Life getting you down? Overwhelmed by stress? Then stick your head in the sand and play some videogames. It always works for us. The following are the games we play to relax. They’re serene in their own specific and sometimes unusual ways, but connected by the fact that playing them is a great way to soothe a brain tormented by the trials of modern life. Your problems will still be there when you get back, but at least you can forget about them for a bit.
There are some stressful, scary, and occasionally sad moments in Firewatch, but between all that there’s hours of peaceful rambling across its gorgeous wilderness. Exploring the woods as Henry, using your map and compass to navigate, chatting with Delilah, is so relaxing that I wish there was more of it in the game. For a more authentic experience, disable the maker that shows you where you are on the map.
One of the prettiest games on PC, Abzu sees you swimming gracefully through a series of colourful, psychedelic, beautiful underwater worlds to an achingly beautiful score by Austin Wintory. The fluid, smooth swimming controls and the laid-back pace make it a great game for relaxation. Remember to set the ‘fish’ graphics option to ULTRA if your PC can take it. The sheer amount of sea life on the screen is awe-inspiring.
Take On Mars
This slow-paced simulator sees you exploring the surface of the red planet with a variety of rovers and landers. The missions don’t get any more exciting than ‘probe some soil’, but the feeling of being alone on a distant, lonely world is palpable. The howl of the Martian wind as you trundle through the dust creates an evocative atmosphere, and the sedate pace of the rovers makes for a strangely hypnotic experience.
This colourful game by Ubisoft’s Reflections studio in Newcastle started life as an experiment in procedural animation, eventually becoming a game in its own right. It’s quietly one of the best 3D platformers on PC, with a brilliantly tactile climbing system and a level that reaches to dizzying heights. Navigating BUD around this blocky, stylised world is strangely relaxing, especially when you get the ability to glide and float around it.
No Man's Sky
Mind-numbing crafting and chore-like material harvesting aside, No Man’s Sky can be a really chill game. Taking your ship and lazily hopping between systems, checking out random planets, is like a lovely space-themed screensaver for your brain. Forget whatever path the game’s nudging you down and go your own way. It helps if you use a tool like Cheat Engine or a mod to give yourself infinite fuel and materials, though.
This surrealist exploration game marries sound and visuals in a really captivating way. As you wander around a procedurally-generated island, constructed from simple, abstract shapes, the dreamy music reacts to your actions. Then the seasons begin to change, transforming the landscape around you, and your worries slip away. It only takes an hour to finish Proteus, but the world layout is different every time.
Universe Sandbox 2
Is it a game? Probably not, but who cares. Universe Sandbox 2 is a brilliant physics-driven simulation of the universe. You can view realistic models of the Solar System, distant galaxies, and planetary orbits, or you can turn into an evil deity and start causing mayhem among the stars, smashing galaxies together and hurling the Earth into the Sun. It’s a great toy, and the ambient music and cosmic scenery is quite soothing.
The Golf Club
Golf is what high-flying businessmen play to escape the pressures of the rat race, but you don’t have to be a bloated tycoon to enjoy the sport. The Golf Club isn’t the best golf sim I’ve ever played, but it nails the calm, placid feel of the sport. Knocking balls around these beautiful, green courses, the sound of birdsong in the air, is a great way to soothe a stress-addled mind. Expect some putting-related moments of fury, though.
The bleak Hebridean island that this short, story-led game takes place on is one of my favourite virtual places to hike through. It evokes the same lonely feeling as Take On Mars, but with a more earthly setting. The world and sound design are hauntingly atmospheric, and the understated music and narration give it a serene, dreamlike feel. Can we have more games set on remote Scottish islands, please?
Yeah, really. In the dangerous parts of New Eden, where the space-police can’t protect you, EVE is anything but relaxing. But stick to high security areas and it’s a great place to just float around admiring the cosmic scenery. If you’re a sci-fi fan, I’d say it’s worth signing up for the free trial just to experience the atmosphere. Just make sure you stay near your starting area, otherwise pirates will burst your relaxation bubble.
Euro Truck Simulator 2
This is my current go-to game for post-work relaxation. I don’t bother with any of the business management stuff: just the driving. Hauling cargo around grey, rain-soaked European motorways might not sound that relaxing, but it weirdly is. Stick on some live radio from the country you’re in to really escape into the, er, fantasy. The swish of the wipers going back and forth is hypnotising, but keep your eye on the road.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes and Punishments
This detective adventure is like watching an episode of Poirot or Morse or something. It has that sedate British crime drama vibe about it, and even though most of the cases are about grisly murders, the gorgeous, authentic environments are a pleasure to explore. It’s like being transported to Victorian England. The pace is slow and measured, and none of the puzzles are too taxing. The perfect game for a lazy Sunday.
This one’s tricky. Flying around Space Engine’s beautiful 1:1 scale recreation of the universe can be remarkably humbling and soothing, but you run the risk of suddenly realising just how small and insignificant you are and having a mild existential breakdown. For the best experience, disable the in-game music and listen to the sci-fi-tinged ambience of ‘Tomorrow's Harvest’ by Boards of Canada.