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.
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