When I was a child, each year without exception our family would drive to Cornwall in a wheezing Ford Sierra for the summer holidays. We’d stay with my great-uncle, a retired army major (gruff bachelor, suspected womaniser, borderline alcoholic), who was perhaps the last person I’d ever meet who earnestly deployed the phrase: “Children should be seen and not heard.”
In order to preserve quiet in the house, we went out a lot. Routine became ritual. We’d visit the same beach, whatever the weather. We’d eat the same sandy ham sandwiches and shoo the same crabs from under the same rocks. Familiarity might have bred contempt, were it not for the Game Boy my brother and I brought along for the ride. The machine’s luminous green screen was a tiny portal to other worlds, a holiday from the holiday, when the holiday started to drag. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is, in my mind, a part of Hyrule that’s for ever Cornish.
The opportunity to flee one’s immediate vicinity in favour of another, perhaps preferable place is at the heart of the video game’s strange magic. It’s often written that games offer us the chance to assume the role of other people or positions in life, those too rarefied or perilous for us to otherwise experience. The same goes for the places to which games can transport us, locales too remote, hazardous or, in the case of outer space, devoid of breathable air for us to otherwise visit. As technology enables video game worlds to be ever more finely rendered on the screen, so the tug of digital wanderlust grows stronger. No need to gamble your wages on a plane ticket to a destination whose wonders might be fully exhausted three days into a fortnight’s trip. For a fraction of the cost, a video game will transport you to Hong Kong (Sleeping Dogs), Paris (Broken Sword), Detroit (Watch Dogs), Tokyo (Persona 5) or Venice (Assassin’s Creed 2), all from the comfort of the fat couch.
Boredom is always staved on a video game holiday. The art of video game design is close to the art of to-do list writing; a well-tuned game forever occupies. Then there’s the ambient threat. On arrival in a video game world the local mercenaries or megafauna inevitably hound you. A sojourn in Far Cry 4’s bright-lit Himalayan countryside, for example, offers a range of bracing walks through spectacular territory. But only a fool drops their AK-47: you never know when you might have to shoot a lunging tiger in the gob. For some, the video game has for ever ruined the beach holiday, with its endless hours spent squinting at a book while working up the courage to wriggle from your back to your front. Now, only the day trip to Chernobyl or a week spent swimming with great whites offers a revitalising buzz.
For those looking for solitude without the threat of injury, the newly released Tacoma offers a memorable diversion this summer. You play as a freelance investigator, picking through a small, abandoned space station for clues as to what happened to the missing crew. Zero gravity has a womb-like, soothing effect on the mind, while eavesdropping on the crew’s conversations via spectral AR recordings keeps it occupied. There is little to do save allow the story to wash over you while you stare out of a portal at Earth’s speck in the distance. It’s a working break, sure, but one that, in inviting you to become caught up in the micro-dramas of a group of people forced to live together in proximity miles away from home, perfectly encapsulates the holiday spirit.