The top ten virtual vacation spots in video gaming



First things first: the above picture is the ugliest pseudo-Photoshop job you will see all week.


Secondly, if there’s one thing video games are great at, it’s functioning as an escape from everyday life. After a long, hard day at work or school, video games provide a simple and relaxing way of unwinding, escaping, and putting your mind at ease.


However, some games are better at this than others. Some games aspire not only to entertain the player with a story or action, but to actually build an entire world. Whether built to recreate a real-life city or whether created from the ground up, these game worlds strive to act as a virtual vacation spot for the player.


Therefore, as the first part of a two-part article (the second part, as usual, will be a serious and pretentious look at the state of video gaming as an escape from reality), it’s time to look at (in no particular order) the top ten virtual vacation spots in video gaming.


Hit the jump to check it out.

 There are only two types of games which are barred from inclusion on the list:  real “virtual vacation” software, and MMO maps —  detailed as those areas may be, they also tend to suck up your time and turn what would otherwise be a “vacation” into a soul-devouring addiction. Vacations usually shouldn’t last for years and years, destroying every aspect of your home life. Unless you’re vacationing in Vegas, or something.


The Ages of The Myst Series

No HUD, no dialogue, and, for the most part, no other characters. The Ages of the Myst series probably represent the most meticulously detailed worlds in gaming history. Say what you will about the games themselves, but the worlds those games took place in remain undeniably intricate. The Ages the Miller brothers created, and the incredibly detailed physical rules they ascribed to those worlds (the steam power in Riven, the tower rotation on Myst island) were nothing short of astonishing.


While all but the last game of the series took place in hot-spot-clicking pseudo-3D, that didn’t stop them from selling absurdly well (remember when Myst was the best-selling PC game of all time?) and creating a fantastic sense of immersion. The most hardcore fans of Myst don’t talk about the series as if they’re playing a game; they talk about the worlds as if they’ve truly spent time there. Truly explored them. And, in a way, they’re not wrong.



Los AngelesTrue Crime: Streets of LA

The game itself sucks, but it still has two very big things going for it. Firstly, it had Gary Oldman. Secondly, it had a totally accurate 240 square mile virtual recreation of Los Angeles, right down to the street names.

Having only been to LA about three or four times, I can’t say how adequately the game recaptures the true vibe of Los Angeles. It does, however, definitely feel like the Los Angeles we’ve seen in countless, horrendous Michael Bay movies: a land of violence and fast cars and unrealistically attractive career women and beaches. Despite the fact that the actual gameplay sucked, True Crime’s faithful recreation of Los Angeles makes it a nonetheless effective virtual vacation, with the added bonus of Gary Oldman.

If anything, his presence makes the game, to me, at least, a dating simulator as well.




The Forbidden Lands – Shadow of the Colossus

Killing sixteen skyscraper-sized monsters with nothing but a sword is probably not most peoples’ idea of a relaxing vacation. And yet, Shadow of the Colossus  proves that a giant-killing game can still be relaxing, even when you aren’t killing giants. The Forbidden Lands in Shadow are vast and varied: the entire game map is open to the player from the first time he or she boots up the game, and the player can instantly find pools, lakes, sand dunes, dust geysers, caves, forests, mountains, gardens, and waterfalls in one compact — but detailed — game map. While Shadow is a PS2 game, it appeared at the end of the system’s life cycle, and therefore showcases some of the most beautiful graphics the system has ever offered (including a badass motion-blur effect and a progressive scan option).


The world of Shadow of the Colossus is a lonely one, but a beautiful one. This sense of loneliness has an artistic purpose which has been discussed many times before, but it also makes the game feel eerily relaxing: while the player can follow the storyline and kill the colossi if he or she wants, you can get just as much enjoyment out of roaming the fields of the Forbidden Lands with Agro, your horse.


Hell, many of the most beautiful areas in the game are actually tucked away in spots that the main plot never forces you to visit: Shadow encourages exploration not by forcing the player to visit every single part of the map, but by hiding gorgeously detailed areas in places that only the curious would bother to find.




New York CitySpider-Man 2

True Crime: New York technically created the most realistic video game version of the Big Apple seen to date, but most gamers would agree that the geography is the only thing the True Crime sequel had going for it. In terms of combining the grand nature of New York with some awesomely freeform gameplay mechanics, Spider-Man 2 is unparalleled.

While many of the missions were repetitive and stupid (New York children must have cerebral palsy or something, because not a single child can hold onto a balloon for more than three seconds without losing it and asking Spidey to get it back), traversing the city as Spidey is way too fun to ignore. Whether you’re swinging from building to building or climbing up some of New York’s most recognizable landmarks, Spider-Man 2 doesn’t just make you feel like you’re in New York City, but also that you own the damn place.

Also, Spider-Man 3 will allegedly improve upon the NYC map offered in part 2 by including a fully-functioning subway system. You know, for all you gamers who have been waiting decades for a New York subway system simulator.




Lost Heaven – Mafia

If there’s one complaint that is constantly leveled toward Mafia, it’s that it takes too long to travel from one end of the map to the other, when many missions require you to do exactly that. It’s a valid complaint, but it also ignores how well the Illusion Softworks developers created the fictional world of Lost Heaven.


Though loosely based on 1930’s New York, Lost Heaven sports its own distinct geography. You can drive a couple miles out of town and visit the local race track, or a gas station, or the airport. You can stay in the main city and gas up your car (to the best of my knowledge, Mafia remains the only free-roaming game to includes cars that actually run out of gas), or you can take a rail car to any part of the city and travel there in real time.


While the low-speed cars, 40 mph speed limit, and real-time travel may have irritated gamers who were looking for a GTA-style action extravaganza, it rewarded those who wanted to explore a world filled with fedoras, pinstripe suits, and 1930’s jazz music.



Cyrodiil – Oblivion

Talk to anyone who has played Oblivion and they’ll have a story for you. They’ll tell you about the time during the Thieves’ Guild initiation where instead of going out and stealing the requested item, they waited for a more enterprising recruit to break in and get it, then walked up behind them and pickpocketed it away. They’ll tell you about the time they were walking from one town to another and saw a wounded wolf run past with three arrows in its back, soon followed by an overzealous hunter. The game rules in Oblivion make for some engrossing, immersive gameplay experiences.

That being said, if you talk to anyone who hasn’t played Oblivion, then they may tell you that it seemed “too big.” I’ve heard this a lot, but I’ll never understand it: the sheer size of the world in Oblivion, and the sheer amount of things to do, can actually be so intimidating that some gamers refuse to even enter the world in the first place.

I could go on and on about all the things that are great about Oblivion’s game world, but all of those things can be summarized by the following sentence: when you create  a game whose world is so big and so awesome that some gamers actually refuse to play it, then you’ve definitely made a place worth visiting.  


LondonThe Getaway

Everything I know about England comes from one of three sources: Monty Python, Doctor Who, or Snatch. The Getaway games only remind me of the last thing, so I can only assume that they are wildly inaccurate to the spirit of London.

I am told, however, that The Getaway and its sequel both faithfully recreate the city of London, down to its horrendously complicated road system and the perpetually overcast sky. While many feel that the Getaway series takes realism a bit too far (there is no HUD, cars behave much as they do in the real world, a couple shots is enough to take almost any enemy down), this realism makes the game absolutely perfect for a virtual vacation. If you don’t have several hundred bucks lying around with which to buy a ticket to Europe, you can always pop in The Getaway and spend a few hours roaming aimlessly around, checking out the sights.

In fact, at one point, a girl I really fancied visited London. After she got home, she spent the next few months talking about how much she missed it and wanted to go back. To cheer her up, I bought her the sequel to The Getaway and told her it was a virtual vacation, and apologized that I couldn’t buy her a real ticket. It was totally sweet and everybody was like “Aw, Anthony, why you so sweet” and I was like “Oh, you know, just the way I am” and they was like “Awww.”

And she never once played the damn game. Not once.


Willamette Mall – Dead Rising

Yeah, yeah, I know you didn’t like the leveling system. I know you thought the save system was unfair. Get over it. Despite whatever personal qualms you may hold toward Dead Rising’s gameplay mechanics, one has to confess that the level of detail in the mall environment remains more or less unparalleled in the action-horror genre.

Literally everything you find can be destroyed, or used as a weapon. See a mannequin? Throw it against a wall and pick up all the detached pieces. See a bowling ball? Swing it like a weight, or simply hurl it across the ground and knock over the undead as if they were pins. Even the mall locations on their own are fun to explore: even though the individual sections of the mall remain irritatingly separated by loading screens, they’re still fun to roam around in.

Additionally, by the end of the game, the player has explored every inch of Willamette Mall, and knows everything about it. In the beginning, the player nervously runs around, looking hopelessly for food and decent weapons. By the end, the player has more or less become king of the shopping center — you know where to find the best guns, where to get the coolest swords, and exactly where you can take your motorcycle. And frankly, that’s a great feeling.


SpringfieldVirtual Springfield

While almost all of the other games on this list operate under the pretense of being actual video games, with plots and gameplay and an ending, Virtual Springfield harbors no such delusions. The game, if you can even call it that, serves only to allow the average Simpsons fan to explore the fictional town of Springfield, visit her or her favorite landmarks, and interact with the citizens.

Even though it’s basically just one huge point-and-click joke, the game is still incredibly detailed. Secret gags and episode references are hid in every scene of every location, to the point where it would take an average gamer a good couple of days to find them all. Though there are only about twenty interactive environments, you can still walk around a 3D representation of Springfield and occasionally run into some of its citizens. After crossing a street, for example, Ralph Wiggum will walk by and lament, “Help! My socks are on backwards!”

Wikipedia also describes the map of Virtual Springfield as “the most accurate version ever created.” And if it’s on Wikipedia, then it can’t possibly be false.



Every once in a while, you’ve gotta take a vacation somewhere awful. Somewhere horrendous and bleak and dirty and depressing, if only so you can appreciate how much better life is once you get home. STALKER is the game for that.

I haven’t personally spent much time with the game, but preliminary reviews tend to agree that Chernobyl is not a particularly pleasant place to be. Even disregarding all of the radioactive fallout, the landscape is filled with more mutants and mercenaries than you can shake a plutonium rod at. The entire game supposedly consists of dangerous, horrible things around every dangerous, horrible part of the landscape.

But evidently, that landscape is also very detailed, very creepy, and very, very immersive. After spending a few hours in Chernobyl, your home town will probably seem a much nicer place to live.

UPDATE,  because I’m an idiot and forgot Far Cry. Technically, its inclusion turns the list into the top eleven virtual vacations, but just try to ignore that.


The Island – Far Cry

Though its sequels were more or less boring and its ports were often too linear, the original Far Cry stands as a fantastic example of video game immersion. The human enemies took somewhat realistic amounts of damage, and literally the entire island (and the ocean surrounding it) are open to the player from the get-go. Can’t get up a mountain? Go to the coast, get a boat, and sail around it. Stuck on a cliff? Hanglide down into the forest below.

Far Cry truly made the island your playground — and it didn’t hurt that that playground was a lush, gorgeous tropical island. Even without all the bullets and blood and mutants, the island of Far Cry was a fun place to visit. 

That’s all for part one of the escapism article. Keep your eyes peeled for part two, which will take a much more serious (and pretentious) look at the concept of video games as escapism. Should video games only function as an escape? How does one create a successful method of escape? Find out later on in the week.

Also, you may have noticed that none of the locations in the Grand Theft Auto series made the cut. This was intentional. Though the GTA games and their ilk are undeniably fun, the worlds they take place in are usually pretty damn simplistic, and often serve as nothing more than an arena for fun car chases and ultraviolence. Simply walking around San Andreas and taking in the scenery is not a particularly rewarding experience, no matter how fun the game is.

PS: The image from Oblivion was taken from IGN, and the image from STALKER was Gamespot. I had to crop out the watermarks not for some Eric Bauman-esque reason, but because they were effing with the page layout.

Anthony Burch