Sometimes we need an escape — a place to retreat to when the insanities of life become a bit too much — , and for me, that refuge is video games. I have spent hours crawling through various dungeons, planets, and cities, trying to get lost in a world for an hour (or six).
However, many of my favorite escapist fantasies are not places I would necessarily want to visit. They are fun journeys, to be sure, often filled with peril and heart-thumping moments, but definitely not ones I want to meander aimlessly in. Now more than ever, I want games that capture that spirit of travel — ones with fun conversations, random encounters, and beautiful locations.
Rather than judge games on graphics or mechanics, we will rate them based on how great a vacation spot they are. We will judge their locals, vistas, and food and serve you up the ultimate list for your next virtual vacation.
Horizon Zero Dawn — Best Post-Apocalyptic, Backtripping Adventure
Horizon Zero Dawn has a lot going for it: superb graphics, stellar storytelling, and giant robot dinosaurs (you literally have the ability to take down robot dinosaurs with a futuristic bow and arrows). You play the character Aloy (Ashly Burch) on her fantastical journey to uncover why the robots of this land are going haywire and attacking people.
This game has a massive, open-ended world that you can easily get lost in. Stroll aimlessly through the snowy mountaintops of the Frozen Wilds or the buzzing hub that is Brightmarket. Tilt your camera up at the sprawling night sky or the misty mountains. Let yourself take a breath and relax.
- The Locals: Nice, though sometimes deadly. There are a lot of different people in this world. The Nora are lovely but very xenophobic. Many Carja are strong but arrogant. The Shadow Carja…well, avoid the Shadow Carja. And past all these generalizations are well-rounded people that crack jokes, cry, and deliver poignant observations about life.
- Where To Sleep: With a landscape this stunning, I highly recommend camping at least once underneath the starry night. The Sacred Lands provide many vantage points for a good view. Find a spot and tilt your camera into the night. Alternatively, if the great outdoors isn’t your thing, the town of Lone Light has a charming little tavern (after you deal with its deadly Glinthawk problem, that is).
- Best Venue: Hunter’s Lodge is damn near enchanting. This members-only bar is located in the Carja capital of Meridian. When you walk in, the first thing you will notice is a dead, metal dinosaur splayed out on its back. The tavern has everything you need for a great post-apocalyptic bar crawl: drinks, dancing, and a sidequest to track down terrible monsters.
- Most Stunning Vista: Nothing quite competes with the city of Meridian. The moment you walk across the sprawling bridge, you are treated to the sight of a vast city with marketplaces, an intricate elevator system, and a dazzling royal palace. Climb up to one of its many high vantage points and observe the clouds as they roll over the narrow mountaintops.
- Best Grub: The world of Horizon Zero Dawn is rich in game to hunt. Find some wild turkey or trout to craft some delicious full-health potions.
- Honorable Mention: If this fallen Earth doesn’t do it for you, I highly recommend Obsidian’s 2010 game Fallout: New Vegas.
80 Days — Best Page-Driven Exploration
80 Days manages to delight with only the written word. Often, visual novels are walls of text that the player finds themselves skipping through to get to the end, but writer Meg Jayanth tells a story that you want to savor every line of. You play the manservant Passepartout as he serves an eccentric aristocratic named Monsieur Phileas Fogg on his journey around the globe in 80 days or less.
Along the way, you encounter a rich world that honors the original Jules Verne novel while managing to be its own distinct creation. Steampunk inventions populate every corner of this planet, and anti-imperialist contingents are arising where ever you travel. There’s bound to be excitement no matter where you end up. Don’t think about the destination. Pick a direction that sounds interesting and go!
- The Locals: Absolutely delightful. There is rarely a dull conversation in this game. Challenge yourself to place yourself in other people’s shoes as you learn about histories and people that have previously been ignored. You may be working for an uptight aristocrat, but that doesn’t mean you should be at Monsieur Fogg’s every beck and call. Say hello to the natives. A particularly stubborn engineer in the walking city of Agra remains a personal favorite.
- Where To Sleep: Monsieur Fogg refuses to sleep anywhere that is not the best (though sometimes he has little choice). Many fine establishments are in your future, but a personal favorite is the one in Reykjavik with its luxurious hot springs.
- Best Venue: If you can, try to stop by the tea house in Tehran. The locals will accept you with open arms and provide riveting conversation in the process. Be sure to try the tea.
- Most Stunning Vista: Your first impulse may be to journey from West to East on your world tour, but it's the North where the real action is. Embark from Smeerenburg to experience the icy wonders of the North Pole. You will traverse the ice on a larger-than-life automaton. There’s surprisingly a lot to see and do in a landscape this desolate. Maybe you will even have the chance to uncover a mystery.
- Best Grub: Tired and exhausted, eventually you might make your way to Honolulu. There you can come across a guide named Hilahila who will give you lodging by the shore and some superb poi, orange slices, and guava.
- Honorable Mention: If your eyes are peeled for another travel-themed visual novel, might I suggest Wanderlust Travel.
Mass Effect Franchise — Best Vay-Kay in Space
It might seem strange picking an action-adventure space opera as a travel game. The plot of the original Mass Effect trilogy is about a human commander named Shepard running around the Milky Way Galaxy to stop an intergalactic threat known as the Reapers. The game involves a lot of shooting, ducking, and running from one orchestrated setpiece to the next.
Once you get past the opening tutorial levels of every game, however, Shepard pretty much has free reign of dozens of maps and side missions. You can explore planets ranging from ecumenopolis’ to recently founded colonies. The ending may be controversial, but it's hard to beat the open-ended nature of these games. Take your spaceship, the Normandy, and fly it to the closest starport.
- The Locals: Charming or outright hostile: there is no in-between. You can either fly around the galaxy shooting up Blue Suns mercenaries and Collector drones, or you can engage in commerce and diplomacy. The game has plenty of opportunities that allow you to spy on politicians and romance your peers.
- Where To Sleep: You can’t beat the spacious accommodations that Shepard receives after Cerebereus rebuilds the Normandy. The layout comes with plenty of room to walk about and even a large fish tank that you can place your own fish in (they will die if you don’t feed them). There is also a queen-size bed. With all the Romance options in this game, I am sure you'll need it.
- Best Venue: Who doesn’t love a fancy cocktail party? Take up companion Kasumi Goto’s mission Stolen Memory and get the chance to go to evil mastermind Donovan Hock's VIP party on Bekenstein. You’ll get the opportunity to mingle with the galaxy’s richest and most despicable. You can even sneak into his secret vaults where he has such treasures as Michelangelo’s David and the head of the Statue of Liberty.
- Most Stunning Vista: This game has a lot of stunning sights to see. The metropolises of Illium and Citadel are easy must-sees, but personally, I like the breath-taking sight of the giant waterfalls on Aite in the Overlord mission. The planet has two moons and a ring, easily making it a place of profound beauty.
- Best Grub: To get the best food in the galaxy, look no further than Ryuusei Sushi. This hip establishment has all the amenities of an upscale restaurant: long lines, dim, blue lighting, and fish imported from all over the galaxy.
- Honorable Mention: If you are looking for something a tad less action-packed, then might I suggest Outer Wilds. This game has a midwestern camping aesthetic combined with space exploration — a truly unique blend.
Night in the Woods — Best Small Town Excursion
Many of us are familiar with that awkward feeling of returning home for the first time after being away. Night in the Woods perfectly encapsulates that awareness of homecoming. You play Mae Borowski as she returns from college after a mental breakdown to live with her parents in the town of Possum Springs. Join her as she catches up with past friends, explores her old haunches, and possibly even solves a murder.
Not all travel games have to be about far-off, “exotic” places. Sometimes it's good to get lost in an environment that honors a place grounded in reality. A tour of Possum Springs may not be as imaginative as other games on this list, but it has its own understated charm.
- The Locals: Mostly chill, except for the ones who want to kill you. The joy of Possum Springs is chatting with the townsfolk who are equal parts fed-up and affable. They are willing to give you some no-nonsense advice that strikes at the core of all the problems with late-stage capitalism, lol.
- Where To Sleep: Most nights, you will want to spend some time in your old childhood bedroom: pick up that guitar you haven’t seen in ages; admire your high school posters; play classic video games you haven’t even thought about in 10 years. It can be fun to pretend to be a kid again.
- Best Venue: Listen, Possum Spring has seen better days. You will have to head over to the nearby college town for a “proper” nightlife scene. If you are willing to stick around, however, might I suggest the local library. Not only has it been recently renovated with spacious seating, but it has a killer poetry night.
- Most Stunning Vista: If you head east from The Church of the First Coalescence, you will eventually come across a cliff that looks out over the horizon. The music fades away, and you are just left with the sound of the wind as you contemplate your life choices.
- Best Grub: Who doesn’t love a good donut? Head over to the Donut Wolf to have some tasty sugary goodness. Just pace yourself. You don’t want to overdo it.
- Honorable Mention: If you want another game that focuses on wandering around a smalltown, might I suggest Everybodys Gone to Rapture. The plot is exactly like it sounds.
Kentucky Route Zero — Best Road Trip
The American road trip is an iconic aspect of our country’s zeitgeist: the open road. The idea of an endless expanse at our fingertips. It's the subject of rampant folklore and tall tales. Sights and stories that could not possibly be true dote our highways and roads: the world’s largest ball of yarn; that time, a couple skipped across a cliff; a forest where people can see lost loved ones.
Kentucky Route Zero takes on that spirit of the tall-tale and brings it to life. You play a truck driver named Conway who has to deliver a package, and the only way to do that is by traveling on a mythical highway called the Kentucky Route Zero. They discover some truly reality-bending places and people along the way. Get lost in these larger-than-life pieces of Americana as you take the best road trip this side of the afterlife.
- The Locals: Truly bonkers. The inhabitants of Kentucky Route Zero are the most real kind of people you will meet, but at the same time, they are like ghosts, searching for things and people they have lost. It’s effortless to get swept away in the stories of their pasts.
- Where To Sleep: Anywhere in the Echo. If you need a good, long rest so refreshing you might not ever awake from it, try this subterranean river system. Accessible via the very affordable Mucky Mammoth tugboat ferry.
- Best Venue: If you want the perfect night out, go to the Rum Colony. It’s a fabulous tiki bar right on the water. They even have live music, and there are mesmerizing tiki torches everywhere!
- Most Stunning Vista: There are few moments as striking as when you come face to face with Ezra’s brother. Picture yourself out in the middle of an old-growth forest staring at a translucent eagle the size of a house. That’s not a metaphor. It’s what actually happens (maybe).
- Best Grub: Sam & Ida’s seafood restaurant is a delightful pitstop also right on the water. Ida is a local celebrity famous for her cooking. Try the sweet cave snail for a dish that really challenges your palette.
- Honorable Mention: Another road trip game to check out is Jalopy.