We think it is fair to say for most people 2020 has not been the best year in recent history. And it has come as little surprise that millions of stressed out people bunkering down inside their houses has led to an increase in video gaming. So we thought it might be nice to gather some of the most relaxing video games you can play to provide some much needed virtual therapy. Our criteria is little to no jeopardy (haven’t we all had enough of that?) but still engaging and complex enough to keep you glued to the screen for hours (Candy Crush can be saved for another time). Who knows, maybe when you come out of playing all of these, all this might have blown over…
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020)
We know this won’t be a huge surprise to the list so we are getting it out the way early – because you’d have to have been asleep for six months to have missed the release of Animal Crossing: New Horizons in lockdown and its subsequent success.
With its real-time clock and leisurely pace, Animal Crossing is the epitome of escapism – offering a world where the biggest risk is tripping over and letting go of your balloon. At a time like this, it is unsurprising the idea of building a community from the ground up on an untouched island is appealing. Plus, Animal Crossing is also a way to get in those social hours you’re missing out on by playing with friends. And did we mention it’s just super cute?
Whilst many of the games on this list may just be super cute, stress-free games don’t all have to be happy and quirky. Gris is an emotionally painful and complex puzzle-platformer where you play a young girl who is going through the stages of grief after losing her mother. Yet it is stunningly therapeutic.
Whilst platformers like this can traditionally be frustrating, the sheer beauty of the artwork and music in Gris makes the whole 2-3 hours of playtime feel like a deeply enriching experience. Any difficulty getting through a puzzle is merely a reflection of the difficulty of overcoming grief and loss – so rather than annoying, it feels necessary. Lots of people have said this game helped them come to terms with loss themselves and whoever you are, it is OK to have a little cry over it.
Stardew Valley (2016)
No list of this nature would be complete without Stardew Valley, the iconic country-life RPG famously made by one guy over the course of five years. Abandoning the rat-race in the city, you play as a character inheriting your grandfather’s old farm and set about making it into a home.
The colourful aesthetics, changing seasons and simple but catchy music will have you ploughing through your first year in no time. Getting to know the residents of Stardew Valley is an equally rewarding experience as you find yourself caught up in their lives and stories. Whilst there is the option of a little bit of fighting in the mines, you don’t have to do any of this and usually the biggest threat is accidentally falling asleep outside your house. In fact, the most horrifying thing about Stardew is checking your playtime and realising you’ve spent 2 weeks of your life harvesting pumpkins.
A Short Hike (2019)
Some games it’s all about saving the world, but is there any goal more relatable than just trying to find some decent phone signal? A Short Hike, true to its name, is a fairly brief but entirely engaging experience where you play as a little bird named Claire jauntily making her way up a mountain.
As you jog, climb and even fly around the quaint scenery there is no sense of time pressure. Yet with a steadily expanding repertoire of abilities, A Short Hike manages to keep you teetering along with fresh experience without feeling overwhelmed. Plus it’s impossible not to smile as it’s adorable little soundtrack sways between peaceful simplicity and uppity charm. We would go on if we had more words for ‘unbearably wholesome’ but we suggest you just try it for yourself.
The Sims (2000-2020)
What could be better for escaping how crap life is at the moment than the original life-simulator The Sims? Whether you’re an old school Sims 1 player or a new-age Sims 4 fan, The Sims has been the dominant life simulation video game for over 20 years.
With the flexibility to create whoever you want and shape their lives however you want, The Sims has always been a true escape from the outside world. That’s whether you’re the sort of person who labours over your choice of wallpaper for an hour or someone who leaves your Sims using a toilet outside and breaking up the neighbours marriages. It’s an obvious choice, but if you can’t live out your full life right now – why not live out someone else’s?
It’s hard to imagine Journey has been out for 8 years now when it still has such a place in our hearts, but in terms of immersive but stress-free gameplay it can’t be forgotten. As a nameless robed figure, you must make your way across the desert and through colder climates to a crevice in a mountain.
On the way, you may encounter other players to interact with, without speaking, but singing a harmonious note. Whilst there is no real dialogue in the game, you won’t miss it with the beautiful soundtrack (seriously, even if you don’t want to buy Journey you can spend hours listening to the soundtrack). This game is all about, quite obviously, the experience of the journey – proven by the option to start all over again the moment you finish – yes please!
Ok – bear with us here – some people who have played Firewatch may claim the slightly unnerving thriller set in the depths of a national park is anything but stress-free. And it is true as the storyline begins to develop that the beautiful scenery becomes more sinister than it seems.
However, we can’t ignore how Firewatch feels at times peaceful and super immersive -particularly through its use of a realistic first-person perspective. Even getting out and looking at your map and compass is as tricky as in real life and you become so connected to the main character, you can’t help but finish the story. In a world where most video games have at least 5 pop-up interfaces for information, Firewatch brings our perspective right into nature, without having to go outside. Perfect for your fifth day straight with no fresh air!
Which Pokémon game we hear you ask? Well… pretty much any of them. For sheer scope and ambition, the latest Pokémon Sword and Shield games have been a solid companion for many locked-down gamers. But if you’re a veteran who fancies digging out your old Pokémon Red and Game Boy we wouldn’t judge either.
The premise is somewhat always the same and perhaps that is the reason why the Pokémon games have been successful for nearly 25 years (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!) There is nothing more fun but equally frivolous than setting out on your Pokémon adventure, building-up your adorable little team and getting the Poké centre theme tune stuck on a loop in your head. Forever cute and light-hearted – you’ll forget about 2020 in no time.
The Stillness of the Wind (2019)
Perhaps one of the more niche indie games on this list, The Stillness of the Wind has stood out to earn a place and seems all the more relevant as time goes on. You play an elderly woman as she potters around her goat farm, making cheese and reading letters from her family in the city - at an incredibly slow pace.
Some may find the pace too slow, but for those who give it the time the themes of isolation and loneliness resonate with anyone who has ever felt the sadness of solitude – or been shut off from the rest of the world for a few weeks. Plus with simple tap mechanics, it works beautifully on a phone and it’s rare to find a game this emotionally engaging you can play in the palm of your hand.
Last but by no means least, of course we had to include Minecraft. We don’t really feel the need to explain why it is on this list, but just in case you’ve been living in a hole for the last decade or so this simple but addictive sandbox video game is about as effective as any for not just stealing, but full on bank robbing all of your time.
The relaxing nature of Minecraft comes from the endless possibilities and you can make what you like of your open, boxy world. Whilst plunging into the Nether isn’t everyone’s idea of ‘stress-free’, you can just as easily dedicate your time to collecting sheep and sleeping your way through the slightly more intimidating night-times. Alternatively, whizzing around in creative mode removes all the jeopardy and you can spend weeks creating Kings Landing or Minas Tirith out of cubes… if you like.
So there we have it – games from the painfully cute to the painfully melancholy all in their own ways effective but, most importantly, unlikely to give you a stress migraine or have you launching a controller across the room in anger. Are there any other games you’ve been playing to chill out this year? Or did any of these games actually stress you out? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!