I never used to be particularly outdoorsy, but the passing of years seems to have graced me with an irrepressible itch for a sweeping vista and a curiosity for distant climes. No surprise then that Flight Simulator has been my safety valve in 2020, offering a welcome escape from the waning thrills and increasingly claustrophobic over-familiarity of my immediate locale.
The joy and genius of Flight Simulator 2020 is in its wonderful accessibility, meaning it’s not just a game for aviation lovers, it’s a game for those that love travel and discovery too. And its breathtaking digital Earth hasn’t just sated my niggling wanderlust this year, it’s stirred my curiosity, encouraging hours of blissful revery among the clouds, seeking out fresh geographical wonders, and giving me a whole new appreciation for the majesty of our world.
Looking back, travel to exotic climes has been a bit of an unconscious theme for my video game favourites in 2020, starting with my wholly unexpected obsession with American Truck Simulator back in March. It’s not a new game of course, but developer SCS continues to enrich its sprawling rendition of the US with each new expansions, several having arrived this year.
I’m not exactly what you’d call much of a truck person, and I’d initially only picked the game up out of mild lock-down desperation, intrigued by the opportunity to relive a memorable road trip from a few years back, and to revel in the majestic US landscape, albeit digitally, along the way. Truthfully, I was expecting the novelty to wear off pretty quickly, but instead I fell hard for American Truck Simulator’s hypnotic, soothingly low-key charms.
There’s just something enormously compelling, and comforting, about its pleasantly monotonous rhythm – the ever-present hum of the engine, the gentle blink of an indicator, and the unhurried forward momentum of it all – as you carve a path across its masterfully minimised American expanse. And with the arrival of November’s Colorado expansion, I even managed to fully recreate that road trip – up through the arid sprawl of Arizona all the way to the verdant mountain bends of the Centennial State – which was a nice way to end a year on the virtual road.
The promise of grand adventures in far-off locales (in this case, the promise of pulpy archeological adventuring across a long-forgotten South Pacific island in the 1930s) was also what initially drew me to developer Out of the Blue’s wonderful debut, Call of the Sea.
I’d have been perfectly, pleasantly happy simply poking around and soaking up the gorgeous ambience of it all as Call of the Sea’s story of a determined woman in search of her missing husband unfolds, but it’s all enhanced by some wonderfully constructed and surprisingly involved puzzling – making the gradual unravelling of its Lovecraft-hued tale, full of ancient artefacts and long-lost civilisations, feel all the more rewarding.
It’s a genuinely lovely thing, both in its strikingly luxuriant visual design – from its ruin-pocked jungles to precariously windswept mountain tops – and in its wholly unexpected narrative reach, which finds real heart and humanity in among all the cosmic silliness, ultimately delivering an unexpectedly affecting story of self discovery.
As it happens, Call of the Sea is only the first of two cosmic-horror-themed tropical island adventures to steal my heart this year. The other, Kaizen Game Works’ Paradise Killer, does a similarly grand job of shaking free of the tired old Lovecraft tropes, delivering a thoroughly modern tale of Old Gods and ancient horrors, set in a breathlessly stylish vaporwave world of swaying palms and endless, sun-kissed horizons.
It certainly is the goofy, Phoenix-Wright-esque investigatory adventure the trailers promise – and a superb one at that, absolutely nailing the sense of forensic discovery and deduction as you scour its enigmatic resort island for clues, cross-examining its wonderfully realised characters – but it’s the dizzyingly high-concept blend of beach-side cocktails and genuinely disquieting cosmic menace (seeping from every direction thanks to some meticulous world-building) that truly makes it shines. This one turned out to be a perfect summer getaway, and its shimmering, sun-drenched soundtrack is an absolute belter too.
And then came autumn, where, as the days shortened, my globe-trotting stay-at-home 2020 took me to Alaska, the setting of developer Dontnod’s narrative adventure Tell Me Why.
As in its previous titles, Dontnod – which deftly blends earnest homecoming drama and mystery thriller here – unearths real beauty and warmth as it explores the developing relationship between twins Tyler and Alyson, both forced to confront their traumatic past. And although it doesn’t, I think, manage to hit the same highs as the studio’s earlier work (it certainly never reaches the sheer emotional devastation and tenderness of the gorgeous, and wildly underrated, Life is Strange 2), its lows aren’t as low either – there are no cartoonish religious cults or extraneous serial killer subplots here – arguably making it the developer’s most assured, consistently enjoyable adventure to date.
And, of course, the whole thing is elevated by Dontnod’s talent for crafting beautiful, beguiling worlds. Admittedly, Tell Me Why’s picturesque, postcard rendition of small-town Alaska – all crystalline lakes and icily majestic mountain ranges – might not be entirely authentic, but the studio’s vivid environmental work is once again utterly transporting, and I was genuinely sorry when it was time to wave goodbye to its snow-banked streets and return home.
Not that I was grounded for long, of course; despite 2020 delivering a year of glorious distractions – from the endless comforts of Animal Crossing: New Horizons to the Machiavellian delights of Crusader Kings 3 – it’s Flight Simulator I’ve returned to again and again in this strangest of years, revelling in the endless freedom it affords. After all, staying at home is a little easier when the whole, gorgeous world is indoors with you, just waiting to be explored.