You’re an adventurous person. You watch epic docos like Free Solo and Yosemite Uprising after work, and read books like Into the Wild and Into Thin Air before bed. Well now it’s time to round out your repertoire – Saphira’s put together a list of the best video games for a virtual outdoor fix.
Maybe you’re recovering from a gnarly climbing injury, or maybe you want to snuggle up in the rainy weather and have a lazy day – or, like a lot of us in the Coronavirus Era, you’re stuck in some type of lockdown every other week. Whatever the reason, check out these recommendations for the best adventurous and outdoor video games for every type of player.
Note: Prices accurate as at time of publishing!
Descriptors: First-person, single player, virtual reality, adrenaline, realistic
Best for: Adrenaline junkies, climbers, VR players
The Climb is a Virtual Reality game compatible with Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift headsets. It’s popular with real-life climbers who say it can help you get over your fear of heights through virtual training.
You don’t actually use your legs, but The Climb simulates both the fear of climbing and the problem solving aspect of route-finding really well. You can choose between the Alps (Europe), Bay (South-East Asia), Canyon (American South-West), and North (Arctic Circle) to take a virtual climbing vacation from your living room.
Recently, The Climb 2 was announced, featuring a new city environment. Each environment features three Free Solo levels and two Bouldering levels.
Descriptors: First person, single player, open-world, narrative, mystery
Best for: Survival and wilderness fans, anyone who’s ever fantasised about being a fire lookout or caretaker in the wilderness
If you’ve ever read those articles about lighthouse keepers on far-flung islands and fantasised about life as a caretaker of a remote area, Firewatch is your chance to experience a season as a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness.
With the help of radio-contact Delilah, you play the new fire lookout, Henry, and explore beautifully rendered burnt sienna landscapes. You even have a compass and map to find your way. Firewatch has a story progression gameplay, with realistic conversations, interactions, and decisions. As the game progresses it becomes more ominous as Henry begins to realise something isn’t quite right… This game is seriously good!
Descriptors: First-person, single player, open-world, role-playing, survival, reflective, meditative, educational, historical
Platforms: PC ($26.95)
Best for: Philosophical types, non-traditional players, history fans, granola girls, tiny housers, van lifers, suitable for children
Walden lets you role-play Henry David Thoreau’s life in a cabin by the woods, which he originally wrote about in his 1854 novel of the same name. Thoreau is known for being one of the first (white) dissenters to check out from industrial society and get back to nature (he’s the ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately…’ guy).
In Walden, you can live out your Thoreauvian fantasy and build a cabin, forage, read books, and observe nature. The goal is to keep your basic needs (shelter, food, fuel, and clothing) satisfied. But beyond that Walden is pretty genre-shattering because of its uniquely introspective and reflective gameplay. It’s also part biographical, giving insight into his personal life and his life as an abolitionist.
Walden was developed by the University of California Game Innovation Lab and awarded Game of the Year by Games for Change in 2017.
The Sims 4 with Outdoor Retreat (GP) or Snowy Escape (EP)
Descriptors: Third Person (First Person Mode possible), single player, life simulation, sandbox, LGBTQIA+ Friendly (high gender customisation)
PC Base Game($49.99), + Outdoor Retreat (Game Pack – $29.95), Snowy Escape (Expansion Pack – $49.95) Bundle discounts available
PS4 Base Game ($47.95), Outdoor Retreat (GP – $29.95 ), Snowy Escape (EP -$47.95)
Xbox One Base Game ($49.95), Outdoor Retreat (GP – $29.95), Snowy Escape (EP – $59.95)
Best for: Life Simulation fans, storyline players
The fourth installment of the enormously successful life simulation series The Sims comes with a bunch of packs for outdoor enthusiasts. The Outdoor Retreat game pack allows your Sims to pitch a tent in Granite Falls, a new world reminiscent of a US National Park.
Outdoor Retreat adds a new skill, ‘herbalism’, and a new ambition, ‘outdoor enthusiast’. There’s a tonne of outdoorsy clothes to match, so you can toast marshmallows around the fire, go hiking or fishing, and even bump into the local hermit, in style.
For even more adventure you can head to the slopes to ski and snowboard in Mt Komorebi (inspired by Japan) with the expansion pack Snowy Escape. Mountaineering trips and hiking trails are also featured. If that’s not enough climbing, you can also add indoor climbing to your Sim’s repertoire with the Fitness Stuff stuff pack.
Descriptors: Strategy, card game, educational, single player (versus AI or automa) and multiplayer, illustration, female creators, educational
Best for: If you like strategy card games but want a nature-based twist; birders
Whittle away the hours to the whispers of the White-Breasted Nuthatch in Wingspan! Wingspan was originally released as a traditional tabletop game but also comes in a super well-adapted online version. The aim is to build up a game engine that maximises points and fills up your environment with birds.
There are over 170 North American birds (with cool facts) in the base game which you can play out into your forest, grassland, or wetland. Each bird has different point values, powers (related to real-life traits like predation, brood parasitism, etc.), egg capacity, food requirements, and ecological niches.
The physical game has two expansions which are not yet available online, adding 81 birds in the European expansion and 95 in the Oceania expansion. If you’re a bird fanatic, look no further.
Morels: The Hunt
Descriptors: First-person, single player, open-world, collecting, realistic
Platforms: PC ($28.95)
Best for: If you’re a fun-guy, like collecting/gathering things, photography enthusiast or naturalist, if you want to spend time in a virtual forest hunting, but make it vegan
Morels: The Hunt allows you to go searching for mushrooms across the United States, with seven unique locations in gorgeous detail. If the mushrooms are proving tricky to find (it’s honestly just as hard as real-life mushroom foraging, with mushrooms only growing in specific environmental conditions and locations), you can keep yourself occupied by snapping pictures of the wildlife en route.
Watch out for ticks and poison ivy, and stock up on gear to maximise morel success. There’s also a few spooky easter eggs in this one!
Descriptors: Third person (first person mode option available), single player and multiplayer, open world, realistic, adrenaline
Best for: Skiing enthusiasts, adrenaline junkies
If you’re pining for your next trip to Whistler you’ll have to make do with this snowsport simulator set in the Alps (Mont Blanc here we come!) and Alaska. Aside from skiing and snowboarding, you can also try out paragliding and the wingsuit!
Pick your own lines down pristine mountain slopes and compete with others, too. The graphics are realistic and beautiful, and give you the chance to try out some of the gnarlier stuff you haven’t done IRL. Think backcountry skiing down sky-high mountains.
A new version is dropping soon called Rider’s Republic, with a big focus on mountain biking!
Downside to keep in mind: internet connection is required throughout gameplay.
Upside: No queues at the ski lift!
Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles
Descriptors: Third person, single player, open-world, immersive, realistic, exploration, charming, chill, Australian creators
Best for: Players who like exploring worlds, open-ended gameplay, and who value realistic and immersive natural landscapes
Yonder: The Cloudcatcher Chronicles was developed by Prideful Sloth, a small game development studio based in Brisbane (yewww!). It’s set on the island of Gemea, which features eight distinct biomes.
Yonder focuses on exploration: your character’s quest is to restore peace on Gemea, by joining forces with Sprights to defeat an evil polluting force called the Murk. There’s micro quests as well, like farming, fishing, and crafting.
With seasons, fantastical creatures, and breathtaking expansive vistas – all packaged in whimsical music and an immersive soundscape – Yonder truly instils a sense of wonder. Whether good or bad, Yonder isn’t particularly addictive. It’s an altruistic game, where the focus is on exploring the grandeur of Gemea.
Descriptors: First person, single player, open world, horror, survival, strategy, age-restricted (intense violence and gore)
Best for: If you really don’t want to sleep, or are a fan of horror.
After a plane crash leaves you the only remaining survivor in the middle of a creepy forest filled with cannibalistic mutants, your only mission is to survive.
The mutants all behave differently, so your survival strategy must evolve on the spot, making for thrilling and realistic gameplay. The forest itself is extremely detailed and beautiful, though you might be too busy looking over your shoulder to notice.
The Forest gives you horror, tension, and a thrilling mystery to boot. Not for the faint of heart.
The Long Dark
Descriptors: First person, single player, open world, survival
Best for: Survival and strategy fans
In The Long Dark you’re a bush pilot who’s crashed in the harsh North Canadian wilderness after a catastrophic geomagnetic storm.
The Long Dark has two gameplay options: Wintermute (story form) or Survival mode (sandbox freeplay). It’s primarily a survival-focused game, and suited to those who like strategy games. You can make fires, find resources, and try to avoid getting eaten alive by wolves (fun).
Wintermute mode currently has three of five episodes released, and the next two in the series are included in the purchase price. In terms of the visual graphics, this game’s on the less realistic side with a more cartoonish style.
No Man’s Sky
Descriptors: First person, (very) open world, exploration, hyperrealistic, interstellar, VR (optional), multiplayer (optional)
Best for: People who like exploration, space, and algorithms.
If you’ve ever wondered what planets would look like if they were infinitely generated by an algorithm so that you could never visit the same planet twice, No Man’s Sky will show you.
Creatures, landscapes, biomes, and aliens are created at random to populate an infinite universe (18 quintillion planets roughly, although I didn’t count them myself) for eternal exploration.
Your main goal is to survive and explore, but combat and trading is also part of the gameplay. No Man’s Sky’s story mode gives the gameplay an interesting narrative structure, primarily revolving around Atlas, a mysterious entity who is controlling the universe.
Lonely Mountains: Downhill
Descriptors: Third person, single player
Best for: Mountain bikers
This quaint and quirky mountain biking simulator takes you and your pixelated avatar down several trails.
Work your way up to Free Rider mode, unlock outfits and bikes, and compete on the leaderboard. Lonely Mountains: Downhill is made in low polygon style, and on the less realistic end of the video games on this list. You can also expand gameplay with the DLC Eldfjall Island, a new volcanic island.
Descriptors: Whimsical, story, alternative, artistic, environmental, third wombat perspective, Australian creators
Platforms: PC ($12),
Best for: Children, Australiana lovers
Paperbark is more of a novelty game, a one-play-then-put-it-away. In fact, it’s better if you approach this one expecting a short story in video game format.
The game follows a wombat trying to find refuge in the middle of a bushfire, and was created by some Australian students down at RMIT in Victoria. It features gorgeous animated illustrations of the Australian bush and is a sweet and sombre telling of the plight of Australian wildlife during bushfires.
Descriptors: Philosophical, observational, abstract, experimental, existential, non-interactive
Platforms: PC ($1.50)
Best for: If you need something to talk about at a dinner party
The new generation of games coming out are genre-bending and redefining what a video game even is. Nothing epitomises this more than Mountain, a game where you create a mountain and it simply exists in front of you for the duration of the game.
Sure, things happen on the mountain. Things change. But it’s essentially in real-time and has nothing to do with you. It’s abstract, it’s observational, and it’s certainly… something. It’s cheap as chips, so what have you got to lose? You may discover the meaning of life for $1.50. If that fails, it’s also a cheap fireside conversation starter.