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Chill out: a new wave of relaxing video games shows there’s more to them than violence | Games

When it comes to video games, violence sells. It’s put front and centre in massive marketing campaigns. This year’s E3, the biggest news event in the video game calendar, featured a lot of violent content, like every year before. It’s saddening how much of gaming is defined solely in those terms – especially when more relaxing alternatives have being going through a mini-renaissance recently.

Chill out games that focus on growing and relaxing rather than shooting or racing are not a rarity. They are not given the same exposure as their blockbuster counterparts, but they are plentiful and popular. Stardew Valley, the creation of one determined developer, Eric “ConcernedApe” Barone, has reportedly sold over 3.5 million copies. This is a game about running a farm, interacting with the locals and joining in with harvest and fishing festivals. Its massive popularity reveals that people crave games that involve less stress, and the audience is at least equal to those who want adrenaline-pumping action. There exists a whole subsection of video game YouTubers who specialise in more relaxing or narrative-driven games, a large proportion of them young women.





Farms and fishing festivals: A screenshot of Stardew Valley



Farms and fishing festivals: A screenshot of Stardew Valley Photograph: PR Company Handout

While big game studios largely concentrate on action blockbusters, independent developers are stepping in to create gentler games – like Ooblets, a charming game about growing and creating a team of tiny creatures to explore the world with. For designer Ben Wasser, it was a conscious choice to make something relaxing for players.

“One of our core gameplay guidelines is that we try to never punish the player,” he explains. “We avoid everything that could be considered annoying, punishing, or needlessly difficult. I’ve had a lot of issues with stress and anxiety so I’m pretty sensitive to how games can contribute or abate those feelings…there’s a natural inclination to design games that are really challenging. But there’s also room for games that are inherently easy. It’s not a bad thing that games like Pokémon and Animal Crossing are really easy. People get less frustrated and stressed out, and it widens the audience.”

Heather Flowers is the creator of Twirl and Ghosts in the Shortwave, two games that are a bit more abstract in their approach to creating a calming space for players. Through their mechanics and simplistic ASCII visuals, they attempt to move players into a zen-like space. Flowers views chillout games not in opposition to more stressful titles, but rather as important companions. “There is a place for chill-out games, but there’s also a place for the opposite, stress-out games,” she says. “Sometimes you need a game to provide a source of stress just as much as you need a source of relaxation!





Ooblet gamers design creatures to explore the world in bright graphics



Ooblet gamers design creatures to explore the world in bright graphics Photograph: PR Company Handout

“[Game designer] Sid Meier once said that ‘a game is a series of interesting choices,’ and for the most part I’m inclined to agree,” she continues. “The games that have stuck with me the most are the ones not with the choice of how to defeat enemies, but the ones with impact to the story, plot, or tone of the game — think Pyre’s heart-wrenching character-based metagame, or Kentucky Route Zero’s choice of internal monologues struggling against a tide of debt and duty that drives the game forward whether the player wants it to or not.”

Johan Gejstland, designer of Fugl – a game that has players control a bird flying through a voxel world of valleys and caves – feels that the act of movement itself in a game can be relaxing, finding inspiration in the flight simulators of his youth. “It created the desire in me to try to make a better flying game, something that focuses more on the feeling of flying than the technical aspects of flying a machine,” he says. “Movement is so important, but often overlooked. I think the sensation of moving through a 3D space is something magical and shouldn’t only be a means to end.”

The legacy of modern non-violent games stretches back almost to gaming’s origins. Many may cite Fortune Builder as the birth of this stress-free alternative gaming; released in 1984, it was certainly one of the first examples of a simulation game, asking players to manage a stretch of land and fill it with various businesses. But it was 1989s Sim City, the creation of now legendary designer Will Wright, that popularised games that were not built around action or killing. That series would eventually give way to The Sims, a massively successful example of the Life Simulation genre where players look after a set of humans living mostly ordinary lives, interacting with an already on-going and living world.





‘the sensation of moving:’ players of Fugl computer game control a bird flying through natural landscapes



‘the sensation of moving:’ players of Fugl computer game control a bird flying through natural landscapes Photograph: PR

Games like Creatures and Petz became huge successes in the 1990s, offering virtual pets for players to care for and later inspiring games like Nintendogs and Spore. The social simulator genre, which flourished in the late 90s and early 00s following the release of Nintendo’s Animal Crossing, has also proven enduring. Along with Harvest Moon, a popular Japanese series about settling down in the country and running a farm, Animal Crossing has had a huge influence on games like Stardew Valley. Social simulator games make players feel like part of a community, usually tending to a farm or small town, meeting the needs of their neighbours as well as themselves.

“I’ve always liked games that let you see the characters living their lives and going about their days, like Animal Crossing, Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and The Sims,” says Rebecca Cordingley, the other half of Ooblets’ two-person design team. “From a tone and artistic perspective, we take a lot of inspiration from the general vibes and character of The Wind Waker and Jet Set Radio.”





A forthcoming iphone game Selfcare focuses on relaxing at home



A forthcoming iphone game Selfcare focuses on relaxing at home Photograph: TruLuv

Without conflict or action, what it is that compels players to spend hours in more chilled-out games? Is it more difficult to explain a game without obvious goals like ‘shoot all the enemies’? Brie Code of TRULUV studios – makers of forthcoming iPhone game #SelfCare, a pleasant game about chilling out in a bedroom described this design principle as ‘tend-and-befriend’ as opposed to ‘fight-or-flight,’ and different developers approach that in different ways.

“I don’t think it really matters whether there’s violence or not as much as the appeal of building something,” Ben says. “All my favourite games have building in common in one way or another. It’s pretty obvious in games like Minecraft or Factorio, but it’s also there in games like Pokémon where the underlying incentive is to build a curated and custom-trained team. When you think about it, the difference between farming games and city building games is largely aesthetic. Games that let you design, cultivate, and test what you’ve built speak to innate human interests of creation.”

“When I started exhibiting Fugl three years ago, I got a lot more questions about the goal of the game,” says Johan. “Nowadays I rarely get that question, so things have changed for sure. I think the space of games have been dominated by thinking that originated in the 70s and 80s. The industry had in general been very conservative, but things are changing now. We have moved a long way from coin-op and are in a new age where games like Candy Crush Saga and Hay Day are on millions of phones. You might hate those games, but they are bringing millions of people into the concept of gaming.”





Old favourite: Animal Crossing by Nintendo is a stalwart of non-violent gaming



Old favourite: Animal Crossing by Nintendo is a stalwart of non-violent gaming Photograph: Handout

Games have explored so many variations of violence but when they no longer have to put action at the centre, it’s fascinating to see what kind of experiences they hone in on. None of these modern chill out games mentioned here is remotely similar to another; they are all niche and novel. But they share a desire to offer audiences a place to relax. Someone out there may be creating a chill out game that feels like it was made just for you.

“The rise of indie games in the public eye in the last decade or so has allowed people to zero in on specific interests,” says Heather. “I feel that by this point most people can find the kind of game that works for them.”


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