We don’t always want to go fast, we don’t always want to shoot lots of zombies, and we certainly don’t always want to find ourselves stranded in space. Sometimes all we want is a video game that’ll help us chill out after a long day. A game that doesn’t play aggravating music when you don’t score enough or get us killed repeatedly for not playing online every waking moment.
The good news is, they’re out there. There are absolutely games you can play at your own pace, whenever you want, and that know that’s the reason you’re playing the game to begin with. The developers take special care to craft a game that doesn’t rush you through anything or punish you for not playing enough. They might tell you a great story, they might not, but they’ll always help you relax.
Flower is a PS4 exclusive and no, it is not a particularly masculine name for a game. But if you can get over that (we’re all adults here, so we should’ve left that kind of knee-jerk reaction far behind us), you’ll find a game with great music, stunning visuals, and the kind of stress-free exploration that perfectly encapsulates what this article is about. You can care about the story, or rather the extended metaphor, but you don’t have to to enjoy it. It’s short, too, which means it’s perfect for a half hour or so’s decompression at the end of a workday, or something relaxing for just before bed. PS4
We expected to like Firewatch, just not as much as we actually ended up liking it. It tells a great story in a spectacular art style, with vibrant oranges and blues and a steady, slow pace that suits its narrative. The most stressful parts of the beginning of the game are the time limits on picking conversational responses, but you get plenty of time for your choice, so it wasn’t like you were trying to squeeze something in last minute. The game encourages a sort of linear exploration, as you’re free to go wherever you want, but most of the time we found ourselves immersed in the story, so we followed that thread rather than striking out on our own. For the most part, there aren’t any time constraints, though that changes towards the end of the game. That didn’t change anything for us though, and we still head back into the watch tower if we’re feeling particularly high strung. PC | Xbox One | PS4
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable isn’t stress relieving in the traditional sense, although a better way to say that might be that it’s not soothing. But it’s stuffed full of self-aware comedy as well as (supposed) player freedom, with the matter-of-fact narration of a very respectable Englishman. This is a game that’s perfect for when you don’t want to turn your brain off, but would very much like to have it focus on something completely different for a little while. You’ll find yourself eager to meander back down the same hallways over and over, thanks to the little changes and fresh jokes that pop up every time. We played straight through the game in a Sunday morning, but if we had known better, we probably would have saved it as a hour or so every night before bed for a couple of days. That’s a better way to absorb the game and get a better appreciation for just how much work went into it. Plus, it gives you happy thoughts as you drift off to sleep, and there aren’t many better feelings than that. PC
Universe Sandbox (and its sequel)
Some games are as stressful as you let them become and the Universe Sandbox series definitely fits that description. If you’re so inclined, you could spend hours constructing your own personal solar system, agonizing over every little asteroid, dwarf planet, star, and gas cloud. You could also scroll through their numerous preset scenarios and watch them play out in the serenity of deep space. Or you could turn the sun into an enormous black hole and watch our solar system get swallowed up by relativity. There’s no wrong way to play the game and people find relaxation in all kinds of activities. PC
Journey is flower’s spiritual predecessor and has a lot of the same overarching ideas. The game delivers stress-free exploration through picturesque locations, set to expertly composed, calming soundtracks. More so than flower though, Journey delivers expansive vistas than singularly colorful locations. We never thought sand covered ruins could be this beautiful, since mostly we’ve watched people die in them in movies and video games. But apparently, once you remove all the life-endangering aspects of the desert and stylize it a bit, you end up with an amazingly colorful and relaxing landscape. PS4
This is another one of those “it is what you make of it” games, mostly because of the amount of variety of playable characters. It’s also very difficult to describe in this short a space, so for a lengthier thing, here’s Polygon’s video review. At its core, this is a game that allows you to be everything you see. There is a progression, as you have to work yourself up from a smaller organism or thing in increasingly larger sizes. You can work your way up from bacteria to galaxies, all with the idea that everything you see is somehow connected. It’s a game best experienced to fully understand and while it might be confusing, it’s never meant to frustrate. PC | PS4
No Man’s Sky
There’s no denying No Man’s Sky had some issues during the first few weeks of its release. But since the beginning, one thing was undeniable about the game. If you liked games with exploration, crafting, and sci-fi tech, there was a lot to like about No Man’s Sky. Planet types were highly varied, animal life was visually interesting where it existed, and you would definitely find a space ship that fit both your play style and your preferred aesthetic. And now that you can build home bases and some of the more limiting bugs have been fixed, the game can offer a lot to players who enjoy the purity of setting personal goals. PC | PS4
A Story about My Uncle
Platformers are one of the more relaxing game genres. It could be the simple problem solving of how best to get from A to B. It could be how difficult good platformers are to pull off, so that when you find a good one, everything seems to come together for you. It could also be how platformers tend to have more exotic or artistic settings, so you’re already in a visually pleasing world when you’re playing one. It’s probably some combination of all three of those, as well as a few we didn’t think of. Whatever the case, A Story about My Uncle checks all the good platformers boxes and is perfect for an easy living weekend. PC
To be simplistic about it, Refunct is the game you’d get if you took all the core ideas of the games that have already appeared on this list and melded them into the same game. It’s a colorful, artistic, puzzle platformer that puts more importance on the journey than the end destination. We love it for its joyful simplicity and how easy it is to pick up and play. You can speedrun it if you want, but for us, there’s far more enjoyment in slowly making our way across the maps, bringing the platforms back to vibrant color. Also, the music calms you right down, so you might set out to speedrun and end up staring off into space for 20 minutes. PC
Fallout or Skyrim (once you hit high levels)
The first few hours of Skyrim or any of Bethesda’s entries in the Fallout series are usually extremely stressful. You have no weapons, you have no supplies, and your armor can barely stop a thumbtack. You’ll die over and over and over, always to the same definitive musical death cue. But then one day, you’ll realize you haven’t died in hours, your weapons chew through enemies in seconds, and you haven’t had to actively search for food or ammo in weeks. It’s at that point that the games go from survival horror to pleasant walking simulator. You finally look up and realize that these are some of the most beautiful locations in video game history, whether it’s a nuclear wasteland or fictional Norway. You’re not scrambling from town to town scavenging cheese, you’re walking tall clearing out raider and bandit camps because you want to see what’s at the top of that mountain. We could (and have) play games like this for hours.