Released on Steam earlier this year, Mýrdalssandur, Iceland (opens in new tab) is a minimalist exploration game set on the Nordic island's southern coast. I've been to Iceland myself a few times, and every time I go I fall in love with the quiet beauty of its volcanic landscapes—a feeling this game captures perfectly.
It really is lovely to look at, using realistic photo-scanned 3D models from Quixel (opens in new tab) to great effect. Wandering this stark, barren terrain, I see black volcanic sand, glacial rivers, moss-covered rocks, cascading waterfalls, and grass-sprinkled mountains far in the distance. It's incredibly atmospheric.(opens in new tab) (opens in new tab)
I would've been happy just wandering around here aimlessly, but there's an interactive element to Mýrdalssandur. As I explore I find an old camera and a board of photos to replicate. These include a windy stretch of coastline, a rock yellowed by sulphur, and a vast glacier looming over the landscape.
Snap the correct scene and its corresponding photo will disappear from the board. Complete them all and a gate unlocks, giving you access to a new part of the map with a stunning vista. It's a lean experience, clocking in at about 25 minutes, but in that short amount of time it makes a big impact.
And that's really all there is to it. You walk around, listen to a mellow ambient soundtrack (including a track from Minecraft composer C418), and take photographs. And I appreciate it for that. Games like this don't always need a story: sometimes an evocative environment is enough on its own.(opens in new tab) (opens in new tab)
Mýrdalssandur is free to play (opens in new tab), but you can pay $5 to experience it in VR. Developer Caves RD has other, similarly well-realised locations to explore, including New Zealand's Wakamarina Valley (opens in new tab) and the Fushimi Inari shrine (opens in new tab) in the foothills of Kyoto, Japan. With no end to the coronavirus lockdown in sight, this kind of virtual tourism is more valuable than ever.