In these times of enforced social distancing and isolation, it’s more important than ever to carve out a space for yourself. For those of us lacking access to gardens and greenery, consolation may be found in a world of pixels.

Screen resolution and video game graphics are stunningly detailed. Designers are putting as much effort into the landscapes and scenery as they are into the look of the main characters. The result is gameplay that fully immerses you in a new world, far from everyday troubles and our boxes of brick and mortar.

In recent years there’s been a rise in open-world/sandbox gaming and other types of expansive play, where gamers are encouraged to go off the beaten track, diverge from the main narrative (if there is one), and explore to their heart’s content. Games like No Man’s Sky send you off on ever-evolving space adventures (‘if you see it, you can go there’), and a game like Journey sets you free in a desert world where, although there are puzzles to solve, the real, emotive joy comes from the game’s atmosphere: its beautiful environment and Grammy-nominated score.

One of my most poignant gaming moments came from watching clothes dangling from a washing line, swaying in the breeze, in the eerie, deserted world of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. It was strangely cathartic and sad.

Thatched cottages behind a village green in a still from the video game Everybody's Gone to the Rapture
Everybody's Gone to The Rapture (2015)
© The Chinese Room

It’s not just high-concept, indie games that allow for wild rambles. AAA games can also be incredibly rewarding for those of us who get the urge for going. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt has plenty of supernatural happenings, but its empty landscapes hold riches – the forests, the valleys, the collectable herbs, the ripples on water, the inclement weather (the “wind, howling”).

It was fun to crest mountain ridges until an invisible wall told you ‘no’; it signalled that this was virgin land, untouched by beast or human, and that you were the explorer who had defied the lines on a map. Time spent exploring, in my book, is never time wasted because in these in-between times you are the master of the narrative – you’re not being pulled along on some madcap B-story to rescue a lute player from a tryst, or find a missing child, you’re beholden to no one and nothing, not even time itself.

Except, of course, for those gaming devices that demand you rest to heal, or eat and sleep at regular intervals, such as in Red Dead Redemption 2. Yet even these camp-fire moments add to the sense of being in the wilderness, allowing you to take stock of your surroundings, the night sky, the nocturnal creatures, or, if in company, asking for a song or a story. Every good narrative needs peaks and troughs, space for the reader/viewer to process the latest twist or revelation. In video games you get to choose how deep the trough goes and how long you wallow there.

In Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla you have two main worlds to explore, Midgard and Asgard, and in each you can mount a trusty steed and go on a non-adventure – a furious gallop through the trees, dodging any beast or assailant, your only mission to see what’s just around the corner or over that hill.

There’s a compelling power in glimpsing a ruin, a thread of smoke in the distance, or something your ‘Odin sense’ picks up, and the game designers know it. They leave Easter eggs, tricks and treats for you to stumble upon, relying on our curious nature and the fact that we can’t resist the lure of something new and undiscovered. Sometimes, that something new comes in the form of an experiment or experience; to ‘see what would happen if I…’ Your deviations and mistakes remain unseen and well hidden in the wilderness. In fact, as an assassin you’re encouraged to hide your tracks, and your bodies.

The wilderness is, in my mind, an essential part of gaming. This is pure escapism. You can go forest bathing without leaving the sofa, you can tread through landscapes you’d never experience in real life, endure the heat, the cold, the effort without breaking a sweat, or simply take time out to sit and watch the virtual world go by.

Video games offer environments in which you have control, in which you can rebel without real-world consequences. Many studies have proven that video games can have positive psychological benefits and offer a release, so perhaps it’s time to relish the bits between the epic fights and go off on your own for some quality ‘me time’?

Studios big and small increasingly put a huge amount of time and energy into beautifully rendered environments and innovative sound design. They want us to feel more, see more, do more. Why would they give us maps if they wanted us to simply race through the A-story? Besides, unlike reality, with a video game you can always find your way back if you stray too far, so there’s no excuse not to go a-gallivanting.