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a humanoid bird stands in front of a pixel campfire in A Short Hike Image: Adam Robinson-Yu

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Games that feel like going outside

Nothing can replace the actual experience, but this is as close as it gets

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Summer will be different this year. Though countries have begun loosing up restrictions that were set up at the outset of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, most people will not have a normal summer. Vacations will be postponed, some beaches may remain closed, and large gatherings still won’t be considered safe. You may find yourself inside more. Nothing can replace the actual experience of being outside and in nature, but some video games can feel similar.

Science supports the idea, too. Virtual nature produces similar feelings — of wonder and relaxation — as real nature, according to a report from The Washington Post. Games can allow players to experience the nature they might be missing out on, or the nature they might not otherwise experience at all.

A Short Hike, for instance, so perfectly mimics the meandering awe I love about hiking — finding new things to look at in places I’ve been so many times before. I approach Red Dead Redemption 2 in that way, too. There’s no traveling in my future, and Rockstar Games’ cowboy tale is a way to experience nature outside of Massachusetts, where I live. Particularly, the birds. I see tons of American robins daily in my neighborhood; I even got to watch a nest of four babies hatch right outside my front door. But I’ll never see a roseate spoonbill — its pink feathers and round, flat bill — at the nearby pond. Those, I can only see in-game.

There are a lot of games that might be able to fill that gap for you. Here, we’ve compiled a list of games that feel like going outside.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

A flower in the fields of Hyrule Image: Nintendo

If there’s any game that can inspire a sense of wonder and awe in a player, it’s Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The sheer size of the game is stunning; there are so many worlds to explore and secrets to find. A lot of the nature in the game is certainly inspired by our natural world, but it’s also got so many fantastic and strange creatures to encounter. There are mysterious new ingredients to collect and learn about, food to forage and cook, and plenty of puzzles to solve. Sure, the game has nature in it — and so it feels like an obvious choice for this list. But more than that, what I love so much about the natural world is how it inspires curiosity, and that’s something that’s core to Breath of the Wild.

I’ll never forget the moment Breath of the Wild’s world first opened up for me. It was almost terrifying, seeing just how much of the game there is to explore. Then the curiosity set in, and I just set out to find out what it’s all about for myself.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is available on Nintendo Switch.

Wide Ocean, Big Jacket

Brad, a 30-year-old uncle, and a Ben, a 13-year-old kid, sitting by a campfire Image: Turnfollow/Tender Claws

Wide Ocean, Big Jacket, from developer Turnfollow, is a short game about a weekend camping trip. Off in the wilderness, a family — aunt Cloanne, uncle Brad, niece Mord, and her boyfriend Ben — hikes, roasts s’mores, and birdwatches. It’s a reflection on the intimacy of family and shared language, covering moments both big and small. It’s got all the outdoor elements necessary for a good ol’ camping trip, but I think you’ll get some human connection out of this one, too.

Wide Ocean, Big Jacket is available on Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, Mac, and Apple iOS devices.

Eastshade

A cave and waterfall Image: Eastshade Studios

Eastshade is literally a game about taking a vacation, in this case, to a quaint, rustic island to do some painting. Your plans are derailed a tad when your boat crashes ashore, but the island of Eastshade is full of friendly bear, owl, deer and monkey people to help you on your vacation-that’s-technically-now-a-quest. Eastshade’s verdant landscapes provide a bounty of natural vistas for you to paint on your journey. A daily eclipse bathes the land in numerous shades of night, day, and twilight, which only enhances the scenery. And because the game has no combat or dangers to worry about, you can explore Eastshade’s natural treasures at as leisurely a pace as you like.

— Clayton Ashley, video editor

Eastshade is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC, Linux, and Mac.

Red Dead Redemption 2

the silhouette of arthur morgan on a horse with birds in the background Image: Rockstar Games

There are hundreds of animals and birds in Red Dead Redemption 2. These are the reasons I haven’t finished the game’s storyline yet — I’m distracted by all the wildlife that lives in the game’s environments, from the alligators lurking in the swamps to the dogs that’ll follow me around a farm. I’ve taken up birdwatching in real life, too, but there are so many birds in this game that I can’t find in Massachusetts. Traveling isn’t really an option this summer, so I’ve taken solace in the knowledge I can spot a bunch of new species in Red Dead Redemption 2.

But if virtual birdwatching isn’t your thing, there are plenty of other ways to experience the natural world in this game. Like horses? Go for a trail ride. Some players are even taking to Red Dead Redemption 2’s online experience to make this a social thing, running weekly riding sessions in Red Dead Online.

Red Dead Redemption 2 is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows PC, and Google Stadia.

Death Stranding

Sam Porter Bridges standing at the mouth of a cave Image: Kojima Productions/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding is a game about walking across a fictional version of the United States. It’s certainly not the United States we know — nor is it a particularly cheerful rendering of it — but it is lush. Most of the world takes place outside, with the challenge of the game shifting with the environment and its elements.

Despite some of the supernatural elements of the game, it’s one of the more realistic hiking simulators available in a video game; throughout, you’ve got to precisely control Sam Porter Bridges’ body as he moves through challenging terrain. Sometimes you’re carrying a lot of goods, like boxes stacked upon boxes, that throw off your balance, making it even hard to walk. You’ll steer and struggle as you cross deep rivers, sometimes giving way to the current before slipping under. There’s so much to manage that I often felt overwhelmed by playing Death Stranding, which was a reminder to take a break. Stopping to rest is a feature in the game, too. Though the key importance of Sam’s journey is to re-connect the country, Death Stranding lets players just soak in the environment by resting, too. (And by soaking pee into the earth to grow mushrooms. You can also do that.)

Death Stranding is available on PlayStation 4 and is coming to Windows PC in July.

A Short Hike

A pixel bird fishes in a deep blue lake in the mountains in A Short Hike, Image: Adam Robinson-Yu

The best word to describe A Short Hike is leisurely. The game, created by developer Adam Robinson-Yu, is about a little bird who’s hiking up a mountain. She’s not heading up there for fun, at not at first — she wants cell service. Despite that, she’s in no rush to make her way up the peak.

The mountain, called Hawk Peak, isn’t rendered in a photo-realistic style like some of the other natural worlds listed here. Instead, the open world of A Short Hike is more like a colorful, pixelated cartoon, but one that’s familiar instead of fantastical, even with all the characters being animals. What I like so much about A Short Hike is that it really doesn’t force you to do anything. Sure, you need to collect feathers to reach higher points of the peak, but there’s just as much value in meandering around the trails, just seeing where that leads you.

A Short Hike is available on Windows PC, Mac, and Linux.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

The Witcher on a horse by a hill Image: CD Projekt Red

There’s a The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt video on YouTube that I often find myself coming back to. It’s not a walkthrough or a playthrough. It’s simply an in-game camera in the Velen Woods with the ambient noise and music from the game, called “Nap Time in the Velend Woods.” The camera never moves — it stays fixed on a few trees while the world moves around it. Wind blows the trees and birds call as the sun sends shadows darting through the branches.

It’s dang peaceful. And if you go looking, you’ll find plenty more places in The Witcher 3 that evoke similar feelings. Forget the monsters. How about a walk in the woods?

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt is available on PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, and Windows PC.

Abzu

Abzu turtles
Abzu
Image: Giant Squid/505 Games

Abzu is a game that’s full of life, all of which is underwater. The colorful world has a lot of creatures that’ll be familiar to you and me, like sharks, sunfish, and octopus. There’s plenty more to discover in Abzu’s depths, and like Breath of the Wild, it’s a game that’s meant to inspire a sense of awe and wonder in its players. Take, for instance, a scene where you’re diving with a pod of sperm whales, whose sheer size dwarfs the player completely. Though the game doesn’t offer the same sort of mechanical challenge of something like Death Stranding, Abzu is more about the contemplation and surprise of the undersea world. After all, who knows what you’ll find if you go deep enough?

Abzu is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC.

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey Image: Ubisoft Quebec/Ubisoft via Polygon

I poured over 400 hours into Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Much of that time was spent wandering the ancient Greek countryside, sailing the Aegean sea, and hanging out in the agoras, usually ignoring whatever storyline I was supposed to be completing and flirting with NPCs instead.

The scenery in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is rendered in such gorgeous, vibrant, historically accurate detail, and the protagonist, Kassandra (you can also play as her brother, Alexios, but you should play as Kassandra) is equally gorgeous and vibrant. It makes playing the game feel like exploring a fully realized — but lost to time — world. And if you prefer more facts than fights, the Discovery Tour mode lets you explore ancient Greece, offering educational stations throughout. My family went on vacation in Greece soon after I played Assassin’s Creed Odyssey and I honestly learned more from the digital version. (Don’t tell my mom, though.)

— Emily Heller, commerce writer

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey is available on Windows PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and Google Stadia.

Flower

flowers in a grassy field Image: Thatgamecompany/Sony Interactive Entertainment

Flower begins with, well, a flower. It’s a single, yellow bloom sitting on a windowsill, the only bit of color in an otherwise grey world. But that grey world doesn’t last long; soon, the flower is in a field — one dotted with other flowers. The player controls the first petal, connecting (and blooming) others as they move through the space. Soon, there’s a whole trail of petals to steer in the wind, connecting sections that bring color back to the world.

There’s something pretty special about the simplicity of the game, which eventually shifts from the field to darker worlds. (But they won’t stay dark for long; that’s the whole thing with the game.) With the simplicity comes space to feel the movement and excitement of the wind.

Flower is available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, and Windows PC.

Firewatch

Firewatch - green forest of birch trees
Firewatch
Image: Campo Santo

Firewatch is set in Wyoming, and its key feature is exploration, as Polygon reporter Colin Campbell wrote in his review. With a map and a compass, the player sets off into nature. There’s a lot of getting lost — but it’s less scary when it’s virtual lost and not lost lost. It’s rare that a game uses those two key elements, the map and the compass, to create a realistic navigation system, but that’s exactly what Firewatch does.

It can be lonely, at times, but sometimes that’s what you need out of nature.

Firewatch is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, Mac, and Linux.


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