Dry, dusty, and more often than not Isolated, much like the concept of an underwater level in which we explored last week, desert levels are yet another mainstay amongst many indie and AAA experiences. We keep getting pulled back to them largely because they represent the unknown or something hidden, tapping into our core human desire and passion to go out and explore and discover.

It’s with this in mind that we’ve decided to reel off just 5 of the best desert levels ever to have graced the medium, those that put their own unique spin on what vast amounts of sand could be.

Mario Kart Wii – Dry Dry Ruins

Let’s be clear, there wasn’t a single family household that didn’t have a Wii only a few years ago, and anyone who had a Wii, undoubtedly would have played its Mario Kart iteration. This one earns its place on the list not only for brilliant design and balanced difficulty, but also because there’s hardly anyone who wouldn’t have enjoyed it.

Part of Mario Kart Wii’s Special Cup towards the end of the tournament mode, Dry Dry Ruins throws the player into a swirling dusty track which captures the cave-like structure of indoor caverns, lavish dust falls and more. As you drive past a giant monument of sand Yoshi and dodge past those towering shuffling caterpillars, the feeling of adventure throughout this track solidifies it as one of Mario Kart’s best. The closest you can get to cruising on the red planet competitively.

God of War – Desert of Lost Souls

God of War is a franchise which is by no means short of the grand sandy spectacle, with much of the Greek mythology demanding that Kratos makes his way through various deserts. The most memorable and most unnerving however, is undoubtedly the Desert of Lost Souls.

Unable to progress until they do, the player is tasked with searching and destroying three singing female sirens in this section, adding to the eerie atmosphere as Kratos searches through the gusty winds of this menacing desert. The only way to succeed is through the players sense of sound, and it’s due to this sense of dread and loneliness that makes it one of the most isolated desert levels in all of video games.

Red Faction: Guerrilla – The Planet Mars 

The free-roaming open world playground that is Red Faction: Guerrilla is pretty much an entire world of desert-like terrain, a prerequisite when your game’s narrative centres around the mining of resources on Mars.

Set in the distant future, in which an Earth Defence Force thrusts Martian society into a permanent era of brutal labour, Red Faction: Guerrilla provides the player with a genuine sense of freedom and exploration which is so essential to have when setting your game on another world. Accompanied by the ability to destroy any structure around you, you soon find yourself amongst the ruin of a devastated world with no sense of rule or order. Space is cruel, much like your actions in this game.

Uncharted: Drake’s Deception – Rub’ al Khali

There are many memorable set pieces present within Naughty Dog’s third entry in the Uncharted series, but no other manages to capture sense of loneliness or hopelessness as when Drake is forced to trek his way through the seemingly never ending  Rub’ al Khali desert.

After having just fell hundreds of feet down, falling from an aircraft carrier, during this section the player is forced to keep on moving forward through the game with no other sign of human life. The desert skyline shows no structure or building and it is never made clear if the player is doing what the game developers intended during this section. Am I going in the right direction? How long does this section go on for? This feeling of heading on into the unknown parallels how little we know about the red planet’s barren landscape.

Journey – Unknown location 

You may have noticed that the common theme running through this list, is not only the fact that each of these levels/worlds contain sand within them, but that all use this element to project a feeling upon the player. No other game does this more successfully than 2012’s beautiful masterpiece, Journey.

Journey’s narrative is told wordlessly without the need for cut scenes and as such it is unknown whether or not we are on another planet, dimension or world and therefore the idea of being lost is ever most present here. The game also combines the explorative and adventure elements which propels you to continue onwards, despite not knowing what waits for you.