How you spent your winter break.
How you spent your winter break. A Short Hike

Ahhhh the long idle week between Christmas and New Year’s, a perfect time for doing absolutely nothing whatsoever. Just relax, chill out, maybe eat a lot of junk and note how pleasant life is when you’re momentarily spared the relentless buffeting of capitalism.

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During this time, some busybodies like to go for hikes—in the actual outdoors!—but that involves wearing pants, and who can be bothered right now? In this economy??? Instead of enjoying a nice relaxing time out-of-doors, now is a perfect time to experience a simulated outdoorsy experience with a handful of very pleasant, calm, take-a-deep-breath videoed-games.

This is all a lengthy way of saying that you should be playing A Short Hike right now, a wonderful whimsical colorful stroll around a delightful island populated by adorable creatures. There’s no combat or peril, no timer, no way to lose. There is, however, a destination you’ve been tasked with reaching, and like hiking itself the true pleasure of this absolutely perfect game is wandering, exploring, and enjoying the view. It’s easily digestible—two to three hours is probably all you need—and once you’re done, you’ll be ready to launch into some similar games that I recommend as well:

I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a game as much as Frog Detective, in which you play as a frog who is a detective. As with A Short Hike, you’ll wander a small island, conversing with adorable animals; this time, you're tasked with tackling a mystery that involves a strange haunting. The game is essentially a series of cute fetch-quests and dialogues, with not much exploration. But there is also the promise of a dance contest, and the game has a wonderful lo-fi charm that you will want to hug. Here I am flirting with an alligator (???) in the game.

Similarly, Donut Country is kind of Katamari Damacy with talking animals and negative space. Instead of rolling objects into a ball, you play as a hole (mood) and your job is to grow larger and larger by swallowing up every object in sight. Alas, there’s a lot of squandered potential here, as each sequence is designed to be completed in a predetermined manner and there are very few puzzles or challenges other than “just vacuum everything up.” But the sight of everything vanishing into the hole is quite satisfying, and TBH the solutions in Untitled Goose Game are completely predetermined too. Oh, that’s another one you should be playing (again, since it’s been a year since you last picked it up).

And speaking of games you played extensively for a while and then forgot about, Stardew Valley misses you. A charming start-a-farm game, you move to a small town and plant some crops, clear away overgrown areas, ride a horse, bonk some rocks, catch some fish … you know, idyll-stuff. (There’s a furry Stardew mod that I highly recommend if you'd like to see the game with a fresh face.)

For more of that sort of routine, allow me to suggest that you check out Slime Rancher, in which you wander a weird alien landscape collecting happy slimes to breed on your farm. I didn’t find as much depth in this one—once you’ve played for a few hours, there’s not much to keep you busy, since it lacks the creative farm-designing opportunities of a Stardew. Here I am getting chased by some exploding-cat slimes that I accidentally created.

For something a bit more complex, consider Ooblets, currently in beta, which is kind of Stardew plus Pokemon with dancing. You explore a small town, collecting resources and encountering cute monsters; instead of fighting, you engage in dance battles. The battles win you seeds that you plant on your farm, where you also grow crops that you use to enter new dance battles … and so on.

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But maybe structure itself is the problem, and it’s an idle ramble that you seek. If that’s the case, grab Abzû, a swimming sim in which you float serenely through various aquatic environments. A few scattered puzzles provide opportunities to clean the ocean environment. It pairs very nicely with three other relaxing experiences: Journey, in which you flit about a gorgeous desert collecting scraps of cloth and enjoying an extremely satisfying flying mechanic; Flower, in which you play as a gust of wind blowing flower petals across a beautiful landscape; and Flow, in which you are a simple organism living in what looks like a plate under a microscope, wriggling around and eating other little organisms. All three of those games are designed by Jenova Chen and all three produce a feeling of curiosity, satisfaction, and meditative bliss.

I recommend the game Eastshade with one caveat: Speed through your interactions with the characters as quickly as possible so you can spend more time in nature. You are a painter who has washed up on an island inhabited by talking animals who will ask you to“paint” particular landscapes around the island (an eclipse, a waterwheel, a sandy beach, etc), which is to say, take screengrabs of the gorgeous lush sights. The environment is quite breathtaking—it’s a magnificent game and you can get lost just wandering and admiring the view—and it’s clear that the developers’ attention to natural detail came at the expense of refining character interactions, which are clunky and jarring. It will take two or three hours for you to speed through some fetch-quest tutorials and arrive at a central city-hub, at which point you are freed up to wander the island at your leisure.

Whewwwww there you go, enough outdoorsy relaxo-games to keep you busy for the foreseeable future. (For more of this sort of thing, come join me on Twitch, where I stream relaxing comfortable games several times a week.) Perhaps they will inspire you to put some pants on and go outside and look at a tree in real life, or perhaps you will emerge from your digital cocoon in a few weeks’ time to discover that an apocalypse has occurred and trees no longer exist. Only time will tell!

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