When things were "normal," before the pandemic, I was fortunate enough to travel several times a year. Going from regular travel to more than a year and a half at home has been pretty depressing. But that doesn't mean I can't pretend, and like many, many other people stuck at home, I've gone on vacations in games instead.
Looking at games as alternate worlds has taken on new meaning as we learn to cope with corona-life. Here's where I went to get away this summer.
The next best thing to camping is getting sent to the woods in a cushy caravan and paid to look at squirrels all day. Right? This is the premise of NUTS, a delightfully neurotic "squirrel surveillance" game that's the closest I've come to camping in decades. Things start to go wrong, but what getaway is perfect?
Ditching the city and becoming one with nature is enticing, though taking an internship to spend time in the woods is a little on the nose for the modern gig economy (there are check-ins with your boss on the extremely shrill phone, which does harsh the camping vibe a little).
Each distinct area of Melmoth Forest is brought to life in abstract lines and jewel-tones—even the swamp ditch felt like a cool spot to explore. When I wasn't doing my squirrel chores, I had a great time climbing rocks, leaping off abandoned bunkers and generally wishing I had an Instagram-worthy Airstream to get away from the grind.
There's a sub-class of vacations that are much less "blowing your savings on Hawaii" and more "burnt out and going home to recuperate" (I've done both). This is what happens to Lake's protagonist Meredith—in 1986, she takes a break from her tech career, returns to her tiny Oregon hometown and spends two weeks delivering mail. It's a favor for her dad, the town postman, as he heads to Florida on a real vacation complete with fishing and margaritas. Of course, not everyone has the privilege of having an "escape" from work, but Meredith is lucky to have this as an option.
It's interesting playing through her "time off" without the presence of smartphones and social media—Meredith's boss calls her on the landline to send her more work during her break, which feels almost more invasive in the '80s setting.
Having only played the demo I'm not sure how things pan out, but Lake is a personal story about priorities, getting back to your roots, and changing identities. Most importantly, though, it's a story about taking a break. As a player it was refreshing to chill in a small town environment with no strings attached—as Meredith observes, there's something about the freedom and change of pace that feels right for her. There's also a string of easy listening bangers on the town radio that add a feelgood road trip flavor to the driving sequences (including this country-style earworm that stuck with me way longer than it had the right to). The full game is out September 1st.
An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs
An Airport for Aliens Currently Run by Dogs nails a great message about communicating across cultures and transcending borders. It's an exploration sim/simple puzzle game featuring an alien language (which is remarkably fun to decode) and a host of canine airport workers, flight crew, shopkeepers, and fellow travelers. The basic idea is to navigate through a series of alien airports to meet your fiancée Krista, and as someone who misses all the quirks of being in airport-limbo around the world, the game scratched a real itch for me until I got sick of playing fetch-quest.
Elf Planet was a riot, as was the Marinara (sic) Trench. In a time when air travel isn't possible for most people, Strange Scaffold found a way to replicate the distant feeling of running through an endless airport, getting lost between gates, and of course, missing your flight.
I can't imagine anything more classically romantic than being washed ashore in a gorgeous fantasyland filled with alien flora and talking fauna. Okay, so the "getting shipwrecked" part wasn't part of the itinerary—but it did score me a free room at the inn in Lyndow, a charming seaside port. The idea of wandering around while helping people and paying your way with art is a pipe dream for many of us, and Eastshade let me do just that. Spending hours exploring every corner of the map, I lived fiercely and vicariously through my character's travels. Unburdened by my real-life fear of heights, she even went up in a hot-air balloon.
There's no rush to do anything in Eastshade, which means I could fully soak up the lush landscapes at my own pace. There's a serene lake with a surreal Alpine vibe on the way to Nava that screams "apres-ski in Europe," lovely organic architecture, secret hot springs tucked away in corners of the map, and otherworldly beaches that made me deeply miss real-world traveling. You can fish! You can collect things! You can make a raft out of bloomsac flowers. And the light is magnificent—as the day goes on, the slow creep of rich sunset hues is sublime.
You can even commit national park crimes and pick Eastshadian black thistle in a protected ecological area, like a real bastard hiker would.
Genesis Noir isn't so much a conventional vacation as it is an escapist fever dream—one that fully transports you to a different reality, and who doesn't need that right now? It's an experimental piece of art set to a fantastic jazz score that sees the protagonist No Man chase his nemesis across the universe to save his lover. At times evoking the pure childlike wonder of Fantasia, or indulging in the utmost extremes of our most explosive emotions (jealousy, passion, and so on), it's impossible to describe this game without somehow understating its stylistic and thematic power.
There are lovely bits that bring the full scale of the universe into sharp perspective (we're so insignificant!) and inadvertently gave me a powerful sense of freedom in a vast, unknowable space.
The Norwood Suite
My favorite vacation destination, at least in the realm of videogames, is (and probably always will be) Cosmo D's Norwood Suite, an exquisite point-and-click hallucination set in the hotel of my dreams. Even at the start, when I'm unceremoniously dumped out on the remote, winding road leading to the hotel, it already feels like an event—an anonymous metropolis glitters off in the distance as I turn my gaze up at the Hotel Norwood, perched up on a cliff. Wherever we are, all that I have now—all that matters—is the hotel. It was built by the enigmatic pianist Peter Norwood, with the titular suite always kept empty by tradition. Some time ago, Norwood inexplicably went missing, leaving behind a bizarre legacy and the deadly Norwood Etudes, which are kept under lock and key.
There's nothing I can say about the Norwood Suite that would match up to the experience of unpeeling its layers on your own. The hotel is full of brilliant characters and razor-sharp dialog, accompanied by a transcendent score by Cosmo D, himself a musician. Each room, whether it's a guest suite, the spa/pool area, or the theater, invites a careful, loving examination of its occupants and trinkets. I love the Hotel Norwood like a real place and regularly find myself drawn back to its rooms, whether it's to make the singular turkey sandwich in the kitchen or eavesdrop on the weird and wonderful conversations happening all over the hotel.
It is, ultimately, a vehicle for the whirlwind of stories within its walls—stories that are arguably the best part of meeting new faces in new places.