First, some ground rules: Everyone relaxes differently. There are people out there (myself included) who occasionally blow off steam playing Destiny or Call of Duty or some other shooter. That's perfectly valid—but you won't find those games listed here.
This list is more about relaxation in the traditional sense. Take a hot shower, pour a cold drink, and then settle in for an idyllic city builder or a contemplative puzzle game or maybe just some digital chores. Eastshade, A Short Hike, Satisfactory—we've rounded up games that let you go at your own pace, where nothing threatening occurs, and there's no problem that can't be solved with friendship and a little hard work.
Take a break. Take a vacation. Take some time to get into truckin'. No, like really into it.
Imagine The Elder Scrolls, but rather than fighting everything you came across you broke out an easel and painted it. That's Eastshade, essentially. You arrive on the titular island in a very Morrowind fashion, a stranger in the tiny port town of Lyndow. Your only possession? An easel.
There are quests, and puzzles, and plenty of fascinating characters. Your main means of interacting with Eastshade is painting though—or rather, "painting." It's more like a fancy screenshot effect, placing your easel somewhere in this dreamlike world and then watching the art magically come into being. Still, it's a unique mechanic and you can make some absolutely gorgeous faux-canvases with a good eye, lucky timing, and some psychedelic tea. Go slow, explore a lot, and enjoy.
A Short Hike
There's no real Animal Crossing equivalent on PC. That said, A Short Hike comes close to capturing the same tone. Playing as Claire, a teenage bird bored with island living, you set off on a journey to hike the magnificent Hawk Peak to find a cell phone signal. Along the way you might help a new friend collect seashells, or participate in a footrace, or play a mean game of beachstickball.
Or maybe you'll make a beeline to the top of the mountain. It doesn't really matter. A Short Hike is about going at your own pace and discovering all the myriad secrets this tiny island has in store. The journey only takes two or three hours at most, but A Short Hike is more charming than games ten times as long.
Kind Words is less game, more impromptu support system. Set to a lofi beats soundtrack, Kind Words allows anyone to write anonymous "letters" detailing problems they're facing. Breakups, lost jobs, illnesses, deaths—the gamut of life's hardest moments. Others then respond to these letters, sending back advice, empathy, or even just support.
I recommended it last year, and it seems even more vital now during these times. The only rule? Seriously, be kind. In my experience Kind Words has a fantastic community, and people are apt to bare their souls as a result. Answer the letters you can answer, skip the ones you can't, and put a little more kindness out in the world.
House Flipper is precisely what you think. You're charged with restoring rundown houses—cleaning up trash, giving them a new coat of paint, replacing appliances and fixtures, and so forth. If you're really lucky, you might get to knock down a wall.
I don't know if I'd call it entertaining, but House Flipper is eminently satisfying. Clunky though it might be, there's a certain appeal to fixing up these junk houses. Real chores? I could do without. But digital chores? Apparently that's a recipe for relaxation.
Euro Truck Simulator / American Truck Simulator
And while we're on the topic of work-as-relaxation, we might as well mention the ol' standby: Euro Truck Simulator, and its stateside spinoff American Truck Simulator. If you've ever felt the call of the open road then put on your favorite album, hang some fuzzy dice from your monitor, and settle in for the long haul.
American Truck Simulator is my preference, especially now that the map's been fleshed out to include the entire West Coast. You can't go wrong with either though. Just don't panic the first time they ask you to back up one of those trucks. It's okay—everyone jackknifes it the first time.
Okay, one last game about chores. In Stardew Valley, you inherit your grandfather's farm after his death and find it rundown and ramshackle. You begin rebuilding, one day at a time. Wake up, plant crops, harvest crops, sell crops, plant new crops, and so forth. And then...well, a lot more happens.
Part of Stardew Valley's charm is in restoring the family farm and realizing its full potential. The other part is in realizing that Stardew Valley goes a lot deeper than the family farm. There's a whole world out there to explore—people to meet, mines to plunder, fish to catch, and all of it at your own pace.
City builders are one of my go-tos for a relaxing night. Start with one street, and before you know it you've got a fully functional metropolis with a beautiful downtown plaza, plentiful public transit, a gorgeous university, a handful of parks, and a quaint boardwalk.
Keep in mind that "Before You Know It" usually means sitting down to play for an hour or two, then looking up to find it's 3 a.m. and the entire night's vanished into placing benches and billboards and bus stops. Or if you're like me, you'll find you've entered an even more dire stage of your relationship with Cities: Skylines—one where you browse mods for six hours and then forget to even play the damn game.
It's not just city builders, actually. Planet Zoo was one of my favorite games of 2019 and remains one of my favorite wind-downs in 2020. It's a fantastic builder, for one. Frontier built a deep and flexible system creation suite for predecessor Planet Coaster, and it reprises here with near-infinite options for building the perfect bear cave or peacock garden or faux-savannah.
But once built, the real magic is that your animals actually use and explore their enclosures. You'll find bears perched 40 feet up a pine tree, and giraffes peering over walls at the onlooking crowds. It's as entertaining to sit and watch your clockwork zoo as it is to construct.
As with Planet Coaster, Frontier's also kept up an aggressive DLC pipeline for those who want to keep expanding. An Arctic pack added a few cold-weather animals in December, and a new South America pack added jaguars and llamas just this week—and more importantly, plenty of scenery for my new jungle-themed bathrooms.
It always starts with three stations. Tokyo, San Francisco, New York City, London—no matter where you are in the world, your subway system starts small. One line, maybe two. If you're unlucky, you'll need to cross a river to get people from Point A to Point C. That's a bad way to start. Building tunnels doesn't come cheap.
I've been playing Mini Metro for five years now, plotting out fictional subway lines and trying to stave off the moment when it collapses under its own weight. It's still a tremendous puzzle game, bolstered by its Massimo Vignelli-inspired artwork. Now if only follow-up Mini Motorways would finish its Apple Arcade exclusivity and come to PC.
Islanders bills itself as a hybrid city builder and strategy game. And yes, that technically describes it, but Islanders is far less intimidating than its elevator pitch. You do score points for grouping certain buildings together, and you will improve over time—but really Islanders is about getting in there and plopping a few structures down, taking advantage of a nifty outcropping or a towering mesa to build picturesque little civilizations.
It's one of the most intuitive (and stripped-back) builders I've played, and I managed to make some beautiful island communities with its deliberately limited tools.
As I wrote after playing Frog Detective 2: The Case of the Invisible Wizard, the appeal of this crime-fighting series is that there's...no crime. No, really. You play as the titular frog detective, but there's no sinister conspiracy to uncover, no body and no murder weapon. Instead, your cases generally come down to a benign misunderstanding and end in a group dance party.
Both Frog Detective games are short and sweet mini-adventures you can wrap up in an hour or two, and that's perfect. They're low-stakes romps peppered with a few blow-air-out-your-nose puns and a respectable chuckle or two, and I can't wait for the inevitable third entry. Maybe this time, Frog Detective and Lobster Cop will finally team up to form an unstoppable crime-fighting team.
If you want more low-stakes crimes, try Later Alligator. Someone's put a hit out on Pat the Alligator, and it falls to you to prevent the murder. You do so by meeting Pat's (extensive) family all across Alligator New York City, then solving simple brain teasers in the style of a Professor Layton or Puzzle Agent.
The puzzles are nothing special—you've got a few card games, a version of Simon, the usual—but the game oozes style with its jazzy soundtrack and handsketched noir artwork. The writing is excellent as well, balancing silly dad-jokes with surprisingly sharp reference humor.
Some people find Tetris stressful. Others, relaxing. I'm one of the latter, and I love Tetris Effect. It's not just soothing but inspiring, with its message of an interconnected Earth. On some level this is the same Tetris people have loved for nearly 40 years now, but meticulously themed to promote joy and creativity and positivity.
Every level is different, and you'll likely gravitate toward a few favorites. I'm a fan of Aurora Peak with its soft chimes and sweeping mountain views, and of Forest Dawn, which layers atonal drums over an incoming storm. Better yet, play the entire two-hour "Journey" in VR and block out the world and its problems for a while.
Baba Is You
Rarely do I play a game where I spend more time staring at a game than interacting with it. Baba is You is that kind of puzzle game though. All of the rules are laid out in the world itself, bizarre phrases like "ROCK IS PUSH" and "FLAG IS WIN" and "WALL IS STOP" and the titular "BABA IS YOU." Pushing these blocks of text around allows you to rewrite the rules, so perhaps "ROCK IS WIN" and also "ROCK IS YOU" and I promise it's easier to understand in practice than it is to write out in words.
Anyway, it's a puzzler that rewards quiet contemplation—the kind of contemplation that continues hours after you've "stopped playing," until suddenly you sit bolt upright on the couch and shout "Eureka!" and rush to the PC to punch in a solution. More like "GENIUS IS YOU."
Infinifactory / Factorio / Satisfactory
If your idea of a good time is setting up incredibly complex supply chains—well, you have your pick of a bunch of games nowadays. Infinifactory, Satisfactory, and Factorio are the three I'd recommend, all for different reasons.
Infinifactory is the oldest, and is a Zachtronics game. It's very much one-of-those-Zachtronics-games but in 3D, meaning it's puzzle-based a la SpaceChem or TIS-100. Get the correct inputs to the correct outputs using a bunch of conveyor belts, that sort of thing. Factorio came next, and is less goal-oriented. Here, you build factories that create the raw materials for larger factories, and so on and so forth until you have an impenetrable labyrinth of conveyor belts and railroad tracks and such. And Satisfactory? Built by the Goat Simulator team, it's essentially a hybrid of the other two, taking the sandbox nature of Factorio but moving it to 3D space.
Oh, and be careful because all three are fiendishly addictive.
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