In 2019, Games Explored the Meaning of Travel

When video games depict travel, it’s usually as a kind of limbo, an in-between wrapped in loading screens or a sense of uselessness, an obstacle in fulfilling some other purpose. However, this year, three games have made travel their main subject in different, yet interconnected ways. Pilgrims, by Amanita Design, Bury Me My Love (BMML), by The Pixel Hunt, and Wanderlust Travel Stories, by Different Tales, all make the experience of travel the center of their gameplay.

These games focus on different kinds of travelers, but they all suggest the existence of something common to those who, by choice or by necessity, decide to leave a place behind. In these games there is a kind of solidarity between travelers that, even if only temporarily, acts as a bond, producing fleeting communities that cease to exist as quickly as they come into being.

A Deck of Cards

Pilgrims, whose folk-tale aesthetics places it in a vague magical-realist context, begins with a bet in a roadside tavern. The characters — a drifter, a thief, an old woman, a devil, and a bad priest — meet in a game of chance at a big round table, where, in bits of Czech, unspecific Sim-like language, and “speech” globes with images, they reveal themselves to be down to their last coins. At the end of the game, as they all bet against each other, the devil wins and takes all. Uninterested in material gains, however, he wants to claim the soul of the bad priest, who recoils in terror, and is afterwards seen angrily cowering in his little church. 

The game turns characters into cards played to trigger certain events and interactions. They comprise a deck, gathered into a set of relationships with which you can play in each of the game’s scenes. Play the drifter in your encounter with the thief, for instance, and the latter will ask for some food; comply with the request, and the thief will join your deck. Just like in a regular game of cards, these characters need to be played with and for each other in order to complete their quests.

Pilgrims
Pilgrims

These tasks represent shifts in status and being: the old woman, after being left homeless, goes back to being a happy farmer; the thief can become king; the drifter can move on to a new place; the devil takes the priest’s soul but in so doing has a positive impact on these characters’ lives; the priest… well, the priest goes to hell.

In other words, each character’s pilgrimage, their personal transformation through a purposefully enlightening form of travel, depends on the mutual aid that they can individually provide to one another. For a while, they are a community, and your role as player is to build and then release those bonds.

After all, as the characters fulfill their stories, they leave your deck. Transient even in your “hand,” the connections developed in play represent the ephemeral, everyday encounters of people who have embarked in a journey destined to positively change their lives, whether willingly (like the drifter), or not (like the old woman). Even the priest’s outcome has that 19th century folk-tale morality to it, in which he can finally pay for his sins, and the devil, a quotidian feature in this strange place, can play his mischievous role in the cycle of life and death. He is also a part of this momentary, transformational community that nonetheless modifies the world for the better, and does so through travel.

Community as Refuge

The richness of interactions between places and communities in passing can be easily idealized in a fantasy setting, but the fact is that, for the most part, the closed nature of the national body politic continually rejects transience in all forms when it comes to the real world. In parallel to how the cooperative community-deck of Pilgrims is born from the divisive, competitive game of cards at the game’s beginning, the ones depicted in BMML are born from the strains that the nation-state places on those whose original communities have been destroyed.

BMML tells the story of Nour, who is fleeing from war-torn Syria, and Majd, her husband, who stays behind to take care of what is left of their own patrimony before doing the same in the near future. In the style of visual novels, the game develops through the conversations between both characters, taking place in the screen of a smartphone. The player, in the role of Majd, can answer Nour’s messages in a variety of ways, advising her on possible decisions as she makes her way through established routes across Syria, its neighbors, and then Europe. No path is easy, and there is no “best” path — you can’t really win at BMML. But whichever decision you make, Nour will constantly connect with people even in the direst of circumstances.

Bury Me, My Love
Bury Me, My Love

Whether it is the tired staff of Doctors Without Borders or a group of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, flawed, fearful, and stressed people make snap decisions that sometimes privilege self-interest, but other times allow for costly acts of solidarity. Associations last mere days, sometimes even just a few hours, but the stakes are so high that even through the twice-removed perspective of Majd, it is easy to see each and every character, each and every connection, as important. The game suggests that Nour comes to rely on all these people, and that she will not survive the journey on her own.

The greatest contrast with these mobile, unromanticized, mutual aid relationships are the temporary communities forced into permanence: the refugee camps. They are depicted as places where bonds are strong but lack purpose — they were never meant to last. The camps are haunted by broken communities as much as by the promise of a better future that seems increasingly improbable. Peoples’ connections here, in short, have no meaningful prospect of growth. Their rejection by nation states (European and otherwise) and their “temporary” statelessness creates, at the micro-level, a strong, pragmatic solidarity; at the macro-level, like in the camps, they create ghosts of communities that can never be born, forever stuck between here, there, and elsewhere.

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Wanderlust Travel Stories
Wanderlust Travel Stories

Transactional Relationships

Other kinds of communal ghosts haunt Wanderlust’s representation of travel. Also adopting a visual novel format, it presents a set of individual travelers’ stories, all of them about the pleasure of the journey, all of them identifiably middle to upper class. Here traveling is a borderless experience, where the stakes are mildly raised by the inclusion of stress and fatigue stats, and where the obstacles, as in BMML, are presented as choices. The nature of these choices is quite different, however, in each game. Wanderlust’s decisions will push around your stats, mechanically solving problems, where BMML entirely shifts the story’s weight, changing the relationships between Nour and everyone around her. In other words, where Wanderlust individualizes, BMML makes common.

The persons depicted in Wanderlust all share, give or take, the same discourse of getting out of comfort zones and self-realization. The voluntary nature of their travel underpins their interactions in ways that, even if parallel to the notion of pilgrimage in its conception of self-betterment, lead to completely different connections with others. At work in all these stories is a tension about the identity of the tourist, which, focused on individual experience, yearns for an authenticity that remains forever out of reach.

And it remains so because, just like the stats and the money, the relationships represented are mostly transactional in nature. A service, a favor, a kindness, an exchange — interactions must be administered with the best of outcomes in mind. The tourist constantly ends up with other tourists, much to their chagrin, because their decisions and interactions ultimately point back towards themselves. Where Pilgrims and BMML show their communities as ephemeral systems of mutual aid, Wanderlust shows its characters in the way that many privileged travelers understand themselves: as protagonists of stories of their own making.

Thus, in contrast to Wanderlust, Pilgrims and BMML represent the relationships between their characters as a continual exercise of inviting the outside in, whether that means integrating the devil to your deck or encouraging Nour to trust someone she just met. Wanderlust’s protagonists are mostly unconcerned by reciprocity, privileging the individual(ist) dimension of traveling without obstacles, not entirely rejecting the outside (as the nation state does) but not entirely extending the invitation either. Their relationships result in the imitation of temporary communities, never fully realizing their implications.

Travel, in the end, takes many shapes and forms. In the case of these games, the pilgrims, in order to realize their journey (to realize themselves), need to play together to better the world with their passing; Nour needs to rely on complete strangers as much as they need to rely on her in order to survive the limits on their movement imposed by wars and nation-states; and finally, the tourists of Wanderlust need only manage their interactions well enough in a world that lets them move freely. 

We could all find ourselves, at different points of life and depending on our social and historical contexts, becoming any of these sorts of travelers. Pilgrims, BMML, and Wanderlust remind us, respectively, that we are not alone on our journeys; that borders are intended to isolate and dehumanize us; and that even as tourists, our experience is never solely our own.

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