Video Games have always been a fantastic medium for stress-relief. And 2020 has definitely been the year to test that out! When Animal Crossing: New Horizons peaked in March 2020, the consensus seemed to hold it up as The Game for Dealing with 2020. And for all purposes, it sure did look like it. But 2020 just keeps on being 2020. And personally, AC:NH has done nothing for helping manage stress and anxiety for me. I really don’t need to add any more consumer behaviour to my life, even if it is in the form of a cartoon racoon. Instead, I have my own list of tried-and-true stress-relief video games. Games I know will relax the mind, soothe the soul, and help me regain some hope for the world. So, let’s count to 10 and breathe… and join me with The Best Video Games for Relaxing.
A Short Hike
If you are not convinced by my views about AC:NH, let me introduce you to A Short Hike. This is the sweetest and most relaxing of all the games I have played in the last few months. It is such a delight to play. Even it’s humble beginnings are about stress-relief: It started as a personal art project, spawning from the developer’s burnout on an RPG project. Adam Robinson-Yu took time out to design some natural landscape, building on his happiest memories of hiking and exploring beautiful forests. All of this is captured in such a warm and fuzzy way, it just smooths the sharp edges of your day.
The characters are adorable and lovely to look at, with colors and graphics far more natural then those like AC:NH. And while there is a core story/journey, there is no hard-fas-rule to do so. The initial motivation is for your character to find some cell phone reception. That’s the story but not the journey. Instead, there are plenty of ‘side-quests’ and side paths to discover.
A Short Hike is developed by Adam Robinson-Yu and you can learn more about it on the official website here. It is available on PC, Mac, Linux, Nintendo Switch, Steam, Epic, GOG, Humble Monthly, and Itch.io. A Short Hike was included in the Racial Justice Bundle offered by Itch.io (I wrote about it here on GeekMom.com).
Keeping to the theme of relaxing surroundings, take your time exploring with Feather. It is a perfect game for the days when you just want to take off and fly away from it all. It is a simple and quietly meditative game, focused on nothing more than the experience. No direction or missions; just freedom.
The game is one huge landscape and you are a bird flying above it all. You control where the bird flies from a perspective a little above and behind the bird. You can dive, soar, barrel-roll, and simply explore to your feathery delight. The scenery also comes with a range of environments, various weather systems, and time shifts between day and night. There are no enemies, no combats, no threats. It is all exploration with a soothing soundtrack to match. There are little treats to discover around the island, such as towers to change your bird, new songs to find, and even friends to make. Overall, it is a smooth game to lull your mind into a happy place. Definitely one of the best video games for relaxing.
Feather comes from indie developer Samurai Punk, with more information available on their website here. The game is available on PC, Nintendo Switch, PS4, and Xbox One. I have been playing it on via Steam on my PC but I would LOVE to see how it looks on the big screen TV via the Switch.
Okay, I have one more for the bird theme. Birds are very relaxing creatures and often a sign of a healthy environment. For those who are less interested in ‘being’ a bird and more interested in relaxing with bird-watching, you might like to play a game or two of Wingspan. Based on the tabletop of the same game, the video game version keeps the same format with added animation to the birds and the environment. The ease of mechanics and relaxing nature is why I included it in my list for the best video games for relaxing.
The goal is to observe, learn from, and attract various birds to your wildlife reserve. Each bird adds to a combination of features in one of your habitats. Each habitat subsequently focuses on key aspects in your wildlife preserve. It’s a great way to learn about multiple levels of life in our environments. The game can be played in single-player or in multiplayer with up to five (5) people; however, this will make the game competitive and maybe a little less relaxing. The graphics are replicates of the tabletop game, equally beautiful and delicate in their details. The real gift for me is in the soundtrack: each of the 170 unique birds has real-life sound recordings and individual features that echo their natural behaviour: hunting, diving, flying as a flock.
Wingspan (the video game) was developed by Monster Couch, with more details on their website here. The game is currently available on Steam and Nintendo Switch. For more information about the original tabletop game, check out GeekDad Dave’s review here.
The Gardens Between
Let’s harken back to simpler times. Bring on the sweet nostalgia and relax into The Gardens Between. I first saw this game at PAX Aust 2017, and I am pleased to see it develop into a full gaming experience. The two main characters are Arina and Frendt, two friends who live next door to each other. On a rainy night, the pair sneak out to their treehouse built on a small garden next to both houses. During the storm, a light visits them and transports the treehouse to a dream ocean with lots of islands, built around their shared experiences and memories.
The game itself is a scrolling platform based on time manipulation. Movement of the characters is dependent on the management of time: the ‘little light’ gives you to move time back and forth, allowing for certain events or items to move at the right time to help the characters continue on their journey. There is abstract problem solving and a lot of consequential analysis; If I do this, then this will happen but then I have to move that to allow this other thing to move. If it sounds a little like a scene from Minority Report then you are right! One of the producers and designers, Simon Joslin, confirmed some inspiration came from the ability to move time back and forth like the interface in Minority Report.
For me, the landscape of memories is soothing the way it is designed to move us through our memories. There are 20 levels in total, each with their own smaller puzzles to solve. There is nothing too challenging or distracting about this game, which is why it is one of the best video games for relaxing. This is not so much a game of escapism as it is a game for acceptance. It is a touching tribute to friendship and the power of nostalgia. From someone who has lived through the stress of moving and leaving friends many times, this game is like a balm on my soul. It calms the mind and brings peace to my heart.
The Gardens Between is developed by The Voxel Agents, with their website here. Not only is the game available on all of the regular platforms (Steam, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One), The Gardens Between is also available on iOS and Android. So you can chill out almost anywhere!
I found this one by accident and it has worked out to be my best secret find so far this year. The Stairway is a simple straight-forward storyline with small puzzle elements to move you along. It is intended to be a calming experience with very gentle social interactions and problem-solving.
You play as the main character, Stella, who was invited to an event by her friend. However, Stella has lost her friend and is worried the friend let without her! While searching for her friend, Stella discovers a mysterious stairway and a short adventure into a new world. Along the way, you meet various people who all need a little help in their own ways. The entire game takes about an hour at the absolute most (maybe 3omins), and is the perfect thing for unwinding some of the pent-up stress we are all carrying. With cute pixelated images and a beautiful calming piano soundtrack, it is definitely one of the best video games for relaxing. And because it was always intended to be relaxing, the ending will resonate with a lot of our stressed GeekMom readers (let us know what you think in the comments).
The Stairway is a small game from indie developer illydna and available for free on Itch.io here. There is a developer note on the font used in the game; I recommend you install the additional font file “RM2000 8” as the initial font is very difficult to read. The rest of the game is sweet innocent joy.
If your dream stress-relief is helping something to grow but you’re worried your stress-levels would kill it, then I would suggest a ‘simulated’ gaming experience for you. There are a few out there and one of my favorites is Biotope. It is the most realistic simulated aquarium ‘games’ I have seen. This is perfect for people who to try out the whole ‘fish-keeping’ thing without the ‘fish-dying’ thing.
WIth Biotope, you have to do everything you would for a real aquarium, minus the extra time waiting for things to settle. (Sidenote: if you are a serious fish owner, I am completely aware that the ‘waiting’ is part of the natural process and can be a good thing in real life but the fact that we are all talking about computer games should tell you that I am not a patient person nor do I think I can handle the guilt of killing any more fish)
This is the kind of game that will give you everything you need and will not punish you for making a mistake. The ultimate learning experience. You have to buy the filter, heater, rocks, plants, food, and then the fish. You may not have any idea what you are doing but it starts with a tutorial and gives you all the information you need. Even the fish have their own information sheets: preference for temperature, hiding places, size, company, etc. You can play this simulation game in real-time or use the time-lapse to speed things up. There are also some mini-quests to help you earn money for more features in your tank (or to replace dead fish or plants). The quests are also part of the training. For example, the first quest is to manage time-lapse features. Sure, you can skip ahead and see how your tank is going but you run the risk of missing any sudden changes in your tank.
I love setting this game up, checking on my buddies, and then leaving it to play on the 2nd monitor while I work. The filter runs constantly (akin to ‘white noise’) and the image is quite realistic and soothing. It is very relaxing when I am writing about more stressful topics. However, it is important to note this is a game of science–water chemistry, marine biology, and ecosystems. There are a lot of realistic and thus finicky details you need to consider for this. I think that is what makes it such a great aquarium simulator and educational game. Thanks to my 14-year-old son who showed me this game, after deciding that another pet might not be a good idea right now.
Biotope comes from the team at 2tainment and is currently available on Steam. You can find more information on their website here.
Keeping fish alive is one thing. Playing scientist with alien flowers? Now that’s a whole extra step towards crazy science stuff! And now you can do it in a calm relaxing manner because we are all about the stress-relief today. Checkout Mendel, ‘a chill sandbox game about growing weird plants from alien genetics’. Seriously, I couldn’t word it better than the developer himself.
You have piloted a probe on a faraway planet together samples of the new indigenous plants and breed them together to create new hybrids. This game invites you to explore and experiment. There is no pressure or expectation. This is essentially like allowing your kids to have complete open slather in the kitchen without consequence. and YOU dod not have to clean up the mess. Okay, it is a lot more relaxing than that but it is equally open to interpretation (and unpredictable in the results).
One warning: the colors are BRIGHT! So if you have been indulging in any drinking games while watching US election results or COVID-19 updates, then you may want to dim the monitor lighting on this one. The music is far more accommodating and soothing for the experience. Either way, it is still worthy of being one of the best video games for relaxing.
Mendel is the solo project of indie developer Owen Bell, detailed on his website here. I originally found this game in the Racial Justice Bundle with Itch.io and the game can now be found on Steam and Itchi.io. Mendel was the first game to receive the Alfred P Sloan Foundation Public Understanding prize because they recognized a commitment to showing how beautiful the world of genetics is. This is the type of relaxing environment we all need–one with the potential to embrace science as well.
When I first played Ynglet, I honestly had no idea what was going on. It was part of the PAX Online 2020 line-up and it followed on from a bunch of adventure games I had checked out on the same day. It finally hit me many days later: Ynget is a beautiful mess of abstract puzzle building and simplistic art with an underlying story of science and family. I had struggled to find a place for it in my reviews and then I realised: It fits perfectly with the best video games for relaxing.
In Ynglet, you are a micro-organism of some sort? It’s floaty and rather elegant and the storyline seems to indicate a micro-organism of some sort. A comet has crashed into your home planet, sending you and your friends flying all around the world. Your journey is to jump between bubbles that float in the sky, allowing you the ability to travel around and find your friends. For the mechanics of the game, you are able to jump from bubble to bubble, with some other platforms at higher levels. This is an easy-mind floating platform game without actual platforms. You can choose to ‘rest’ and create your own checkpoints, bounce off ‘reflecting’ platforms, and even chase other organisms.
The soundtrack is a little groovy and very dynamic, working well with the floaty graphics. I love the splash of color with some bubbles which are part of a bigger collection (like a flower or bacterial blooms).
Ynglet comes from developer Nifflas & Triple Topping Games. You can learn more about the game from the official website here. Ynglet currently has a demo available on Steam with a full release coming soon.
I don’t’ think we could really have a list of the best video games for relaxing if I didn’t include Abzû on the list. it is the perfect stress relief video game for anyone who seeks tranquillity beneath the waves. It is the ultimate relaxed adventure game; there are no checkpoints, deaths, or time limits. There are some side story elements but no stress to follow through with any of it. This is a computer game adventure set to environmental art.
It is stunningly beautiful. And I mean stunningly beautiful. It is filled with environments, each filled again with a multitude of life-forms. There is so much to see and explore and just look at. On that note, there is very little to do in this game. As in, almost nothing. There is nothing to do. Okay, there are a few puzzles but in all honesty, that’s not why you would be playing this game. It is there to be seen. This is like poetry to our oceans. The soundtrack is equally moving, encouraging you to float around forever. Put the kids to bed and settle in for a night-swim through the ocean. Then let me know about your dreams in the comments below.
Abzû come from the creative team at Giant Squid, including Creative Director and Co-Founder Matt Nava (the art director behind Flower and Journey; two games that almost made it on this list). It is available on Steam, Switch, PS4, and Xbox One. Check out their website here for more details.
Are you still with me at the end of this list? It has been a loooooong list but it is also the best video games for relaxing. And I promise you, the last game on the list will not disappoint.
Catlateral Damage is a puzzle game to simulate why your cat knocks everything off the flat surfaces. For this game, you are a cat. Yes, a cat. And your sole purpose is to go around knocking stuff off every flat surface. I kid you not. Photo frames, books, pot plants, bananas. You name it, it’s on the list of things to knock off. And everything you need to knock off is SPARKLING with yellow twinkle stars. It is so damn adorable and so damn satisfying. This is a fun game to laugh at and let off some steam. The colors and graphics are very simple and easy-going. And yes, the cat is very cute. The music is also upbeat and light, adding to the fun-nature of the game. I’ll be honest–the controls took me a little to get used to but very similar to most other sim-style games. Overall, I highly recommend this to anyone who has cats. It will lighten your day and your mood! The perfect game to finish off our ‘best video games for relaxing’.
Catlateral Damage was developed by Manekoware and was part of the Racial Justice Bundle with Itch.io. It is available on PC, Steam, and Nintendo Switch. There is also a ‘remeowstered’ edition coming out next year. Head over to the official website for more information.
Right now, we are all trying to find the best ways to relax and relieve the stress. It is so important we all find our own ways to do this. Video games have always been a good option, with a plethora of games and styles to choose from. However, it is important to recognize the difference between letting off a bit of steam and using the game to avoid everything else in your life completely. For more information about how games can help us manage our health, have a look at the following articles:
- Gaming is Good for Your Health: Self-Medicating with Games by Evil Genius Mum
- “Animal Crossing: New Horizons”–A Mental Escape from the Pandemic by Dakster Sullivan
- Playing Skyrim to Treat PTSD by Rory Bristol
- Games and Mental Health in Children: Interview with Evil Genius Mum by Rebecca Angel
Stay safe! Play safe!