When you mention the word "desert" to somebody, they'll probably think of miles of nothing but sand, maybe a cactus here and there, and towering sandy dunes dotting the landscape. When these places appear in fiction, there will be a great deal of emphasis on their vastness, emptiness and monotony — in the desert there are no landmarks or recognizable features anywhere, just endless rows of identical dunes, making it extremely difficult to distinguish any one spot from another and thus to mark progress or direction.
This is not a place where people typically go to of their own volition; characters in these deserts were either stranded here or are trying to travel between places separated by the desert. In either case, their goal is to get out; this is easier said than done, however, since finding one's way around is so difficult. It's hard to find directions, when the only landmarks all look like each other and are always changing shape and position, and it's even harder to tell where you are in the waste — were you supposed to turn left at the thousandth dune or the thousand-and-tenth? Are you just into the desert, far into its depths or close to the edge? Are you even going in the right direction, or have you been Going in Circles for the past week? It's hard to tell — even your footprints are blown away by the desert wind.
The Sea of Sand is also very, very empty — there is no water here, no food, no resources or useful things; there is only sand. You only have what you took with you going in, and you've better hope it will last until the end of the crossing. Of course, you may be lucky and find an oasis — unless it's an improbably realistic mirage. If there is a town here, it's likely poor, isolated, or a Wretched Hive. The only exceptions are the opulent hideouts of Desert Bandit gang lords or of incredibly rich sultan or pharaoh figures. Other than that, the only inhabitants of the sands will be desert nomads, who are uncannily good at finding their way in the wastes, and vultures who will soon start trailing travelers. More probably, however, you won't see a single living thing until — unless — you finally crawl your way, hand over hand, to the edge of the sandy wastes and into civilization once again.
This popular image, it should be noted, is in large part Artistic License Geography. While true sand seas, formally known as "ergs"note , do exist, hot desertsnote are more likely to be rocky and hilly, with rock formations and loose gravel; even in true sandy deserts like the Sahara and the Arabian desert, extensive badlands and rock formations are fairly common. A helpful analogy is that large deserts contain ergs in the same way that a large wetlands region contains bodies of water; scatterings of lakes are more common than horizon-spanning inland seas, and the latter are noteworthy in large part because of their rarity.
Some particularly extreme cases will overlap with Sand Is Water by having a very literal sea of sand, complete with sand ships and whale-like creatures swimming in the dunes.
Compare Shifting Sand Land for the video game version and Thirsty Desert when basic survival is the main concern rather than keeping your bearings. This often occurs on a desert-based Single-Biome Planet. May also contain a Desert Skull. See also All Deserts Have Cacti for the only noteworthy features you'll find here.
- Bleach: Hueco Mundo consists of a vast expanse of white sand desert, a gigantic building that serves as Aizen's HQ, and pretty much nothing else. However, the anime adds a forest beneath the desert where Menos-class Hollows live; this was originally planned to be included in the manga, but was cut due to time constraints.
- Children of the Whales is set on the Mud Whale, an island that moves around on a seemingly infinite desert comprised of nothing but sand.
- Fist of the North Star: Following the nuclear war that decimated the planet, most of the world's wastes include wide desert areas, with the nearest towns being far enough apart that it takes days to get from one place to another, and the desert areas can only be safely traversed by automobiles. If you're travelling on foot, as Kenshiro is ought to do at times, you stand a very high chance of death by dehydration or getting lost in sandstorms; in fact, we're introduced to Ken while he's ready to collapse from a long journey through one of these areas without any water. Adding to the danger is the risk of running into murderous motorcycle-riding bandits, even if you're on a motorized transport yourself.
- One Piece has the desert kingdom of Alabasta, where the Straw Hats at one point have to traverse a wide expanse of desert to get to Rainbase, where Sir Crocodile has his Rain Dinners casino set up. Incidentally, the very nature of Alabasta strengthens Crocodile's Sand Sand Fruit powers, as he can consequently weaponize the desert itself (and does so during his first fight with Luffy).
- Trigun is set on the planet Gunsmoke (No Man's Land in the manga), which is one huge expanse of desert.
- Lanfeust: In Lanfeust of the Stars, the desert in the planet Dezunge (also known as Abraxar) is a literal Sea of Sands, complete with sailing ships, whale-like creature, and islands.
- Wonder Woman (1987): The Sangtee Empire holds prisoners on a planet the prisoners term Hope's End where they're forced to work in mines. The prisoners don't run off from their horrible accommodations because the rocky area being mined is surrounded by inhospitable sand dunes as far as the eye can see.
- Aladdin: The Arabian desert as portrayed in the movie seems to consist almost entirely of dunes.
- An American Tail: Fievel Goes West has Tiger the cat fall off the train while trying to rejoin his friend Fievel the mouse. Tiger takes one look at the vast Southwest desert and bemoans his situation: "Lost, and alone, in a million-acre catbox." The scene is mostly a sand plain, with towering rocks in the distance. It will later contain a spiny cactus, plus a Desert Skull, which is part of a whole skeleton. Notably, in real life, the deserts of North America consist almost entirely of rock formations, rocky badlands and cactus-and-scrub brush — some sand seas exist, but they're small and isolated.
- Lucky Luke: The Ballad of the Dalton: The Magical Native American Snake Feather lives in a completely sandy (and totally flat) desert.
- Soul has the Zone, a place covered in dark, sandy substances where all people go into when they're hyperfocusing on a particular action. Moonwind and his crew even ride along the sand like waves.
- Beau Geste : Both the 1939 and 1966 productions emphasize the sea of sand aspect of the Sahara — justified in this case, as the French Foreign Legion fought its wars in French North African colonies that involved garrisoning forts in the deeper desert.
- Dune: Both film adaptations feature Arrakis as this, with the giant sand worms roaming it. In the 2021 version more precisely, Duke Leto Atreides stresses out to his son Paul that the Atreides have mastered the air and sea on Caladan, but that on Arrakis/Dune, they need the "desert power", i.e. an alliance with the Fremen who know how to survive and navigate through the hostile planet's seas of sand like other world would require the same on sea, on land or in the sky.
- A Far Off Place: The film's climactic scenes take place in the sand dunes of the Kalahari desert.
- Ice Cold in Alex is set during World War II and follows the struggle of a British ambulance unit stranded behind German lines, as they seek to evade capture and return to safety. Even though the British fought in North Africa for three years and the film was made in 1958 — only fifteen years after the end of the fighting — the "sea of sand" aspect of the desert is given disproportionate coverage. (In reality, only a very small part of the fighting took place in the sand sea and both armies sought to avoid this as much as they could, preferring the arid semi-desert terrain nearer the coast.)
- Lawrence of Arabia: The films camerawork emphasises the vast, beautiful emptiness of the desert, over which the Arabs and the protagonist are fighting a war of mobility, often veering into Scenery Porn. The grand orchestral score sometimes serves to ram the point home.
- In Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, Davy Jones' Locker manifests as an infinite, white desert to serve as Captain Jack Sparrow's Ironic Hell.
- Sea of Sand is actually the name of a 1958 British war movie about a desert patrol in North Africa during World War II. Released as Desert Patrol in the USA, it was filmed in Libya and starred Richard Attenborough.
- Spaceballs features a huge Single-Biome Planet that is nothing but miles of desert with huge dunes, which Lone Starr and company crash-land on.
- Star Wars: Tatooine is a desert planet that has negligible surface water or plant life, and whose natives mostly consist of a few Wretched Hive spaceports and alien Desert Bandits. The so-called Dune Sea is a particular example: while many parts of Tatooine are rocky crags and mountains, the Dune Sea is a vast stretch of near-featureless sand that even the native life mostly avoids.
- The Bridge Kingdom Archives: The Red Desert is described as a deadly sea of sand dunes, with occasional sand storms and only a handful of oases.
- Ciaphas Cain: Fecundia in The Greater Good is an Imperial Forge World of which virtually the entire surface outside the cities is a wasteland of sand-like mining and industrial particulates. Cain and Jurgen crash-land amid the dunes after their shuttle is damaged by tyranid ships and end up going in circles trying to walk out of it; they're eventually rescued by a Krieg Death Korps cavalry company on scouting duty.
- Dune: The planet where the action is set in the first book and in the film adaptations is covered with sand. The Sandworms move through the desert sands like fish through water.
- In A Fall Of Moondust, by Arthur C. Clarke, a ship cruises the Sea of Thirst on the Moon, sinking into it and requiring rescue. This was written before the Moon probes and landings that revealed that moondust was solid, rather than a quicksand-like mass.
- In The Fist Of God by Frederick Forsyth, the British forces in the Gulf refer to large parts of Saudi Arabia as "MMFD" (it's unclear whether this is Truth in Television, but given that Forsyth usually makes use of military and intelligence sources when researching his novels, it could be; the British Army is certainly as fond of acronyms as other armed forces). It takes the Americans a while to figure out that it stands for "Miles and Miles of Fucking Desert".
- The Martian Chronicles features Martian ships sailing in the sandy deserts of Mars.
- Skeleton Crew: In "Beachworld", a starship crash-lands onto a desert world. The two survivors of the crash discover the shifting sand seems to have a mind and will of its own.
- Makers of scale model kits depicting the North African battles of WWII tend to fall victim to this trope. Veterans of the African war will tell you that North Africa was an extraordinarily varied landscape ranging from the European-style cultivated fields and farms of the coast right down to the Great Sand Sea of the true Sahara. In practice, however, the war was fought over terrain characterized by arid scrub strewn with dust, rock, pebbles and gravel. Manufacturers of models of the men and terrain invariably depict sand dunes and the Great Sand Sea; this model of the Afrika Korps' most numerous battle tank depicts it cresting a sand-dune with the obligatory sun-bleached animal skull to add visual interest. Box-art and illustrations also revolve around an excess of sand and sand-dunes.
- Born Under the Rain: As said in the game's description:
Keep walking, sweetheart, Odion says, his phantasmal jawbone clacking and clattering. Every minute we spend in this God-forsaken desert is another minute your body rots in my tomb.
An ocean of sand stretches in front of them. How many more miles until they reach the tomb? How many more days until they break Anuket's Tear and lift the curse?
- Civilization 5 and 6 depict desert terrain as barren sand and desert hills as sand dunes, meaning that civs often build mines on the latter.
- Final Fantasy XII takes this trope quite literally with the Ogir-Yensa and Nam-Yensa Sandseas. Wide stretches of the Sandseas have sand with the consistency of water. The only way for the players to cross is on the scaffolds surrounding oil rigs. Natives to the area cross riding fish/dolphin-like creatures.
- F-Zero has Sand Ocean in every entry except Maximum Velocity, although you don't actually traverse it in normal gameplay seeing as the tracks are hovering above it.
- Golden Sun: Averted in all games, where deserts are as much sand as they are rock. The Lamakan desert is dangerous in that walking on the sand rather than rock causes a heat gauge to rise, harming the party when it hits the maximum and requiring splashing around in an oasis to reduce. Unfortunately, oases are hidden by mirages, and not all hidden areas are oases, many contain an Antlion Monster.
- Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak: Played straight for much of the game, where the only things that are not sand are rocky outcroppings, Gaalsien settlements and the remains of the starships that got pulled out of hyperspace due to interference from the Khar Toba. The game also takes the "Sea" bit of the trope quite literally. Military forces operating on Kharak are referred to in naval terms such as "fleets" operating from massive "carriers" on threads.
- The Legend of Zelda:
- The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword: The Lanayru region is a massive desert mostly covered in quicksand where Link will rapidly sink if he doesn't keep moving. The Lanayru Sand Sea is even worse, to the extent that it can't be safely crossed on foot, and instead must be traversed with a specially-equipped speedboat (however, this is not a case of Sand Is Water — the boat is equipped with a device that projects a time travel field going back to the time the sea covered the area).
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: The Gerudo Desert is essentially a giant sandpit filling the southwest corner of the map, with a few rocky formations or weathered ruins poking out here and there. The sand is a not insignificant obstacle to travel, as Link will be slowed down by sinking into the loose sand unless he wears special sand boots, putting him at a distinct disadvantage to the Lizalfos and Moldugas that swim through the sand like water. Other than that, the only inhabited areas in the desert are Gerudo Town and Kara Kara Bazaar, built over the only two oases in the desert. Notably, while players can normally instantly orient themselves by using the Sheikah slate's map function, large sections of the desert are periodically obscured by large sandstorms that cut off service for the slate while lowering visibility to nil, making getting lost a very real danger.
- Minecraft: The desert biome consist chiefly of sand blocks, with the only vegetation being cacti and dead bushes — the only edible things here are rabbits, but good luck catching them. There are desert villages and some mobs that spawn in the desert, but the overall effect is a sea of sand.
- Monster Hunter: The series usually averts this trope, as its deserts have various rocky structures, oasis, palms, and caves. In 3 and 4, however, there is a straight example in the Great Desert where the Jhen Mohran and its subspecies, Dahren Mohran, are fought, as most of the fight takes place in a "sea" of sand that the Mohrans move in as if it was water, and you chase it in a ship with sails.
- Paper Mario:
- Paper Mario 64 has Dry Dry Desert, which is seven screens wide and seven screens deep, the largest such area in the game. Except for Dry Dry Outpost at the end and a nearby oasis, it's also mostly featureless and devoid of any landmarks. Goombario complains about the vastness and emptiness of the place if you have him follow you and you talk to him.
- Paper Mario: The Origami King has Shifting Sandpaper Desert, which is so large that, right before he sets foot there, Mario is given a special car adapted for the region as a means of faster traveling. Downplayed because it does have landmarks in the form of ruins and towers, but they all look pretty similar to each other. The game is fond of hiding things in Shifting Sandpaper Desert and asking you to locate them based on subtle unique features in the landscape you may have missed among the monotony.
- Pokémon Sun and Moon, and Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon by extension: Haina Desert is a large, open desert where not only is there empty space all around, taking the wrong turn will warp the player character elsewhere, making it feel even larger and featureless.
- Sands of Destruction: There is a literal ocean named the "Sand Sea". Unusually, it seems to be treated more like an actual ocean rather than a colossal desert, seemingly requiring specialized equipment to traverse it, there are even Sand Whales that live beneath the sands.
- Terranigma includes the Taklama Desert, an Impassable Desert where Ark has to follow precise directions to make it from one side to the other safely.
- Xenoblade Chronicles X:
- Averted with the game's designated desert region of Oblivia, which despite being referred to in-game as "Sandy Butt Canyon" by Tatsu, actually has very little sand and is mostly rocky badlands.
- Played straight by the continent of Sylvalum, which is covered in a layer of fine, ghostly-white sand and even has a number of regions explicitly named "sandseas" because of how sprawling and sandy they are. However, Sylvalum is actually a continent-sized forest and the sand is implied at times to actually be pollen. Thus, though it fits the bill of being a sand sea, it is much more alien and surreal than other examples of this trope.
- Homestuck: Tavros' planet, the Land of Sand and Zephyr, is covered by an immense sea of reddish-tan sand dotted with occasional ruins.
- The Order of the Stick: Girard hid his Gate in the middle of a huge desert, so that the difficulty of navigating to its location will add to the other tricks he used to protect it.
- Neopets: The Lost Desert is portrayed as just a vast ocean of sand. Travelers are often depicted as having to trudge over endless sand-dunes, and a lot of food available to buy, both in Sakhmet and Qasala, is literally made of sand because little grows in the desert.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Si Wong desert is a massive expanse of sandy dunes. The only exception is Si Wong Rock.
- Harry and His Bucket Full of Dinosaurs: In "Hail the Queen", the Ancient Egyptian desert is portrayed as, as Pterence puts it, a "sand box".
- Ninjago: A few vast deserts have been seen, including the Sea of Sand and the Desert of Doom.
- This kind of desert, properly described as a sand sea or an erg, does exist. However, ergs are landscapes within larger deserts and do not make up the entirety of desert regions — even the most erg-heavy deserts in the world, the Sahara and the Arabian desert, consist chiefly of large stretches of rock, arid mountains and dry scrubland interspersed with sand seas (although, in fairness, a few of these sands seas cover more land than small nations).
- Polar deserts are deserts not made up of sand — they are made up of miles of snow and even snow dunes over hard bedrock or gravel plains. Precipitation is scarce here, especially during ice ages.
- Sand seas have also been discovered on several extraterrestrial worlds, including the planets Venus and Mars, and Titan, largest moon of Saturn.