My nerves have been sufficiently jangled and my trigger-finger sufficiently itched by the glut of action games which landed in the closing months of last year. I crave an altogether more sedate beginning to 2018, and so my mind turns to games in which violence, reflex or any other kind of unblinking attentiveness takes a back seat.
Primarily we’re talking violence-free games here, but I wanted to drill a little deeper than that – so nothing that generally requires a competitive streak. I’m chasing a certain feel rather than a certain category. Flying, walking, puzzling, driving, building, dreaming, climbing, stretching, swinging (not like that), swimming, wondering: these are just a few of the ways in which flashing pixels can make you feel a very different sort of accomplishment.
And, of course, these are not even slightly the be-all and end-all of non-violent games on PC – please do nominate more in comments below.
An extremely cheap (£2/$3) wingsuit-based gliding game, in which you can soar freely over a vast voxel landscape. It’s beautiful to behold, and it’s up to you if you want uninterrupted flight or to try to better your own score in a challenge mode that has you circling or flying through rock formations at speed.
Most of all though, it’s the sound and feel of the wind roaring around you that makes this sing: that sense of being in another place, free as a bird.
Some city-building games, as this is, can be fairly exacting affairs – the constant terror of running out of money or being unable to prevent an entire suburb from burning down does not exactly promote relaxation. But Skylines has a particularly tranquil and forgiving take on mayoral simulation – you really, really have to work at it to make a catastrophic error, and even if you do, new citizens will cheerfully stroll back in en masse once you’ve cleared the mess away.
The core Skylines experience is instead calmly ‘painting’ districts, pipes and roads, the land a canvas for what most pleases your eye. There is time (and slow-time) aplenty to place the powerlines and water pumps required to make it all function – to build a city in Skylines is to gently lose yourself in an unhurried world.
A game about swimming with the fishies, and the prettiest fishies you’ve ever seen at that. Abzu is tour of an undersea world that basically looks like a megamix of all the most impressive scenes from Blue Planet. You glide alongside the shoals, or take occasional rides on the back of larger creatures, and the central thrust is the pure joy of whatever burst of colour and flutter it shows you next.
Granted, there is some minor peril in its near-closing moments, but even that its about jaw-dropping magnificence rather than twitchy action. Abzu is a glorious, glorious sight.
A free, grappling hook-based, pressure-free physics toy from the guy behind Heat Signature and Gunpoint who – full disclosure – is a friend of a couple of folk on staff here. But it’s well worth giving it a spin anyway.
Floating Point doesn’t start off as a particularly relaxing game, as getting used to the controls and the movement involves repeated failure for a while, but once you’ve got the feel, you’ll be in the zone, free-swinging forever and ever and ever across a minimalistic world of ethereal platforms.
One of very few games included here that could be described as story-based, but KRZ, loosely a point and click adventure but with none of the puzzles, has an entirely different and free-wheeling approach to story than the norm. There is an underpinning tale, but it’s more there to tug the camera through a string of powerfully inventive scenes, by turns beautiful and unsettling and usually both, but always tranquil, reflective and encouraging a gentle drift into a different state of mind. You could drift forever on the Zero if you so chose.
KRZ is a tour through a ghostly other-America, and is so dedicated to taking its sweet, gentle time about it that it even saddles one of its lead characters with a limp early on in order to ensure do the same. It will make your mind churn with both emotion and analysis, but never in an exhausting manner; instead, in one that will make you question yourself as well as its characters.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again many times over – don’t flinch away from the titles, presuming these are dour, overly technical affairs for people who have a picture of a Scania S-Series printed on their phone case. The Truck Sims are, in my experience, the best roadtrip games around – their combination of vast landscapes and (relative to racing games) slow movement effortlessly bringing about a state of zen.
Soaking in the scenery and the sun, tuning the radio to local stations, the lonely strangeness of arriving at a rest stop late a night, the gentle satisfaction of a job completed after (compressed) hours on the road. They are a tonic, and one in which all lorry gonkery can be left at the door.
Probably the most default entry in a list like this, even though “most default” is pretty much the last term traditionally applied to this interprative, abstracted recreation of a dream-state wander through an idealised great outdoors. A wash of sedate rainbow colours, trees and creatures that generate their own musical sound effects as you near them, and what could be pagan relics or what might just be weathered stones that trigger celestial sights or the changing of the seasons.
Proteus is, to some extent, a game born to exist inside ‘chill-out rooms’ at events, but don’t let that backhanded compliment blind you to its true triumph: an escape to another place, a calm and welcoming and unspoiled place, from the comfort of your own monitor. It takes you there without purpose or mandate; it just wants you to open your heart and mind to its changing sights and sounds and, perhaps, the dawning realisation that games in general only show us the tiniest sliver of what they can accomplish.
An old classic now, but a kick-down-the-doors explosion of invention and cheer at the time. This is not historically true, but for me this stretchy, jokey puzzle game marked the point that ‘indie games’ arrived. Less as a specific moment in time, more as a flag planted in the earth, heralding a new age of PC gaming. None of this is to overlook, however, just how delightful Goo is in its own right. The combination of convincing physics, cartoony animations and some head-spinning switch-ups in the late game makes it an enduring accomplishment of naturalistic, not austere or mechanical, puzzling.
Stretch the goo to build bridges and towers and reach new places: this is what World of Goo is, but it barely begins to describe it. Very much in the category of those games that absolutely become your entire reality for as long as you’re playing it; in the zone, never stressed, always intrigued, with the added bonus of using scant but charismatic in-game messages to build your own loose sense of the world behind it.
This is not a round-up of relaxing games. These are games that take you to another place, another mindset, another kind of absolute focus. Getting Over It, a combination of unforgiving dexterity and endurance challenge and elliptical narration, is a game about pain. It’s also a game about making a man with a cauldron for legs use a sledgehammer to climb a mountain, but mostly it’s about making you pursue some kind of epiphany through suffering. Keep climbing. Do not succumb to your fears, your exhausation, your fury. Just press on.
You can’t get more in the zone than you can with a Bennett Foddy game.
The not-sports sports game. It is about sports, obviously, because the central and only mechanic in it is hitting a ball with a stick, but the endless sands of Desert Golfing pursue a very different vibe from the competitive, adrenal cycles of norm-sport. The holes go on forever; the desert goes on forever; the golf… well, forever.
This is a stable genius’ pastime of choice re-imagined not as a penis comparison contest for rich old men, but instead as a state of zen, an ambient challenge of you vs the elements, dreamlike, peaceful and non-judgmental. Desert Golfing state of mind.
The least game-like game here, it nonetheless achieves that special something-something I’m looking for: it grabs a hold of my mood and my mind, it makes me aspire for something other than power, and it makes me lose myself to the idea that I am something other than myself without weapons, enemies or even goals. Mountain to some extent plays itself, but it requires a certain amount of nurture if it is to change and grow.
Things happen while Mountain runs in the background. Your breath will catch in your throat while you wait for those moments. Relaxing? No, not really an accurate description of the surge of excitement you’ll feel when your Mountain sprouts a new feature or utters a new proclamation.
Frontier’s game of rollercoaster construction is effectively one of endless tinkering, to lose yourself to a grand act of design with a potentially stupendous pay-off. It can involve a great deal of in-the-zone patience both during building and, depending on how restrained you’ve been, riding. Instead of further words, I shall show you this instead:
I could have filled this piece with walking simulators, but really I wanted to demonstrate that self-consciously low-key games are not the only way to achieve that off-in-another-headspace feel I’m so preoccupied with lately. Bernband is a game about exploring an alien city. Usually such a concept involves shooting monsters and criminal gangs and all that Mos Eisley jazz, but in Bernband’s case it’s all about just soaking up an otherworldly atmosphere, taking in the sights and sounds of a place that might just exist in the far reaches of the galaxy.
A combination of the comfortingly familiar mainstays of Earth cities and the unsettling (yet unthreatening) possibilities of the alien. Lovely, lovely noodling.
This outta-nowhere exploring’n’climbing gem from Ubisoft is arguably best played with a child at your side, but what’s the point in being grown-up if you can’t be childish sometimes? It’s the tale of a crash-landed robot bringing vast plants to life – think cosmic Jack and the Beanstalk – in order to make his way back home. Partly it’s about figuring out a route via some gentle puzzling and jumping, partly it’s just about haring about a tranquil world seeing what does what. A joy of exploration and experimentation.
I should note that, somewhat at odds with the piece’s concept, the cute ickle wobot can be ‘killed’ by falling-based misadventure, but will be immediately reconstituted back at the most recent waypoint.
I know that looks an awful lot like a gun, but honest, it’s more of a vacuum cleaner. You use it to herd around and feed (mostly) friendly slime-creatures whose excretions can a) be used to create new types of creature and b) sold on in order to then purchase other, er, flavours of poo yourself. While this may sound gruesome, it’s all presented with cute aplomb, just part of a general tilt towards adorableness – though you’ll regularly feel deep frustration at the misbehaviour of your herd while you’re trying to get gelatinous types to do (or eat) particular things. There’s also a side order of chicken- and crop-farming to help keep things tranquil. In contrast, there is a small element of exploding monsters to deal with at certain points, but it’s all jolly cartoony.
RPS’ favourite number-puzzle game, although by and large we feel that the later Hexcells Infinite is the better game. The first one’s a much easier entry point, however, and you should probably dip your toes into its ambient, logical waters before proceeding to Infinite. Hexcells is gentle without being easy, coaxing you into a laid-back state of mind while making the number-crunching bits of your brain gnaw pleasantly on its hex colour-switching conundrums.
One of those where, even if you’ve gone into it feeling altogether dubious about this whole maths business, you’ll suddenly come to finding that hours have passed in an entirely pleasant whirl.
Effectively, Zelda without the fighting. Which is to say exploration and puzzle solving in a beautiful, open outdoor space, where running, jumping, climbing and swimming are your key verbs. Rime doesn’t even try to push you into particular directions or actions, in the main, instead allowing you to look around, experiment and enjoy slow and sometimes startling acts of discovery. It regularly cascades into new and surprising places and situations, and though it does occasionally place you in harm’s way, you never do harm yourself.
A beautiful thing that takes the best parts of Zelda, Tomb Raider, Uncharted and Prince of Persia, then liberates them from the stereotypical requirement for bloodshed.
This is presuming you don’t consider the absorption of or by other faceless, amoeba-like blobs to be an act of violence. If such a concept doesn’t have you reaching for the smelling salts, Osmos’ biological puzzling is a 2009-vintage treat, and which somehow feels simultaneously microscopic and cosmic in scale. As I say, the key mechanic is to absorb other cell-like beings in order to grow in mass, but pursuing them involves the expulsion of some of your own matter, thus creating a constant risk/reward tension. But it’s always calming and colourful with it.
Not just violence and action-free, but also beautifully successful at ripping away the fiddliness and presumed knowledge of management and simulation games. Mini Metro is all about building underground rail lines, but it eschews numbers and finances in favour of efficiency and experimentation. What route can you draw – with lovely, fluid coloured lines that very strongly evoke a metro map – that collects passengers from various commuter hotspots then takes them to their destinations as quickly as possible, while avoiding the delays of overcrowding and adjacent lines?
It’s a logic puzzle that never feels like a logic puzzle, and has plenty of the beautiful moments where everything just snaps into place and flows beautifully.
A truly ingenious and devastatingly pretty game that somehow fuses jigsaw puzzle ethos with the kind of reality-shifting lateral thinking that something like Myst could only wish it had. Gorogoa, however, is extremely difficult to describe in terms of any other game, and is a real original, but at the same time feels as though it has always existed. Essentially, you overlay ‘panels’ from its succession of grids onto each other, which, done correctly, cause new scenes to flower, and which simultaneously tell the twisting tale of one person’s life and a folkloric backstory. Really though, this is yer actual ‘picture speaks a thousand words’ incarnate, and can only be understood by experiencing it.
The delicacy of its puzzles is astounding – whenever it seems about to collapse into frustrating complexity, it eases itself – and you – gently back to rewarding intuition.
Got suggestions for non-violent games that transport you to another place or state of mind? Drop them in the comments.