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Real life is rubbish sometimes, and there’s nothing that video games can do about that. But I know that if I’ve had a particularly tough day at work, then sitting down at my PC and visiting a different world can often be exactly what I need to unwind.
There are two things I noticed when compiling this list of the 10 most relaxing games. One is that all of them have excellent mellow soundtracks, highlighting just how important audio is in deciding the tone of any game. The second is that the setting is almost always the star, not the plot or action.
In a lot of them, you don’t actually do much. Proteus, for example, is a glorified walk in the woods and Abzu is essentially a giant aquarium that you can swim around. But it works to their advantage. Without a clear direction, you’re free to explore, to sink into the world, and pay extra attention to the sights and sounds. It’s the perfect formula for forgetting your real-life struggles.
If you’ve got a particular game that helps you relax that didn’t make the list, then let me know in the comments.
Do you spend the day with your feet up by a lake catching red mullet that you can sell to the local fishmonger? Or tend to your latest crop of parsnips instead? That’s about the most harrowing choice you face in Stardew Valley [official site], the country life simulator that tasks you with rebuilding your grandfather’s run-down farm.
You’re handed a bunch of busted tools and told to strike out on your own however you see fit, whether that be fishing, mining, farming, or flirting with the local sculptor. There’s little to occupy your mind but the intrigues of village life and the idle chatter of the polite townsfolk. It’s a simple existence – and that’s precisely its appeal.
There’s almost no sense of pace. Time rolls on without the game every compelling you to really do anything, the gradual turning of the seasons the closest you get to a ticking clock as you build up your rural business piece by piece. Match that with an upbeat sound track and you’ve got the perfect antidote to your own busy life. If they make a VR version of this game in 50 years’ time, I will legitimately retire in it.
I never thought I’d find hitting cubes of stone with an iron pickaxe over and over again quite so therapeutic. Minecraft [official site] has mutated over time into a sprawling tree of different mechanics so vast and complex that it’s virtually impossible to see when one branch ends and the other begins. If you want, you can play it like an action game, fighting against a giant dragon that draws power from magic towers, or venturing into a pitch-black underwater temple in search of treasure.
But for me, the simple act of whacking a block until it breaks, picking up that block, and putting it somewhere else in the world will remain what Minecraft is really about, and I’d much rather stick on my wings and fly around taking in the aerial view of its countless biomes than delve deep into scary dungeons.
Stick the difficulty on easy (the hiss of creepers is no longer something to worry about), plant some flowers and seeds, and bask in its simple soundtrack as you carve out your very own corner of this blocky world.
Everything about Proteus [official site] is pleasant. The bright pink and white trees against a purple sunset. The ever-present bird song. The electric plink-plonk that a frog makes when it leaps into the air and lands. It’s all utterly unthreatening – the ideal place to just walk and walk and walk.
The music plays a massive part. It shifts as the greens and blues of summer turn to oranges and then the white sparseness of winter. It’s such a gradual change that the audio never intrudes, it’s just there, a kind of background screensaver for the ears.
In fact, nothing about Proteus intrudes. The colours are a bit trippy, sure, but the low-fi graphics make sure the world is nothing more to a backdrop for the little things that happen and make this game it a joy. Things like flocks of chickens that move as if with one mind, clinking as if stepping on keyboard keys as they go and with whom you can never quite catch up.
It also helps that there’s no real story. There is an ending, but it’s one that you just stumble upon and afterwards wonder how you triggered it. There’s nothing really to hunt for – you just walk around, following whatever catches your eye, until eventually something spectacular happens. Crank the volume up, and take a relaxing stroll through the woods.
When you are an entire galaxy, you get to set your own pace. In Everything [official site] you can control anything you like, from the Milky Way to tiny single-celled life forms. Graham spent seventeen minutes watching spruce beetles dance in a circle, for example.
You’re simply told to explore. That involves moving up and down the scale of complexity, controlling snowflakes and elephants, trees and islands, pressing a button to make each object “sing” as you go, or grouping them together into packs.
There’s also the rumbling tones of deceased philosopher Alan Watt to keep you company. You won’t really follow what he’s saying most of the time, but his presence is reassuring. Hearing his voiceover as you gather a herd of giraffes to roly poly down a hill (there’s virtually zero animation work), it’s hard not to think that everything is going to be alright.
Euro Truck Simulator 2
Don’t ever try to explain to a friend why Euro Truck Simulator 2 [official site] is good. Just don’t bother. You’ll be met with a bemused look. “So… you’re just driving on a motorway? In a lorry?” they’ll ask. “Yes,” you’ll reply, “but it’s not quite as simple as that.”
In truth, it is exactly as simple as that, and that’s why you love it. It takes pride in the little things: every click-click of the indicator is reassuringly solid. Watching the speedometer and rev counter tick up and down is plain hypnotic, and the minor adjustments you have to make to the steering wheel (while checking your mirrors, of course) is enough to keep you totally locked in the game world.
The gentle drone of your truck never fails to comfort. Swishing through the German countryside, or the Scottish highlands, or the mountains between Milan and Torino on cruise control, listening to the radio – you can add your own, custom relaxing music to the game – is a serene and slightly surreal experience. There’s no boss screaming at you, no jobs to do, no phone calls to take. It’s just you and the open road.
The UnderGarden [official site] is ostensibly a puzzle game, but what it’s really about is spreading pollen to plants so that they flower and bloom artfully as you walk past. And it does that very well indeed.
You’re an odd bear-pixie hybrid who just has to walk past a flower for it to spring up, unfurling in a mini light show. It’s beautiful to watch – and it’s doing that over and over again that makes you want to carry on, not necessarily the puzzles themselves. When you’re bored with one level or you’ve exhausted its supply of sprouting buds (usually the latter), you move onto the next one, greeted with different types of flowers.
There are musicians to pick up too, which are tiny creatures that play instruments. String them along with you and you’ll soon have your own little alien orchestra going on. Its world is a great example of how a setting can often outshine the game that lies beneath it, and it’s a great place to go and quietly gather your thoughts.
Abzû [official site] is one of the prettiest games on PC (check out Alec’s underwater gallery if you don’t believe me). When this diving simulator comes together it treats you to a visual spectacle that few games can rival, hundreds of fish swishing across your screen in a stream of bubbles as Austin Wintory’s excellent soundtrack swells suitably.
In her review Pip likened it to a ballet or piece of classical music, and it’s an apt description. There’s nothing really to concentrate on, no plot to speak of. You just dive into it, and the emotions you feel as you gently flap your flippers to keep up with a school of hungry blue whales is, in itself, the game’s story.
It’s ironic that that the most stressful parts of the game come in meditation mode, when you leave your diver and wrestle with the camera to try and get it to follow a particular turtle that’s caught your eye. But those few (optional) moments aside, it’s a perfectly lovely way to spend an hour or two, letting your troubles float away.
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture
I grew up in a village not unlike Yaughton, Shropshire, the setting for Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture [official site]. It was fine. Nothing really happened much – there was a shop and a post office and three pubs, and everyone just pottered about minding their own business and nodding good morning when they passed each other in the street.
EGTTR has slightly grander ideas – it’s the apolcalypse, after all – but it captures that feeling of sleepy rural England very well. It’s in the rickety bus stops, the specials board in the pub, the peeling white street signs. And it’s in the characters too: while the end of the world is happening, some people just want to have a good moan about the fact that their leaves aren’t swept.
It helps that there’s not much pressure to progress. You have to follow a ball of light to catch the main plot, and that’s well worth doing – the story really pulled me in. But if you don’t want to, you can just poke around this sleepy village, taking screenshots and basking in the wholly underappreciated glory of the English countryside.
Reading through the list of Botanicula [official site] characters gives you a sense of the sort of game it’s going to be. Mrs Mushroom is joined by Mr Poppyhead and Mr Feather. It’s like an Enid Blyton bedtime story. And so it proves, unfolding as a casual puzzle game set entirely in a single tree. Its award-winning soundtrack shines – an endless stream of shifting jazz and cymbals and bird song that keeps you on your toes and ties in perfectly to the bizarre, brilliant world.
And that world is so tactile that every screen is a joy. Every click yields an animation and accompanying sound effect. Mouse over an egg and it will wobble, click and it will hatch with a plop and fly into the air, the new creature hovering back and forth with a low wib-wub as your characters chirp their approval. Find the right key that you need to progress and you’re treated to a chorus of cow bells straight from the Swiss Alps. It’s magical.
Now, I’m crap at puzzle games, and most infuriate me. But Botanicula is just so damned likeable that it doesn’t ever feel taxing, even in its most difficult moments. All you have to do is click on the world until you hit the right spot – and I could do that for hours without a smile leaving my face.
At first glance Audiosurf 2 [official site] seems about as far away from a relaxing game as you can get. It’s basically a mouse and keyboard version of Guitar Hero, with the twist that you’re able to set its tracks to your personal music collection, beamed in from your hard drive or from Soundcloud (still no Spotify tie-up, sadly).
Now, for some people it’s all about the challenge. If you whack on some heavy metal or a dance anthem you’ll tie your fingers in knots in no time at all.
But me, I’d rather stick on something slow – Barry White (don’t judge me), or even some Boyz II Men (again, please don’t judge me). Here it becomes a different animal. Yes, there’s still a bit of challenge, but it’s bearable, and I can’t tear my eyes away from the changing colours and neon track wobbling up and down in time with the beat.
It can be a great escape – before you know it, you’ll have passed an hour thinking about nothing but moving your little yellow car left, and right, left, and right. It’s well worth a look, and if you’re lucky enough to own a VR headset, give Audioshield a try, too.