The world is pretty nuts right now, huh? Nations are in turmoil, people’s civil liberties are being threatened, and chances are you’ve got a deadline, or an exam, or a really nasty spot or something. It’s pretty tough staying on top of all the different ways in which things are going down the drain, but everybody has to take a break from that sometime. And you know what’s a good way to relax when everything is going to hell around you? Games. It’s games. So strap in, but also calm down, because there are games and it’s all going to be okay.
First up, literally anything by thatgamecompany. Primarily known for Journey, they’ve been pioneering very relaxed games as far back as 2006. In flOw you play as one of a number of minimalistic undersea creatures and swim around eating other ones. Or not, it’s really up to you. The art style is understated and elegant and the music is softly ambient, something you’d expect to hear played in a sensory deprivation tank. Their follow-up, Flower, puts you in control of a flower petal that’s carried on the breeze. Genuinely. You float around lush meadows, gathering more petals into yourself as you pass through flowers, all set to a vibrant orchestral score. One or two of the levels are kind of dark, but all in aid of the underlying message of natures resilience and ability to thrive regardless of circumstance. Journey, the most recent outing from the company, tells the story of a hooded figure who goes on a pilgrimage through a desert. They cascade through golden sand dunes and glide through the air with ease, occasionally accompanied by another human player who wordlessly adventures alongside you. The cutscenes tell of a larger story, but you’ll get by just fine floating through the fabric jungles of seaweed without paying close attention to that. Austin Wintory provides the wonderful soundtrack, but the end result beggars description and can honestly only be described as best experienced first-hand.
Following in the footsteps of thatgamecompany, ABZÛ encourages you to appreciate the stunning beauty of the natural world while staying very much away from it. Again the narrative is explained mostly through murals and short cutscenes, but the time between these is spent swimming among whales, turtles, squid, and a plethora of tropical fish. There are wide, open underwater vistas and breathtaking landscapes of coral, all of which you can explore by either leisurely swimming around or hitching a ride on one of the larger fish near you. There are even statues dotted around the levels where your character can meditate, allowing you to follow alongside any of the fish in the area. Of which there are over a hundred different species. That’s pretty dang chill.
Stepping out from the genre of picturesque walking simulators, there’s a definite comfort to be found in settling in to a routine in a game and just zoning out. To that end, you have Minecraft. You have a consistent and well-defined cycle of exploring and gathering during the day and then crafting at night when there are enemies best avoided. While the process of harvesting materials can sometimes become frustrating, there’s huge satisfaction to be had in building and expanding on your dream home, or ideal garden, or impenetrable fortress complete with moat and drawbridge. If three dimensions are just too stressful to work with, no problem! Just boot up Terraria and you’re good to go. Tired of being bound to just one planet? Starbound might be your kind of game. There’s a near limitless level of freedom in these games and you can tune the difficulty to whatever you’re comfortable with. While not strictly a game in the same vein, Stardew Valley and it’s inspiration Harvest Moon also follow this gameplay cycle of giving yourself a simple objective for a day, working towards that, and renewing the process again tomorrow. It’s incredibly easy to dip in and out of, and that makes it perfect for unwinding.
What if you want something a little less self-guided, but you’ve still got that hankering for adventure? Nintendo has you covered there. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is nearly fourteen years old now, but a HD remake brought the glorious, cell-shaded epic to new and beautiful heights. The music is full and heart-warming and unforgettable, and all of the npcs that you encounter are so memorable, and their animation so lively and full of character that it lends them a truly astounding degree of individuality seldom seen in other games. Pair that with the hours spent exploring the vast seas and searching for sunken treasure, and the end result is a one-of-a-kind gaming experience. Super Mario Sunshine followed the same style of gameplay, offering a rich, colourful world and giving you the tools to explore it at your leisure. That’s a little harder to come by as it’s not available on the Nintendo eShop, but I’ll loan you my copy so don’t even worry about it.
If these still haven’t served to sufficiently calm, you can always turn on Audiosurf and load up Claire De Lune, stick on the dusk skin, and enjoy a nice drive to some classical music. Alternatively, Panoramical allows you to manufacture artistic soundscapes to a backing track that shifts as you alter the scene. Fract OSC is a puzzle game that offers a suite of tools to make music with, while providing neon visualisations of said music. Or just boot up FEZ and enjoy the glossy pixel world and supremely relaxing soundtrack by Disasterpeace. Should all of that fail, you might like to help the clumsy robot Bud to Grow Home, using flowers to float between islands suspended in the sky, or assist Lumi in navigating the puzzles of the literally hand crafted world of Lumino City so as to find her lost grandfather.
To sum up, times are most definitely tough for a great many people, but guys. There are video games.