Animal Crossing: New Horizons and 15 Other Anxiety-Busting Video Games

In December, I made a list of chill video games to play if you are a person whose anxiety has made it kind of impossible to play games with guns and stabbing. That list seems more relevant than ever — because of our need to mentally escape for a little while from our current global pandemic, because many of us are self-quarantined, and because Animal Crossing: New Horizons just came out. So! I have adapted my end-of-year-list into a more comprehensive list with newer and older games. Please comment with your favorite anxiety-busting games.


Animal Crossing: New Horizons

I can’t remember the last time so many people I know and love have been as excited about a video game as they were about Animal Crossing: New Horizons. And they were excited before it turned out, according to basically everyone, it’s the game we need right now as we muddle through so much uncertainty and isolation. Animal Crossing is basically a society-building simulation, but way cuter than the actual Sims. You’re an adorable little cartoon person who doesn’t even have to pick a gender — just a style — and you arrive on a deserted island with some small-stakes tasks that will allow you to pay off Tom Nook, the swindling raccoon who brought you here, and along the way you make so many friends and catch so many fish and dig up so many fossils and basically build an entire community with your own hands and kind heart. It’s a wonderful diversion.


Stardew Valley

An 8-bit farming sim that has won the allegiance of everyone who’s ever played it, and it just keeps getting updated with more and more cool stuff! Stardew Vallery is sweet and fun and it’s got so much soul. Besides the farming and mining and fishing and raising animals and crafting and battling bouncing monsters, Stardew Valley is a rich world of character building. Nearly everyone in town has their own story arc that you learn, piece by piece, as you level up your friendships. Plus, there are twelve romanceable players! Six guys and six gals and gender isn’t a barrier to any romantic option. As a bonus, you can totally destroy capitalism in the town. If that’s your thing. It’s definitely my thing.


Lonely Mountains: Downhill

Many of us are staying put inside for now — but here’s a video game that lets you ride a bike! By yourself! Down a hill! That’s it, that’s the game. You start at the top of a mountain or hill or incline and then you just have to make it to the bottom. It’s really cathartic, probably even if you don’t ride a bike in real life.


Journey

Journey is, to put it simply, a work of art. You’re a robed and mysterious figure who starts in a desert and travels across various terrains on your way to and up a distant mountain. The controls are simple, the visuals are stunning, and for a side-scroller, it’s deeply immersive. It seems, at first, like you’re alone, but slowly other creatures come to your aid in magical and touching ways. I don’t actually want to say much about the plot, because Journey is really about the experience, as cliche as that sounds, and if you’ll give yourself over to it for even a handful of hours, you will find the payoff of staying grounded in the game’s world cathartic beyond your wildest imagination.


A Short Hike

Like Lonely Mountains: Downhill, the title really says it all: the whole point of this game is to go on a short hike to find phone service — but once you set out, an entire world opens up to you, full of beautiful places and lovely characters. There’s no right or wrong way to play. There’s no real repercussions for doing or not doing anything. You don’t even die if you fall off the edge of the world!


Islanders

It’s a civilization builder in which no one in your civilization can die! (Take that, Frostfall!) Islanders is simply a minimalist strategy game full of bright colors and chill music. It actually gave me ASMR tingles every time I played it.


What the Golf

If you like puns and physics and absurdity, you should play What the Golf. It will make you laugh, I promise.


The Sims 4

Everyone I’ve ever met has some kind of story about nearly destroying their college careers or relationships because they got so addicted to playing Sims. Good news: You’re older now, and wiser, and The Sims still has the power to transport you.


Pokémon Sword / Pokémon Shield

I honestly thought, at this point, Pokémon couldn’t do anything to surprise me! Well, I was wrong! Sword and Shield is all nostalgia, come to life in a brand new way. And it was the best thing going on Twitter in 2019, besides maybe Baby Yoda.


Sky: Children of the Light

You could actually forget you’re playing this game on your phone (which is the only place you can play it for now), is how good it is. It’s thatgamecompany’s follow-up to Journey, and it’s kind of the same thing. Sky: Children of the Light  is an adventure full of healing quests. There’s a multiplayer component, but you can only be nice. And dang, that’s a relief.


Kind Words

I’m not generally into multiplayers, but in this dear and gentle game, you write kind letters to other people and they write kind letters back to you, while you listen to “lo-fi chill beats.” You have to be weirdly vulnerable to play this game, and so do the people playing with you. It’s very moving.


Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

If you’re one of those people who bought a Switch just for your quarantine, I’ve got good news for you: Breath of the Wild is every bit as brilliant as you’ve heard. You do have to do some stabbings, but never to other humans, and when you do destroy monsters, they just POOF! away. No blood. Breath of the Wild‘s world is huge — both vertically and horizontally — and mesmerizing. You’ll be lost (in a good way) inside it in no time. And while you could rush through the story in 20 hours, you could also take your time and easily enjoy hundreds of hours inside Link’s world. Collect everything. Upgrade everything. Seek out all of your missing memories. Conquer every single one of the standalone puzzles. You won’t be sorry.


Katamari Damacy Reroll

If you missed this weird and wonderful game in the early aughts, now’s your chance to make up for lost time. (If you didn’t miss it, it’s as wacky and fun and ridiculous as it was when you played it the first time.) All you have to do is rebuild the stars, constellations, and moon by rolling around in different worlds and picking up different objects. You start small with thumbtacks and end up collecting things as big as mountains. It’s a silly and consuming diversion.


Untitled Goose Game

The best video game of the 2019, hands down. HONK!


Classic Nintendo Games

There are lots of ways to play classic Nintendo games, and you can’t go wrong with any of them. I’ve recently finally joined Nintendo Online to do a co-op Stardew Valley farm and was pleased to discover a zillion games from my youth at my fingertips. I fired up Super Mario World and it was as almost as awesome as the first time I turned it on in 1990. Nostalgia alone makes playing some classic NES games worth it, but many of the games actually still hold up! And now you can save and eat dinner without losing your place!

Heather Hogan is an Autostraddle senior writer who lives in New York City with her partner, Stacy, and their cackle of rescued pets. She's a member of the Television Critics Association, the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer critic. You can also find her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Heather has written 1040 articles for us.

32 Comments

  1. I loved Untitled Goose Game. The game I played the most this year was Beat Saber, though. Now that the Oculus Quest exists and is affordable and standalone, VR’s starting to get more popular, and there’s nothing like using lightsabers to slash colored blocks to a beat. Not only is it fun as hell, but playing it burns about as many calories as singles tennis!

    • I absolutely loved A Short Hike, thanks for the recommendation. All its little jokes actually made me laugh! Its vibe is so relaxing, I avoided the competition mini-games and just enjoyed the challenges and the exploring.

      I also recommend Sayonara Wild Hearts, which is slightly higher energy, but very forgiving and the design seems to focus on making sure you have a fun time and feel awesome while playing it:)

  2. I just started playing Islanders and it’s great because it combines my two favourite types of game (building games and puzzle games)! This is not a 2019 game, but I have to put a pitch in here for The Witness for anyone who likes wandering around in pretty spaces solving puzzles.

    I never would have paid attention to a game with “Golf” in the title, but you sold me on puns, physics and absurdity. Will have to check that one out.

    So very sorry to hear about your condition. :(

  3. I love Pokemon Sword/Shield! I haven’t been able to play handhelds for a few years because of carpal tunnel, but the Switch on my TV is fine. I’ve missed Pokemon so much and I am so happy to play again. Not 2019 games, but I’m replaying Phoenix Wright, Stardew Valley, and Dragon Age Inquisition and really enjoying myself.

  4. Untitled Goose Game is a menace! It will teach our children Bad Morals! It will probably lead to the downfall of civilization!

    … but hearing my husband and my eight-year-old let loose identical cackles when they finally managed to make Goose dump a bucket on someone’s head or make the gardener buy his trowel back makes me think it’s all worth it.

    Also, honking into an empty bottle, a harmonica and a water pipe? Must be done. HONK!

  5. my wife and i have been playing Animal Crossing nonstop. it’s a nice game for people with different skill levels. plus, we got to name our island Lesbos and start a cult to the great angler fish deity, Chomp (complete with a rock altar, lit candle and offerings)

  6. I’ve been playing Rilakkuma Farm and it’s just a boring old farm game but I’m a little obsessed with Rilakkuma so it works for me. I dropped a barn on him once and as and accidental glitch in the game he basically became a ghost who couldn’t leave the barn until I moved it off him.

  7. If you have a Switch I would add Child of Light to this list! Discovered it a couple days ago and my girlfriend and I are loving it: beautiful artwork and music, love the fairytale ambiance, and you can play either solo or two-player (main character + firefly companion).

    I also definitely second the recommendation for Breath of the Wild. Gorgeous landscapes, lots of exploring and puzzles and various activities (hunting/fishing/cooking/etc.) for those who want more from their games than just fighting.

    • Yes!!! Love this game so much. It is so energising and somehow made me smile and feel proud and alive when I was feeling sad and lonely. It’s relaxing and fun and the art and music are unreal. I was so shocked by the effect it had on me, which made me reflect on how rarely I get to be my dream self in a game… Turns out my dream self is a badass riding a motorbike in a music video tarot card land:)

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