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.
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 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!
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.
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
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!