Walking, Driving, Flying, Seeing, Looking, Watching: Tourist Simulators

I’ve been on holiday, which means I’ve spent more energy walking around and looking at things, than I do when I’m at work. It’s a tricky thing, this holiday business. How am I supposed to enjoy the majesty of nature (and the cold pint in a country pub that waits at the end of nature) when my muscles are aching, the sweat is like an oil slick on my brow, and I’ve fallen into the habit of checking my maps every fifteen minutes because I’m convinced I’m walking in the wrong direction.

It’s all a bit arduous, this walking and experiencing things first-hand. City breaks can be easier, although they have their own problems. Because I live in a city myself, and often visit other cities for work purposes, the concrete and chaos can feel a little too much like home. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy cities – they’re my favourite places – but they rarely feel like an escape and that, really, is what I want from a holiday. An escape from the everyday. The holi (the holy) is everything that today and tomorrow and the rest are not. It’s a differentday.

Walking through the countryside is different. I live in Salford, blessed with parks and a whopping great canal, but mostly gray and cast over with concrete and cloud. When I leave, often travelling Cumbria-wards, the realisation that a short train journey plants me in one of Britain’s Arcadian valleys is always slightly shocking. How can all of that be so close to all of this? The places in between are often grubby towns that the green seems to be reclaiming, seen through the framing device of a train window.

In reality, the towns are like charcoal smudges across the landscape. Every week, month, decade, the fingers and thumbs of commerce, gentrification and suburban spread push the marks farther into the green. Perhaps that’s why I’m consistently astonished that it’s still there. When I come back to the city, I expect that the outskirts are growing at an unimaginable rate and that everything out of sight will have been consumed by the time I return. In reality, the cities are still blisters upon Britain’s back. Little is untouched, farmland having replaced what was once wild, but the urban spaces are still hemmed in by nature, and Blake’s dark Satanic mills have mostly been converted into trendy, open plan apartments.

Games take me to all manner of places that I don’t visit in my everyday life. Weird and wonderful places, as well as attempts to recreate ‘real’ places. They’re rarely just ABOUT visiting though. We talk and write about walking simulators, train simulators, truck simulators and flight simulators – any kind of transport or motion you can think of is probably simulated somewhere or other – but I still haven’t played an actual tourist simulator. A game that takes me from train to plane to city streets to mountaintops and lakesides.

The Assassin’s Creed games are historical tourist simulators of a sort, when I play them. I don’t care about the feathers or story fragments concealed in digital DNA, I don’t even care about stabbing people in the face – I just want to see the sights and be on my way. How neat it’d be if I had to check into a hotel or inn when the sun set. If Assassin’s Creed was designed as a historical theme park simulator, I bet my trousers it’d go all West World at some point. Looking and travelling never seems to be enough for some people. Got to have the robot staff go haywire or what’s the point in the vacation?

My ideal tourist simulator isn’t just about walking and looking though. There are objectives. In each place (don’t call them levels), there’d be certain landmarks, works of art or restaurants to visit. You’d have a guidebook with a list and you could choose to see a renaissance chapel in the morning, a palace and its gardens in the afternoon, and an upmarket bar with a world famous cocktail range in the evening. At night, you’d have your pick of hotels.

Maybe you’d be travelling on a budget, trying to see as many countries and cities as possible before the well runs dry. Maybe you’d be playing in sandbox mode, with unlimited spending and your own private jet. And who’s to say the places would be real? Instead of Paris, Chiang Mai and Florence, why not see the Forgotten Realms, The Great Wheel or the Attican Traverse? If you were feeling particularly bold, you could venture into procedurally generated lands, the wild frontiers of digital tourism.

I’m surely not the only person who’d like to scratch this particular itch. Every time I roll into a service station in Euro Truck Simulator 2, I wish I could control my character as I head to the counter and then sit by the window with a cup of coffee, watching the rain running its own routes across the glass. I want to see what happens to George Stobbart if that clown never sets off the bomb.

I want to ride The Zero in my own sweet time.

This post was originally a part of the RPS Supporter Program. Thanks for your funding!

34 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    GTA5 feels like this sometimes, when you’re just driving around listening to the radio. It’s my favourite part of the game most of the time.

    I quite like games where there’s something worth travelling for, not just another set of slack-jawed NPCs or a quest hub, but interesting things that have no purpose in the game’s narrative, but are there just to appreciate (for those players that actually find them).

    I remember Ultima VII having a whole bunch of little islands, mostly with nothing on them. Some had nice stuff, but it was nice to just sail around and have a wander, forgetting that Britannia was in dire peril (again). For what was really quite a small world, it had quite a lot of interesting nooks and crannies.

    Morrowind had a pilgrim trail too, I never finished the game but I assumed it was completely optional. I guess you probably get some sort of bonus for finishing it (as is the way in such games), but it’s the sort of thing that makes for either a nice role-playing choice or a way of exploring around the island without just setting off in random directions (or following quest hooks).

    • Premium User Badge

      keithzg says:

      Definitely agree, just travelling around is how I’ve spent most of my GTA and Saint’s Row hours, really. With GTA5, I’ve so far “progressed” very, very little, especially on the multiplayer side, because I’ll just do stuff like “ooh, I should hike up that mountain!” or “lets hop on this train and just see the sights!”.

      • Premium User Badge

        Thirith says:

        That’s one of the reasons why I didn’t particularly like Saints Row – the place simply doesn’t make for good tourism, because it never feels like a real place, at least to me.

        Some of the best fun I’ve had with Assassin’s Creed was checking out virtual Rome after a one-week holiday to real Rome. Checking out how locations fit together in the game and how they compare to the real thing. It was like a more intense version of looking at holiday snaps, because of how much it brought back the memories of the actual places.

    • Spakkenkhrist says:

      GTA 5 is great for just this, taking a motorbike out for a cruise is sublime.

    • Poet says:

      I just take taxi’s everywhere, even more relaxing as I don’t have to worry about causing the apocalypse on the way to my destination.

  2. Premium User Badge

    particlese says:

    Hmmm, yeah, I could go for that, although/because I’m typically all about wandering around and delighting in the stuff I stumble upon, given very loose goals. Almost got myself locked in a castle that way with a goal of “probably check out the castle”, and ended up having dinner with my fellow almost-prisoner. Another time, I set myself a goal of “check out the abbey for the architectural and organy (organic? organous? organ-based, yeah.) goodness”, and I ended up getting a free, surprise, private mini-concert from the cathedral’s wall-sized organ after wandering in there during the organist’s practice session.

    I tend to play Skyrim this way, too, perhaps with a few more charred bear corpses left in my wake and with some main quests to tackle when I’m in the mood. That said, life’s main quest is hands-down the best procedural generation I’ve ever come across. Radiant whatchamawhozits have nothing in it. I think…wait, have I gone off-topic already? I was going to post something about wander– Oh, hey, rockin’, it’s half-past midnight!

  3. LogicalDash says:

    Isn’t Hac doing something like this?

  4. trioptimum says:

    Never thought I’d see a Wainwright illustration on RPS.

    It’s a shame game developers who’ve spent tens of thousands of hours meticulously creating detailed environments won’t go the extra distance to offer this kind of experience. I remember Voyager: Elite Force (2?) had a mode where you could just walk around large areas of the ship, looking for easter eggs, and from memory, that’s the last game I played where anyone bothered making that kind of extra.

  5. Eight Rooks says:

    Eidolon is so nearly this it hurts. It would, in fact, be this mythical game if it actually had a world worth exploring. It almost does: you just can’t help but get tired of 10,000 square km modelled in lo-fi flat polygons with the same handful of models over, and over, and over again. I weep for the staggering fusion of totally-optional-yet-stunningly-written narrative and walking/tourism simulator Eidolon would be if the world looked as good as, say, The Witcher 3.

    • Andrew says:

      Without spoilers, is there a reason to “finishing” “Eidolon” (if you can even do that)? I’m 7 hours in, love everything (even graphics), but can’t shake the feeling that maybe I better do something else. It’s beautiful and atmospheric as frak, but I think I saw everything already — lush forests, creepy ruins, cold rivers and everything in between. I slept a lot, fished and gathered a ton of berries and mushrooms. I’m happy with my experience with the game. And wiki with all the documents is just more convenient. But my PDA (or whatever it is) is still not fully functional. And some notes talk about stuff I think you can find. So, I’m torn.

  6. Andrew says:

    Traveling on a train in “Red Dead Redemption” (console game! burn the heretic!) was awesome. So, personally I’m interested less in a “Tourist Simulators” and more in a “Journey Simulator”. And, yes, not necessary in a our world — “Hobbit” comes to mind.

    “<a href="link to rockpapershotgun.com Flame in the Flood” is partly that — journey + survival + story.

  7. JP says:

    Not exactly the same sense of “Tourism” but recently I played through Unreal 1 with a mod that disables all combat, turning the game into a stroll through Na Pali with the occasional boat ride and teleporter jump:

    https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLhYCywHJcxolZAegoL–Ua4mTYl0dI3ul

    (Sorry in advance for the lowish production value and constant game design blather, I go with what I know!)

  8. Premium User Badge

    Andy_Panthro says:

    I feel like these posts should have some sort of note at the top that they’ve been supporter ones already, I had a real feeling of deja vu reading this and then I get to the bottom and find I commented on it ages ago.

  9. Erlend M says:

    The old Backpacker series were literally games about being a tourist, but I’m not sure if they were ever sold outside of Scandinavia.

  10. baozi says:

    While game worlds may be more interesting than reality on the surface, if you strip away all the interaction until all you can do is walk and look around, I find the resulting experiences to often be excruciatingly boring. Out of all sensory experiences, you only got sights and sounds, and even those are so much less rich, so limited, so prone to repetition, so lifeless – I think you got to cram the environments chock full with things and constantly show new stuff if you don’t want a borefest, for example the new Deus Ex game looks more fun to wander around in than something like Dear Esther. The latter was an interesting experience, but I’d rather take a walk around the city block than play it again. In games, you’re missing out on all the varied haptic and olfactory sensations, on the interaction with people; you can’t shut out the cold by entering a café and comforting yourself with the warmth of a coffee, you can’t feel the breeze of wind on your skin or the asphalt under your shoes, you won’t be seduced by the fragrances emanating from the nearby restaurant, you can’t take delight in the sensation of cracking the surface of a crème brûlée, the locals will look static and mute in comparison. Why would you have a glass of red wine in a game? It’s entirely meaningless. All of these things add to a sense of place, and if you can’t have them, providing gamers with things to do will serve as a distraction from the reality that game worlds are but theater stages. A pared down visual style won’t do it, and I feel like the worlds of tourism simulators would have to be extraordinarily unusual to allow you to not feel bored if all you can do is walk around, or allow for much, much more basic interaction with the world than the current state of games can provide.

    • LennyLeonardo says:

      I think the real reward is in enjoying a walk/ride/drive as a break from ‘playing’, which is generally only possible in open world games.

    • Awesomeclaw says:

      I kind of agree to a limited extent: simulations of the real world tend to feel a bit lifeless and samey. If I want to see cars and rain, I can look out of my window.

      However, I think that a well created world with a fictional or non-contemporary setting can be engaging. A kind of sense of the unknown can drive exploration and a bit of worldbuilding via architecture (or even text logs) make for a very compelling experience.

      I think that Uru (part of the Myst series) did this particularly well: the setting is consistent and well fleshed-out, the game mechanics drive exploration (although I think the game could stand to lose a few of the more obnoxious puzzles), and most of the areas are very open (although sometimes gated by puzzles).

      • baozi says:

        I don’t disagree, but as you described, Uru offers more than walking around; it has puzzles, which give you purpose. So you got a game with an interesting setting, but if you can only walk around, all you have is a setting. I certainly love the world-building of e.g. Piranha Bytes games; I love the places you pass through and re-visit while you play and how you can just sit down on a stool and smoke a water pipe, and I’ve even started up Risen once just to be in the harbor during the sun set. The detailed world-building not only aids immersion but also acts as a potential pacing tool in that you can stay at a place for a while and do little things without a lot of meaning in between all the action. But if you took all the gameplay out of those games, I would probably get bored really fast, because you’d lose all context. What would you be collecting herbs and mushrooms or whatever for? What would you talk to NPCs about without any goal in mind and without any personal connection – the weather?

        I was just thinking that if you offer only a setting you’ll have to compensate a huge amount for losing gameplay.

        • Awesomeclaw says:

          Sure, and like I say, Uru could do with losing a lot of the puzzles. I think a game centred around just exploration can work, but as you point out it’s not necessarily interesting as a game. Some light game elements (such as the tapestries in Uru) can motivate the player to explore the space, and some meaningful ‘collectables’ (which might include audio logs, text, or just interesting scenes or locations) give a reason to go over an area more thoroughly. I think this is something that Everyone’s Gone to the Rapture tries to do, but as I understand it the world is kind of sparse, and the setting too ordinary, for it to be really compelling. I also think that something with the structure of Uru – multiple extremely diverse and open areas, lots of ‘lore’ woven into (generally) consistent locations, some interesting overarching story – could really work, but as a game of investigation rather than puzzle solving, perhaps combined with what you see in Her Story, where the game gives no defined end goal but prompts the player when they’ve seen everything. I think this might be distinct from a game of pure ‘tourism’ though, it’s something much more like archaeology.

  11. Premium User Badge

    heretic says:

    Great read Adam, I always miss these articles when they’re first published :( need a supporter RSS!

  12. caff says:

    If you’re going to make a holiday simulator, then it should include:
    1. A clifftop road walk with the threat of mad, slightly camp bare-chested italians riding their mopeds at you.
    2. A desperate feeling of getting lost, then trying to buy water at a remote petrol station from a husband and wife who are having a marital dispute that will probably be ended by one of them with a breadknife.
    3. A bonus level where you have to see how long you can tolerate the cheesy euro-house music being pumped out of a shitty speaker nearby.
    4. A level dedicated to walking along a nudist beach, alternately trying to catch a glimpse of some boobs but also desparately trying to avoid any glances at large, leathery-faced men’s sausages.

  13. geldonyetich says:

    Riding a boat or boatlike device in MMORPGs is often tourism realized.

    In fact, I’d say the act of moving trade packs by foot in Archeage is nearly this perfected: a seamless jaunt through varied terrain with occasional vehicular assistance and lots of active fauna to keep the journey interesting. Pity someone might well kill you mid-tour, but there are a fw trade routes that occur in strictly non-PvP lands.

  14. quietone says:

    Just because I’m surprised nobody mentioned this, FSX (same with any other flightsim, but specially FSX for his gazillion addons) is an amazing tourism simulator.
    I loved to add lots of scenery addons (many of them freeware) and you can even use a car or boat addon.

  15. datom says:

    I think it’s because people presume there’s an element of complexity to FSX, which of course there is, if you want to fly a Boeing 737 from NY to Dubai on realistic physics.

    If you, on the other hand, want to fire up a Cessna and fly through Yosemite, or the West Highland Way, or the Pyrenees; all you need to do is set crashes off and physics to arcade, use a mouse (scroll wheel for accelerate, mouse for yoke), and download a pay or free addon for scenery. It’s utterly relaxing and occasionally mindblowingly pretty, even on integrated graphics (using SweetFX and some addons).

    • datom says:

      Aargh reply fail. That was meant to be a response to the FSX mention above, obviously.

  16. TomxJ says:

    I actually played this at the weekend and it very much felt like a tourist simulator – link to inkle.co

  17. rangerfall says:

    I’ve been trying my hand at taking world 90 meter resolution data and putting it in-game for grand canyon, mount elbrus at the following game

    link to steamcommunity.com

    and Yosemite with Ark:Evolved although the map subsystems(lighting, cloud lines, water lines) seem to have problem issues relating to larger real-world height-scale maps

    link to steamcommunity.com

    Anyway, definitely hope to develop or see more games using real-world landscapes, plants and animals as a way of exploring and learning about actual places and things than only fictional things. If I’m going on the millionth fetchquest in a game, would rather be able to learn, identify and collect real specimens as a virtual botanist/naturalist than fictional or learn about shared geography/geology/history than fictional. Especially if I’m going to make a real-world planned future trip/drive/walk/hike, would like to familiarize myself beforehand via a virtual simulation some or possibly in combination with future augmented-reality as a guide supplement once at location.