It’s 2020. All travel has been severely curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic. For most of us, our homes and neighborhoods have become our whole world. While many have taken to maintaining the virtual islands of the massively popular Animal Crossing: New Horizons or visiting bars via virtual reality headsets, there are more accessible options for interactive escapism. These games don’t require an expensive accessory or hundreds of hours to enjoy. They’re all not only set in real places, but also seek to embody those places’ distinct details. They are also each straightforward enough for anyone with little-to-no gaming experience to easily grasp. So step into someone else’s shoes and explore the world through their eyes. And thank you for staying in.
Shadow food deliveries in Beijing in Out For Delivery
Billed as a “playable documentary,” this interactive experience by Yuxin Gao, Lillyan Ling, and Gus Boehling has players tag along with a food courier in Beijing, shot when China began its lockdown in January of this year. The streets, malls, and apartment complexes are eerie in their emptiness, but it is distinctly Beijing all the same. The scenes play out of their own accord, but you choose what to focus on. You can look at your phone or whatever element of your surroundings you prefer.
Playtime: 40 minutes
Available for PC, Mac
Free to download
Go foraging with your grandmother in the Dutch countryside in Lieve Oma
This game by Florian Veltman sees you and your grandma take a long walk in the woods looking for some mushrooms. Against a backdrop of lush foliage, she gradually lures you into sharing what’s on your mind. The natural landscape is rendered in abstract artwork, yet it’s specific in its feeling. That and the soothing music, gentle pace, and sharp writing create a vivid atmosphere. The controls are simple, and like Grandma, the game is forgiving if you wander off in the wrong direction.
Playtime: 25 minutes
Available for PC, Mac, Linux
Free to download
Step into the frontlines of the Hong Kong protests in Liberate Hong Kong
Not for the faint of heart, this work in progress by Unnamed Protester captures what it’s like to be in the midst of the 2019 protests in Hong Kong. The sights, sounds, and stresses feel gritty and real, though the scope of the game is currently limited. You can wander a four-way intersection, duck from the police, and throw tear gas canisters back at them. The gameplay isn’t complicated, but the sense of immersion is incredible.
Content warning: loud sounds, flashing lights, police confrontations
Playtime: 10 minutes
Available for PC, Mac (VR headset optional)
Free to download
Visit the forgotten neighborhoods of Detroit in Home Movie
This short trip down memory lane by Bryan LeBeuf and James Daniello puts you in LeBeuf’s shoes as he revisits his rapidly disappearing hometown, reliving his childhood. Poignant and nostalgic, this game uses real personal photos and videos to create its strong sense of place. The gameplay is mostly on a linear track — you walk and experience memories, piecing together fragments of old Detroit.
Playtime: 30 minutes
Available for Mac
Purchase for $9.99
Get stranded in Scotland in Dear Esther
A huge influence on the contemporary indie game landscape, this journey by The Chinese Room puts you in the shoes of a man shipwrecked on an island in the Hebrides. You meander over a meticulously rendered landscape toward an uncertain destination while a narrator recounts snippets of his life and reads letters to his wife. The gameplay is simple: Arriving at certain destinations triggers new narration, unspooling the backstory of the island and, ultimately, your character.
Playtime: 1 hour
Available for iOS, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Purchase for $2-8
Drive the Italian coast in Wheels of Aurelia
This road trip by Santa Ragione puts you on the Italian motorway in 1978 as Lella, a woman with a purpose. Alongside your companion Olga, you take to the Via Aurelia, while a multiple-choice back-and-forth dialogue reveals your lives and Italy’s political tumult. Detours can be made — for hitchhikers, chases, bank robberies, and more — and there are 16 possible endings. You’ll find different story possibilities through myriad dialogue options and where you choose to drive.
Playtime: 15 minutes per playthrough
Available for iOS, Android, PC, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch
Purchase for $2-10
Tumble into a war zone in Eastern Ukraine in The Fallen
This twist on the ever-popular first-person shooter genre by gold extra has you playing a sniper amidst a battle at Donetsk Airport in 2014. It’s unclear whether you’re on the Ukrainian or Russian side. Each time you take fire at distant enemies, the bullet flies in slow motion and a narrator recounts their life before the conflict, as a normal civilian. With your every action, you are forced to ponder the destructive futility of war.
Content warning: war violence
Playtime: 15 minutes
Available for PC, Linux
Free to download
Become a Wyoming park ranger in Firewatch
In this adventure by Campo Santo, you play as Henry, a man who’s run away from his life to work as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest during the balmy summer of 1989. Guided by a companion over a radio, you go about your job monitoring the woods and corralling unruly campers. But Henry soon uncovers evidence of something going on in the forest, and the game becomes more urgent as he tries to figure out whether there’s a conspiracy at work. Firewatch is longer and more complicated to play than the other games on this list, but that’s all in the service of a heartfelt, in-depth narrative.
Playtime: 4-5 hours
Available for PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Purchase for $19.99