With the COVID-19 pandemic, traveling (whether within your country or abroad) has sadly become both difficult and dangerous. Many of us sequestered in our apartments and houses have already turned to video games to pass the time. But our favorite hobby has another distinct advantage for our current reality: the ability to become virtual tourists.
While we have a nearly endless amount of fantasy and sci-fi universes to get lost in, there’s something special about games set in the real world. They allow us to experience places we might want to go to some day, offer a new perspective on an area we live in, remind us of trips taken in the past — or, in some cases, serve as a cheap form of time travel.
Whether you yearn to see streets filled with people again, or just feel like exploring a big space beyond the confines of your home, these are some of the best games to scratch that travel itch.
Grand Theft Auto V
The locations in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto games are just as important as the characters themselves, and the Los Santos of Grand Theft Auto V is no different. Loosely based on Los Angeles and other parts of southern California, Los Santos offers a little of everything: a dense urban center packed with people and skyscrapers, an arid desert, sprawling mountains, and more. Sometimes, it’s fun to just drive around and listen to your favorite radio station as the sun sets over the horizon.
I didn’t appreciate how realistic Los Santos was until I found my real self in Santa Monica just a few years ago. As I walked through the Third Street Promenade outdoor mall, I couldn’t help but feel a vague sense of déjà vu. And then it hit me: I drove through that same area in GTAV (except with Del Perro as the stand-in for Santa Monica) while trying to escape the cops. I, uh, may have run over a few people along the way…
Peter Parker and his superhero alter ego are inextricably linked to New York City. But it wasn’t until Marvel’s Spider-Man for PlayStation 4 that we finally had a virtual NYC worthy of the wall-crawler’s adventures. The city is teeming with activity, and it’s a convincing blend of both real landmarks and fictional buildings from the Marvel universe. Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda was even able to find Alexander Hamilton’s tomb in the game.
Just FYI: The latter act of Spider-Man depicts a viral outbreak in the city, so it might be a little uncomfortable to play right now. But in true Spidey fashion, the problem is quickly resolved after beating up some bad guys. Maybe that’s good catharsis.
Watch Dogs 2
Watch Dogs 2 isn’t the first game to take place in San Francisco, but it does have the most meticulously rendered version of the city (and surrounding locations like Oakland and Marin) to date. As someone who used to live in the Bay Area, it’s funny to see what Ubisoft Montreal decided to change or leave out entirely. For example, my hometown of San Bruno doesn’t exist here, and the laughably short drive from SF to San Jose/Silicon Valley is something the peninsula’s frustrated commuters can only dream of.
But given that Watch Dogs 2 is meant to be a certain kind of power fantasy (it’s incredibly satisfying to push cars out of your way in traffic via hacking) I can forgive the optimistic inaccuracy.
Depending on where you live, it might be impossible to take a stroll in a park or other outdoor areas — even during the best of times. That’s where Firewatch comes in. Campo Santo created a fictional slice of Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, and it’s still stunning to walk through to this day. It’s like a painting come to life.
Once you’re done solving Firewatch’s mysteries, it’s worth playing again in the Audio Tour mode to hear behind-the-scenes commentary from the developers. Or, if you want to explore Shoshone without any distractions, you can try out the Free Roam mode.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar’s Western drama is perfect for those seeking a more pastoral experience. The world of Red Dead Redemption 2 is a patchwork of various parts of the U.S. during the late 1800s, and it has miles of obsessively detailed wilderness to explore. The tragic story of Arthur Morgan will take dozens of hours to finish, but you can just as easily lose yourself in the extensive hunting and fishing aspects of the game long before even starting down the harrowing journey.
And if you happen to be binging HBO’s Westworld, like I am, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a great companion piece.
Tired of visiting virtual America? Well, you can head over to the perpetually rain-soaked Hong Kong in Sleeping Dogs instead. As Wei Shen, an undercover cop and expert martial artist infiltrating the Triads, you’ll get to know the city pretty intimately as you complete tasks for your local gang. The story is told through a mix of English and Cantonese dialogue, and some of the radio stations play music from Chinese artists.
According to one Hong Kong-based writer, Sleeping Dogs does a great job of capturing the street-level life of the city — even if it doesn’t include some of the landmarks that make it so iconic.
Sega has been perfecting Kamurocho — based on the Kabukicho district in Shinjuku, Tokyo — in its Yakuza series for years. But it’s also the setting for Judgment, which continues the Japanese developer’s tradition of telling violent tales within the city’s grimy alleyways and pachinko parlors. When you’re not on the main path hunting down a serial killer, you’re free to check out Kamurocho to meet and befriend an eccentric cast of characters, play games in the arcades, or eat at different restaurants.
If you’ve ever visited Tokyo, you’ll notice Kamurocho is nearly a carbon copy of its real-life counterpart (minus at least some of the real-world brands). It has a towering movie theater (though without the Godzilla statue), an astonishing recreation of the bars in Golden Gai, and amusingly, a Don Quijote store. Playing Judgment made me feel like I was reliving my 2018 Japan trip all over again… except with way more murders and street brawls.
Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood
While any of the mainline Assassin’s Creed games are great for virtual tourism (especially Origins and Odyssey, which both have combat-free Discovery Tour modes), Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood is still my favorite. The second part of the Ezio Auditore trilogy, Brotherhood transports you to Rome in the early 1500s. It’s an age when the eternal war between the Templars and the Assassins reaches all the way to the Vatican itself.
In addition to seeing (and climbing over!) famous sights like the Coliseum, the Pantheon, and the Roman Forum, you’ll meet a number of Renaissance-era historical figures who’ll help you in your cause. One reason I like Brotherhood so much is because I first played it after coming back from my own study abroad trip to Rome. Even then, I was astounded at how well Ubisoft captured the city’s ancient architecture in the game.
Nintendo 3DS Guide: Louvre
Okay, so Nintendo 3DS Guide: Louvre isn’t really a game, but it’s an incredible, often overlooked app that needs more attention. Originally released on the 3DS eShop in 2013, Guide came from a partnership between Nintendo and the Louvre in Paris; you can rent 3DS consoles in the museum with the software installed and use it as an audiovisual guide while you walk around. But the at-home experience is pretty compelling, too.
Exhibit information is a mix of high-res photos, audio commentaries from museum curators, 3D models, and 3D photos for the more popular pieces (which still look amazing today). You can freely wander the virtual Louvre and examine artifacts at your own pace, or go on one of the guided tours. It’s a relaxing time overall. And who knows? You might even find a hidden photo of Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto during one of your visits.