- System: Windows, Linux, and Playstation
- Genre: Explorer & Walking Simulator
Music is the core of Proteus in a delightfully unique way. Everything in the game generates a different note, creating a constantly shifting soundscape that the player character drifts through, with silent moments occurring at, say, the top of a hill, and dynamic events like animals bringing to life a whole new orchestra. It’s a true walking simulator game, where the goal is to simply experience the virtual world and bask in the audio experience, making it a winner when it comes to relaxing video games that are all about the experience rather than goal-driven gameplay.
- System: Windows, macOS, Linux
- Genre: Build & Explore
Cited by many gaming awards as “the greatest game in history”, Minecraft may also be one of the best relaxing experiences provided by a video game. Because of the ability to choose the game mode you want, it’s possible to tailor the level of stress that you’ll experience during play, as well as choose whether or not to connect with other real humans to play alongside. Build your world using blocks, explore a nearly limitless landscape, and construct ingenious constructs using Redstone and your own logical skills. This really is one of the best games to play if you want to take a dive out of reality and engage with your creative side in a whole new way.
- System: PC, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
- Genre: Exploration & story-driven
Delve deep into the ocean’s mysteries in this brilliant game by the artist behind the award-winning Journey. Granted, the deeper into the ocean you go (and the deeper into the riveting storyline you get) the more intense things become in Abzu, but the early parts of the game are pure exploration coupled with heartwarming story touches. Truthfully, “intense” can be weirdly relaxing, too. The beautiful nature of this game, and the cathartic experience of playing through the whole story, are something that I highly recommend.
For those of you who simply wish to bask in the ocean of wisdom, however, try out the meditation mode, which allows you to simply swim and explore, with no strings attached.
- System: PC
- Genre: Emotional, meaningful, real-connections
In Kind Words, the point isn’t to gamify meditation, the point is to connect. Players write a letter and send it into the digital ether, where another player can pick it up, read it, and respond to it. The experience can be wonderfully validating and, if you’re needing a friendly ear, Kind Words is a beautiful project that allows you to have another human to talk to. The catch is that this isn’t a space to start up a dialog — there’s no pressure because conversations don’t continue. It’s one letter, one response, and one beautiful moment of connection.
- System: macOS, Microsoft Windows, Nintendo Switch, iOS, PlayStation 4, Android
- Genre: Platformer, artistic, low-text
A young girl is lost in a world of her own and her voice is gone. Through her faded reality, she travels, gathering new powers that manifest upon her colorful cloak as her journey explores an introspective universe of potential. One of the most optimistic games around, with a gorgeous soundtrack that will lap at your mind like gentle ocean waves, Gris is a perfect mix of game that holds your attention and a game that wants you to meditate.
- System: Microsoft Windows, macOS, PlayStation 4, Linux, Nintendo Switch
- Genre: Simulation
Alan Watts is one of the most profound Western philosophic minds of the last hundred years so it’s fitting that his narration should underpin a game about the nature of nature. In Everything, the goal of the game is not to “do” but simply “to be”. When the player goes idle, the game moves on anyway, and nature simply exists. Animations are intentionally silly and simple, but the profound systems at work beneath the game make this something magical to behold. Playing Everything is a bit like immersing oneself in one of Watts’ books, making it the perfect game when you need to relax and introspect.
- System: Nintendo Switch
- Genre: Building, exploration, simulation, cooperative
It’s impossible to leave off from this list a game so relaxing that University of Oxford researchers say it’s good for your wellbeing. I’ve loved Animal Crossing since it first emerged in the Nintendo gamescape, and modern gamers continue to experience all the peace that this game offers with the latest iterations of this classic. Being able to exist free of worry, to build and explore, to socialize in a stress-free way, all synthesize into a gentle gaming experience as relaxing as a hot bath.
- System: PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 4, iOS, Microsoft Windows
- Genre: Atmospheric, exploration
Meet a BAFTA award-winning game so innovative that it’s become part of the Smithsonian’s permanent collection. Flower is a game about being in touch with nature in the most intimate of ways. As the wind, you’ll flow from one environment to another, interacting with the world around you and immersing yourself in the undulating dance of life and beauty that is the natural world.
- System: Nintendo Switch, Wii U
- Genre: Action-adventure, exploration, story-driven, puzzle-solving
Perhaps one of the best video games in history, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild offers up an open-world experience like no other. Travel through the kingdom of Hyrule as Link, explore, grow, and interact with a beautifully engaging non-linear storyline. The whole world feels dynamic and alive, and as you explore you’re going to find yourself constantly experimenting and reinventing your approach to how you play games.
What I love most about this game is how every part of the world is discoverable: if you encounter a mountain, you can climb it; if you want to leap off a mountain you can paraglide to the forest away over yonder. It’s a huge, breathtaking gaming experience, allowing you more than enough time to sit back and simply immerse within the world, while also offering plenty of challenges and puzzles should you want them — to say nothing of the superb plot that follows a non-linear arc, which means you can explore however you want and still watch the story unfold.
- System: Microsoft Windows, macOS,Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation Vita, iOS, Android
- Genre: Simulation, RPG, building
Designed to be the spiritual successor to the Harvest Moon series, Stardew Valley is a game about farming, exploring, and being part of a community. Eric Barone, who singlehandedly designed the game, wanted to make a game that took the farming simulator concept to an even deeper level, allowing the player to do more, see more, and experience more within the game. Still, at the core of the game is a lovely experience of interacting with the cycles of nature and the needs of the community, paced out in a gentle rhythm and completely open-ended so you’ll never feel rushed to complete an objective. Just live, plant, and be merry.
- System: Microsoft Windows
- Genre: Shopkeeping, building, design
There’s something magical about the aesthetic cultivated in Winkeltje that has to be experienced to be understood. You can get so completely lost in this game about taking your shop from a small little rural affair to the major center of trade in the town. Starting out with debt might feel a bit too real to be relaxing, but the catharsis of successfully bringing your shop into the clear, of getting things running smoothly enough to start decorating for fun, makes it all worthwhile.
Winkeltje is still in beta, but the developer has done great recent work improving the systems and taking care of bugs. It’s fully playable and offers a ton of great possibilities for how to build your shop and what (if anything) to specialize your inventory toward.
- System: Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, iOS
- Genre: Platformer, story-rich, aesthetic, emotional
Journey is one of the best games for any player on any occasion. The story is utterly entrancing and the artwork is sublime, the soundtrack for Journey is one of the best I’ve ever heard and the whole experience of playing it is transportative. In fact, I’d only play this game if I were sure I had a nice long block of time to settle into it, meditation-style so that I could take full advantage of just how deep the experience of playing it can be.
The experience of Journey is one of utter surrender to the experience of art. I fell in love with this game over its soundtrack which is engrossing in itself, but the storyline, the artwork, the sculpted experience of sliding through a vast desert make for a holistic and wholly magical experience. The game lures you forward with a gentle slope of perfected ambiance and skillful storytelling, providing one of the best little narratives I’ve seen from a platformer, while simultaneously creating an overall mesmerizing gaming experience.
Don’t keep reading this, just go grab it.
- System: Windows, MacOS, Linux
- Genre: Space, building, exploration, combat, 2D
Who didn’t love playing with Lego blocks as a kid? Being able to create virtually anything you wanted was such a dream. That’s the premise Reassembly is working from, taking the time-tested experience of building whatever you imagine with the gentle progressive experience of exploration. In the game, you take on command of one “ship” within a faction. You can fight, redesign your ship, harvest resources (either through combat or by farming space weeds), and basically do whatever you want. It’s super low-key and a huge blast, with a nice meditative techno soundtrack. There are also a huge array of mods available for it that add some fun new features, so check those out as well!
- System: Microsoft Windows
- Genre: RPG, action, adventure, exploration
Okay, okay, hear me out here. Skyrim just so happens to be an incredibly relaxing game… if you play it that way! Sure, the main storyline is a bit intense, but once you’re out of that and into the main section of the game, how you play is up to you. My favorite low-key way to play the game is as a pacifist alchemist mage. I travel the world, mostly in nature, making friends with animals, sneaking past threats, collecting herbs, and generally having a blast. Maybe pursuing some relationships when I head into town.
My suggestion? Grab a dozen graphical overhaul mods from the Nexus mod site, maybe a couple of gentle realism mods and an alternate-start mod (to avoid the normal story introduction) and just set off on your next great wilderness adventure!
- System: Basically everything
- Genre: Building, adventure, sandbox, RPG
One of my favorite alternatives to the more demanding experience of Minecraft, Terraria offers you the chance to dive into a world of pure exploration and fun. Dig deep into the earth, create homes of stunning complexity (or joyous simplicity), interact with friends through multiplayer, explore strange new terrains, fight some monsters, collect cool treasures. There’s a bit of inherent stress due to the day/night cycle (more monsters come out at night when it’s dark), but that just generally means that night is when you go inside and work on your basement or that cool tree fort you’ve been envisioning.
- System: Microsoft Windows, MacOS, Linux
- Genre: Grand space strategy, tactics, atmospheric
This one might seem like even more of a stretch than Skyrim, but did you know that you don’t have to play Stellaris as a combat-heavy strategy game? One of my favorite ways to play is by setting up a bunch of default pacifist races who will want to be my friends, then we all just work together to trade, peacefully handle rare galactic difficulties, and generally create a Utopian futuristic galactic society! Sure, sometimes bad things happen, but those are almost always easier to handle with a bunch of friends at your side.
The pace of this game also lends itself well to a slow, meditative experience, especially if you’re playing on a large map with the right settings. Mods can help your further tailor your gaming experience.
- System: PS4, PC, Mac
- Genre: Adventure, story-rich, puzzle, physics simulation
Letting Gravity Ghost’s designers speak for themselves is probably the best bet in this case: “There's no killing, no dying, no way to fail. Just hours of blissing out to buttery-smooth gravity goodness.” As Iona the Ghost, you search for Ghost Fox, your lost best friend, while also solving physics-based puzzles. It’s a gloriously meditative, quiet, and sweet-hearted game, with a rich bit of writing at its core.
- System: Microsoft Windows, MacOS, Playstation 4, Xbox One
- Genre: Simulation, building
Few games have made an impact on the art form in the way that Sims has, and for good reason. One of the most engrossing, fun, diverse, and interesting games in existence, The Sims offers players a chance to take control of a virtual world. Foster your Sim and their family line through multiple generations, use the build/buy mode to create unique homes or visit one of the numerous Sim worlds (including one themed entirely on Star Wars. Sims 4 takes the franchise farther than ever before, allowing for far greater customization, a range of diverse options (including gender expression), and a more complex Sim life that includes multitasking and advanced emotional interactions. This is the sort of game to lose yourself in when you just absolutely need a break from the real world.
- Genre: Puzzle, immersive, exploration
A small Arizona town is transported to the surface of an alien world and you need to find out why. If you remember and love the game Myst then Obduction is something you need to play. It’s a bit older now, hailing from 2016, but it remains a faithful successor to its puzzle game ancestry, with Unreal Engine graphics that help it feel fresher than expected (especially on higher settings). None of the puzzles are outrageously frustrating to solve, the atmosphere of the game is expansive and intriguing, and the mystery behind the whole thing is engaging. It’s absolutely a top game for an immersive yet cerebral gaming experience.
- System: Microsoft Windows, MacOS, Linux
- Genre: Humor, exploration, story-rich, choices matter (or do they?)
A delightfully dark and funny game that reminds me of Brazil by Terry Gillam. Everything in The Stanley Parable matters, and everything doesn’t matter. Choices lead to new choices, paradoxes give way to meaning, and exploration invites a growth of understanding. It’s the little changes in this game that make it so worthwhile, and playing it for an hour or so at a time each day provides an ideal way to experience Stanley’s life in his maze of strange hallways. The humor and pacing make this a gentle game, too, something that won’t leave you frayed by the end.
- System: Windows, MacOS, Linux
- Genre: Simulation, sandbox, physics
Whether running a pre-generated scenario or creating your own solar system and agonizing over asteroid placement and the number of worlds, Universe Sandbox offers unprecedented control over the stellar experience. Hours will vanish like stars into a black hole while you navigate the experience of the cosmos, and gods help you if you’ve got a VR headset because you might just never stop playing.
- System: PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows, Xbox One, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X/S
- Genre: Exploration, crafting, flight simulation
No Man’s Sky certainly started out rough, with far too many bugs to ever be considered on a “relaxing games” list. But since its early days the devs have worked hard on their baby, and Sky now offers a reasonably bug-free gaming experience. More important, it offers the experience of unlimited exploration and discovery, done the way you want. Travel through a nearly limitless procedurally generated galaxy, home to untold combinations of exotic alien life, build bases, experience jaw-dropping space visuals, and sink into the experience of pure exploration.
- System: PlayStation 4, Microsoft Windows
- Genre: Walking simulator, exploration, mystery
Part radio drama, part pastoral video game, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture offers a unique exploration-centered experience of a post-apocalypse. Set in a small rural town where the grass is green, the sky is blue, and nobody at all is at home, you take on the job of uncovering the secret of the townsfolk’s disappearance while also exploring a large and gorgeous game world. The emotional arcs in the stories you’ll encounter can be emotionally heavy at times, but they can also be beautiful, and the overwhelming vibe of this game is a rarity in the apocalypse genre: chill.
- System: Windows, OS X, Linux, Android, iOS, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4
- Genre: Simulation, strategy
Who would have thought that a game about designing the perfect metro system could be so utterly engrossing? When a dear friend showed this to me several years ago I was skeptical, but he persisted and I discovered something totally addicting. I will say that the more complex this little game gets, the more difficult it becomes to create your ideal system, and that can get a little frustrating. However, the feeling when you get everything flowing correctly is just plain gorgeous, making it a highly recommended little game in my book.
- System: Microsoft Windows
- Genre: Strategy, city-building, management, sandbox
As a local god, you take on the duty of caring for the people of your land in The Immortal Mayor, a relaxing game that creates its chill vibe through a wonderful combination of cute graphics and an excellent soundtrack, as well as through a great interactive decorations system that allows you to make the prettiest and most prosperous town ever. There is a battle mechanic (prosperous towns attract monsters!) but it’s possible to defend against these by adding walls or using your godly powers, so I don’t think it detracts from the relaxed experience.
- System: Microsoft Windows, MacOS, Linux
- Genre: Strategy, puzzle, city-builder
One of my favorite chill city-building games, Islanders offers one of the most relaxing experiences of the genre because it’s not about managing resources. You have a set number of buildings you can place, and their placement earns you points. The more points you get, the more new buildings you get, and the more you can place! It’s all about optimizing your cities on their beautiful little islands, making for an engrossing, fun, and completely relaxed experience.
- System: Microsoft Windows, MacOS
- Genre: Point and click, adventure, story-rich
In Papetura you aid little adventurers Pape and Tura as they try to save their paper world from monsters of flame. As a point-and-click adventure, the experience is as slow-paced as you want it to be, with the rich artwork and storytelling providing the sort of deep experience that is completely rejuvenating. The whole game world was lovingly handcrafted from real paper and then animated, too, providing a sense of visual depth and immersion that reminds me of childhood fairytales.
- System: Nintendo Switch, iPhone/iPad, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
- Genre: Exploration, story-rich, real time
If the name didn’t clue you in, Cozy Grove offers a cozy gaming experience, one that lives up to its motto of “Come for the view, stay for the friends.” It’s a beautiful real-time gaming experience, with 40-60 minutes of campaign story material available each day, and a huge assortment of other activities to undertake on your own time. As a Spirit Scout camping on a remote island, you’ll wander the forests, sooth unhappy spirits, and collect all manner of treasures. It’s the sort of game the becomes a positive daily ritual, something to return to again and again and look forward to for weeks in a row.
- System: Microsoft Windows
- Genre: Racing, nostalgia
By the neon’s glow, you ride. Rubber against asphalt, you speed down endless highways in a dreamscape of 1980s digital imagination, synthesizer pouring out a steady heartbeat to the unfolding and unending road. This is Retrowave. If you’re like me, synthwave is one genre of music that never ceases to aid in the relaxation process, something the Retrowave devs apparently share. The whole experience of Retrowave is one of deep immersion in a land of retro-techno nostalgia, a deeply absorbing racing experience that will take you out of your reality and inject you straight into the heart of an 80s that never was.
- System: Microsoft Windows, macOS, Xbox One
- Genre: Sandbox, simulation, physics, silly
Totally Accurate Battle Simulator (just TABS for short) is a game about controlling your army of wobblies as they fight… another army of wobblies. On a massive variety of possible stages, set your army against your opponents, and watch the mayhem ensure. TABS is a delightfully silly game, creating a relaxing experience through sheer randomness and humor. Your wobbly minions will leap, scream, charge, and flap their way to victory or defeat — and either way, the result will be hilarious.
- System: Microsoft Windows, Mac, Linux
- Genre: Open world, survival, building, resource management, survival, multiplayer
In Eco, the goal is to build an advanced civilization capable of saving itself from a fated impact by a giant planet-killing asteroid… but without destroying the very ecosystem on which your civilization depends. It makes no sense to destroy your world while trying to save it, after all! Eco is still early access, but the devs are committed to their project and have already provided a massive and exciting playable gameplay expanse. Eco is one of those rare games that help players understand something of vital social importance (systems theory) while providing such a deeply engrossing gaming experience that it’s simply a joy to play.
In fact, let me gush about his game. It’s supported by the United Nations and climate organizations from around the world, it’s an incredibly deep simulation backed by real science, and it offers realism while simultaneously providing both fun and beauty. If you get any game this year, get this one.