task or story.

      I often wonder what it would be like if a company took the Skyrim model, stripped out the main quest, and offered a kind of D&D style ‘Base Game’ which could be endlessly expanded with modular packs, both official and fan made. Under the right management it could be really successful, especially if it included a cooperative component.

  4. golem09 says:

    Just looked at the photojournal from gta V, not IV, that was linked here. Looks really, really neat. I really want to like that game for it’s hugely detailed world, but I just have 0 motivation to play it, because I hate gangster stories, playing bad dudes, and shooter without any superpowers/special skills.
    Looking at it though I might get it once it hits 5€ on steam just to drive around a bit.

  5. FriendlyFire says:

    This very notion is what makes me excited about space sims in general. I can see myself just going on random journeys in games like No Man’s Sky or Limit Theory just to see the sights. You can’t beat space at being pretty and wildly diverse. I wouldn’t even care if the mechanics weren’t as solid as they could’ve been, as long as they let me go from point A to point B unhindered.

    • golem09 says:

      Yes, this is exactly why I’m excited for No Man’s Land. Exploration of a virtually unlimited Universe of possibilites.

  6. caff says:

    I do like these sort of supporter posts. More observations and thoughts like this please! :)

  7. melnificent says:

    That’s what walking simulators should be called, tourist simulators. I know that it’s a niche genre, but I prefer the sedate pace of a walking simulator ala proteus to the shooty bang bang of most games.
    I must’ve died more in Battlefield 4 from just wandering the landscape taking pictures than from actively engaging in battle.

  8. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    I loved this. It’s funny you mention that snapshot in time thing about Google maps, because one of my old addresses is exactly that. My wife and kids were outside playing, along with friends, I’d just ran inside to grab something for our yard sale, but the moment was captured by a Google car. I go to it every once in awhile just to relive the memories of that house and that time.

  9. patchWorkedMan says:

    This may be why I’m looking forward to the Oculus Rift(or VR in general). I’ve noticed that in videos of people trying it so far that their movement seems to slow down. Their necks crane to see objects at different angles. They lean forward to at something more closely. And even more encouraging they stare at vistas for a lot longer then normal lets plays. It seems that by allowing freedom of movement, untether ones view from the mechanical limitations of the mouse and keyboard aesthetic appreciation comes flooding back.

    Maybe this is caused by allowing the player to see the world through virtual eyes rather then down the barrel of a gun. A removing of purpose of the view. Or maybe aesthetics require the level of cost(how much perceived work) to be low enough to have value. Hell it could be that the wearers have forgotten what is real and what is unreal for a moment. Still until I get one myself I wont know the truth of it, but hopefully when the time comes I get to live this dream.

  10. sonofsanta says:

    The idea of managing an itinerary and a budget horrifies me. That’s no relaxation!

    What would make for sufficient gameiness in a tourism simulator for me would be a photo scrapbook. Almost any game I play I try and find out the relevant .ini hack to hide the UI with a keypress, so I can take photos as I play. Stalker, Dishonored, Dear Esther: my Steam account is filled with random print screens that took a couple of minutes of crouching and shuffling and framing each.

    I don’t need some nonsense scoring system rating me on how well I framed the subject and lined up the thirds. I just want an environment, some pretty lighting (that shifts with the time) and a camera.

  11. quietone says:

    Yes!

  12. tauricity says:

    Here’s a tourism game, a way of discovering a new place in virtual first-person: the BBC’s Geoguessr [sic] link to bbc.com

    They drop you in a random place on Google Street view somewhere in the world (been in the middle of a scrub desert a few times), then you place a marker on a map where you think the location is. They award you points on how close you get. There’s also a timed version and a way to play against a friend. It’s actually pretty hard and rather addicitive.

    • OctoStepdad says:

      thanks for posting this! Its a really cool idea and I see myself playing this a lot especially at down times at work.

      just hit a 42 km guess with it being in Northern California

  13. apa says:

    I play Far Cry 2 and 3 in the winter because outside it’s freezing, snow storm and pitch black in Finland.

    It’s awesome to be able just to stare at the sun or the sea. (why oh why there’s no sun in the sky in FC3??)

  14. buxcador says:

    One of the aspects that I most enjoyed from games, was the scenery of Crisis 1, and Far Cry 2.

    Those were wonderful. I spent a lot of time just enjoying the landscapes, walking, hearing…
    Far Cry 2 was very good. Walking in the savanna triggered memories of “asados” in the pampas. I remembered the smellings, and made me so hungry that I only left to get some roasted meat.
    The calm wind over the trees, distant birds singing… What a memorable experience. I enjoyed just walking trough nature, and thats why a lot of people didn’t liked the game. They ignored all the eye candy, and just used vehicles to get to destinations as fast as possible. Of course, they got a frustrating experience, and they ranted, blaming the game for their poor gaming skills.

    Far Cry 3, and Crysis 2, and 3 were incredibly disappointing. His nature was ruined and cartoonish, the city environments were cliched, characters overpowered, and playing required little strategic and tactical thinking.

    Another games that made me enjoy the environment were the first tomb raiders.
    I only wanted to know each new scenery. I was continuously wondering what mystery was hidden under the next corner and level. What hidden secrets were waiting just beyond reach.
    Despite his primitive graphics, the scenarios felt more “real”. I appreciated each corridor with Egyptian pictures on the walls, investigated each row, jumped each rock, to try to reach forbidden places. The pools were beautiful, and made wish I had physical access to one of these..
    The simplicity of graphics gave it some elegance which is lost on newer Tomb Raider games. On the latest, the decorations are just to annoy and impede. You see a lot of things that are there just to block you freedom of movement. They are not interesting. They are not made to be watched. Are just for refilling.
    The “secrets” are not more “secrets”, but optional works to be completed. Is no more about raiding a tomb and discovering his secrets, but a generic shooter, lost in the sea of generic shooters.

  15. Bart Stewart says:

    This, very much. (It’s also a shining example of what is best about Rock Paper Shotgun.)

    Game developers go to remarkable lengths to create worlds (as the old Origin Systems used to say of itself). Considerable time and effort and money are spent on the geometry, and the textures, and the objects, and the dynamic behaviors possible in these places… and yet so often they’re just treated as disposable scenery. Places are just colored boxes that apply tactical constraints to shooty-stabby mechanics. They might as well be rendered as wireframes as in Richard Garriott’s 1979 Akalabeth.

    An alternative is to get some value out of all that effort by treating places as places — as visually and functionally distinctive interactive environments. Heck, sometimes even function isn’t required. I spent years playing Star Wars Galaxies. In addition to my house by the river west of Keren on Naboo, there were places I thought of as “mine” — dramatic overlooks and tucked-away bits of geography that I never saw anyone else enjoying, but that were worth pausing the latest “go here, do that” task to appreciate.

    Those places became Places to me. In my mind I can recall their important features very clearly, as though I had lived part of my non-virtual life there. I don’t confuse the two; I know what’s real. But in a way, those virtual places are real to me. I have experienced many pleasant moments of my real life in those simulated places. I had fun there. And I’m confident that others who read this will know exactly what I mean, because there are similar places in the games you’ve played that you can recall as though they were physical locations, tagged with particular emotional resonances for you. That’s what it means to be a place in which we experience life.

    If this kind of “fun” is a valid form of play, isn’t it a fair target for games to be made that cater to that interest?

    Why can’t developers do something more interesting with these wonderful locations that they make such an effort to construct for us?

  16. busky42 says:

    i would buy a game like that

  17. KillerCriddle2 says:

    I spent many hours playing Watch_Dogs, mainly though to walk around Chicago with the great graphics (worse mod). I need a tourist simulator similar to The Crew (but without the races and awful story-line) which allows you to drive in any car of your choosing and then allows you to park and walk around and just see the sights. That would be incredible.