Modern life is a constant source of stress. While it’d be a stretch to say that it’s more difficult to get by today than it was when you would have to pawn off your children for a slice of bread, 21st century living comes with its fair share of difficulties nonetheless.
Whether it’s a big stack of bills, heavy workloads, or that bastard Greg not liking the meme you tagged him in, it doesn’t take long for stuff to pile up and make you feel overloaded. Stress is a creeping problem, slowly bubbling beneath the surface often without you even realising it. It’s all too easy to push worries to the back of your mind and soldier on regardless of the mental weight you’re carrying.
A few years back, this site was having serious issues and it required me to work for a week straight to find a fix. Combine that with a part-time job, a dwindling bank balance, and the day-to-day running of Cultured Vultures and it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I quickly became burnt out.
After deciding to step back for a short break, I focused on decompressing and winding down. Instead of finding a new hobby, I decided to lean on my oldest one: gaming.
But it wasn’t a twitchy match of Rainbow Six Siege or a grey matter intensive round of Overwatch I was after – I wanted to play some relaxing games and let my brain float out of my head. It worked, too: I returned to work eager to get on with things and kick the ass off the rest of the year.
With that in mind, here are some of the most relaxing video games (in no particular order) for when you just need to simmer down, kick up your feet, and let everything wash away, even if it’s just for a few hours.
Developer: Giant Squid Publisher: 505 Games Platform(s): PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
While it’s true that Abzu gets a little intense the further into its depths you dive, this Journey-like (a phrase I will never repeat again, sorry) boasts some stunning, heartwarming early sequences that will stick with you for a long time.
Featuring some truly beautiful artwork and a soundscape that opposes the daunting nature of the ocean, you play as a diver in amongst hundreds of unique species of fish, each programmed to respond in different ways to your presence.
If you don’t want to dive deeper and deeper into the darkness, there’s a good few hours of chill to be enjoyed while you float around the tranquil ocean and take in the wonderful soundscape.
14. Kind Words
Developer: Popcannibal Publisher: Popcannibal
Kind Words — or Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to) to give it its full name — isn’t honestly the gamiest of relaxing games on this list. Instead, it’s more like the cheapest therapy you could ever hope for.
Anonymous players for all around the world send letters out into the void with other players then being able to send letters back to give advice or just to hear them out. You can’t open up a long dialogue, meaning that all conversations are fleeting but perhaps more meaningful than most.
The community for Kind Words is suitably kind, so if there are a few things you need to get off your chest or you just want to chat with strangers without risk, it’s a fascinating experiment you ought to check out.
Developer: Nomada Studio Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform(s): PC, PS4, Switch, iOS, Android
“Serene” is probably the best way to describe Gris: a platformer in which you play as a young woman who’s lost her voice and must go on a journey to get it back. It’s actually quite similar to another game you’ll find later on in this list, but there’s nothing quite like Gris.
If the beautiful watercolour aesthetic doesn’t immediately put you at ease, the simply perfect soundtrack certainly will. Gris is a game that wants you to sit back and think introspectively, while also just generally getting away from the hustle and bustle of your mind. A true late contender for one of the best games of 2018.
“Gris is an emotive work of art that offers a sense of peace and optimism in tumultuous times.”
12. Slime Rancher
Developer: Monomi Park Publisher: Monomi Park
Listen: life is a lot sometimes. It’s just a lot. Your hair is receding, your belly fat is starting to overlap in on itself, and you can’t quite get your beard to stop being curly and want to just shave it off. I am talking about myself here, so I should probably wander off and play Slime Rancher.
Believed to be the first farming game featuring guns, the objective of Slime Rancher is simple: ranch some slimes. They’re slippery little blobs of loveliness that can sometimes escape, but your handy gun can bring them back to the farm with little fuss. Sure, things can get a little stressful if you wander too far from the farm, but why would you want to if you have plenty of slimes to ogle at?
Slimes are love, slimes are happiness.
Developer: David OReilly Publisher: David OReilly
Everything is about, well, everything. It’s an avant garde bit of interactive storytelling that sees you controlling almost every living thing around you, as well as the odd cigarette butt. If that sound bonkers, it’s because it is, which just makes it that much more charming.
Pay no heed to the wonky animations of animals as they roll around everywhere instead of walking normally. In fact, if you just stare at it for a long time while you listen to the well-spoken professor teaching you about the universe, it’s kind of hypnotising. And there isn’t a gun in sight.
10. Stardew Valley
Developer: ConcernedApe Publisher: ConcernedApe
I was late to board the Stardew Valley hype train, but as soon as I started raising chickens with the names of dead rappers, I immediately understood why this little indie game had been such a massive success.
Even its premise reflects the need to be distanced from modern life. A career-driven individual is constantly battered down by the 9-5 until they remember a letter from their grandfather. Opening what turns out to be the deeds to a farm in Stardew Valley, they leave the hustle and bustle of city living behind to start afresh and reconnect with simple pleasures.
Stardew itself is a quaint little town almost entirely disconnected from “normality”. You’ll meet new people (and painstakingly gift them berries every day until they become your friends) and even have plenty to explore, but Stardew’s real allure is taking the time to cultivate a living for yourself off the land, something that we all wish we could do when the going gets tough.
9. Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis
Developer: Blue Tongue Entertainment Publisher: Universal Interactive/Konami
You might be confused by this one, seeing as how almost every theme park management game gets to a point where it seems like your second job. Operation Genesis can be played exactly like that, tasking you with overseeing the demanding day-to-day operations of dinosaur tourism.
But what’s this? You accidentally deleted the fence for the Spinosaurus enclosure? Oh no, whatever will you do? Why are you imagining the tourists are people you resent as they’re eaten by rampaging dinosaurs? The park is overrun, families are being stalked by packs of dangerous velociraptors; there’s no escape. You’re a monster.
If you aren’t already an Elite: Dangerous player, you should probably be warned that the first couple of hours of Frontier’s massive space exploration title are going to be the total of opposite of relaxing. It’s an incredibly dense game that require patience.
Once you’re able to successfully land your ship without shaming your family, however, it becomes utterly cathartic to travel the galaxy at your leisure. I’m only a few hours in, but I’ve already noticed how relaxing it is to warp between systems for delivery missions to contribute towards slowly but surely patching a ship together that would make Han Solo feel impotent.
You can also play Elite anyway you like; there’s an emphasis on roleplaying that the game subtly enforces to add much more to the experience. For the time being, I’m a neutral Commander who will do jobs for anyone and everyone, including criminals, but that doesn’t make me a bad person. I’m just trying to support my family because little Jimmy’s clarinet lessons won’t pay for themselves.
Journey changed my life. That might seem a bit dramatic, but it really did.
A good few years ago, I was feeling worn down and just about done with life for reasons that I won’t go into here. After deciding to pick up Thatgamecompany’s Journey, that soon changed – it provided clarity like no other game I’ve ever played and an emotion that I can’t quite put into words.
I will come back to Journey now and again when I feel fried or like I need to take a second for myself. My tense shoulders loosen up and my mind goes blank each and every time I watch the robed figure look to the distant horizon. It’s almost like therapy.
Burnout Paradise’s name couldn’t be more apt. It’s a wide open playground of vehicular war, but you can always just cruise around the city and smash through barriers and signs, which is one of the most oddly therapeutic experiences I’ve had with a game.
The real joy in Criterion’s racer, however, comes from shunting cars off the road at high speeds while blaring out Vivaldi like some kind of sociopathic Bond villain. I’ve lent on this game quite a lot when I need to vent and it stands up remarkably well despite its age. How about you make another trip to the city where the grass is green and the girls are pretty?
More magic from Thatgamecompany, Flower is a beautiful and simple title that will make you want to unplug your chargers and invest in some energy-saving bulbs.
Playing as the wind, your job is to to collect petals and guide them through obstacles to bring life back to dead meadows. It sounds like a straightforward game that many might scoff, but its rousing soundtrack, stunning visuals and important message has resonated with many.
If you’re looking for a break from the real world for a couple of hours, channel your inner Washburne and become a leaf on the wind.
Developer: Blue Isle Studios Publisher: Blue Isle Publishing
One of 2016’s underrated gems, the creators of the heart-stopping Slender: The Arrival went in a completely different direction for their next game, Valley. If you’ve ever wanted to leap through sumptuous glades, you’re in luck.
As an explorer who’s stumbled across hidden technology that allows him to harness the unusual flora and fauna of his surroundings, you’re able to make unrealistic jumps and explore huge areas within seconds. Couple that with a lovely soundtrack that will make your heart feel weirdly warm and you have a good reason to spend a few hours with Blue Isle Studios’ surprising success.
3. The Sims
Developer: Maxis Publisher: EA
What better way to avoid real-life responsibilities than to raise a family of vampires? The Sims has been such a strong and beloved series for so long as it’s allowed millions to take on a new life, which is especially useful when your own is turning to shit.
The way you approach The Sims is up to you. The career you’ve always wanted could be yours, the romance you’re missing is just a few lines of Simlish away, or you can live out your darkest fantasies by keeping people in a basement without food. Even the most saintly of gamers have tried it at least once.
Plus, you can’t spell escapism without Sims.
2. Unravel 1 & 2
Developer: Coldwood Interactive Publisher: EA
How the Unravel series continues to go relatively unnoticed is something that I will never be able to wrap my head around. People are clamouring for new platformers, all the while missing out on one that blends old and new styles in one lovely little ball of yarn.
Possessing gorgeous visuals (seriously, that glinting water) and an emotional core, Unravel is the ultimate Sunday video game, something that you can occasionally come back to and leave with a smile. It’s all about family and the past, which is unfurled the deeper you go.
If EA were involved with more games like this, maybe everybody would be able to relax their hatred towards them. Unravel Two was a great step up for an already great game, so here’s hoping for a third game.
1. Animal Crossing
Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo
A game series so laid back you could die and still be able to play it, Animal Crossing is almost universally adored because you don’t have to do a thing. There’s no clear objective (apart from paying that tyrant Tom Nook your mortgage) and living in a modern world that demands you do absolutely everything, what could be a better antidote?
Many gamers spend hours with a simple fishing rod and a pond, just seeing if there’s a catch. Others run around and hunt bugs or fossils; there’s so much you can do and none of it will test your brain. Just like The Sims, you can also socialise like you possibly couldn’t in real life, becoming the friend of everyone in town, so there’s no need to worry about real-world drama.
Despite its rough edges, Animal Crossing is worth seeking out by anyone who just needs a break from reality. Better yet, you can become mates with raccoons without having to worry about rabies.