Finding Space: 4 Games for the Overworked Mind

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I live in a concrete jungle. Every morning I wake up to the sounds of antagonistic freeway traffic and screaming theme park tourists, and at night the city din lulls into the steady rush of late-night cars and drunken mumblings. For some people, this might be heaven. But for people like me, it’s … definitely not. I was raised in quiet backwater towns. Going outside at 3 AM meant an empty street and a sky full of stars. If I wanted to be alone I just had to walk across the street and meander a ways into the almond orchard. In a city like LA, empty streets don’t exist no matter what time you go out, stars are limited by light pollution and smog levels, and you are never alone, ever, in the most annoying way possible. Compound this with General Anxiety Disorder, OCD, and an irrational hatred of palm trees, and sometimes things can seem a little overwhelming.

For people like me, local parks, nature reserves, and the less popular beaches can offer a few real-life bolt-holes away from the madness, but time and monetary constraints often mean we spend far less time out in nature than we’d like. And while gaming is usually one of the strongest weapons in our arsenal against the outside world, there are times when the problems of real life get so concentrated that it’s impossible to add on any more, even fictional ones willingly embraced.

But gaming doesn’t always have to be about overcoming obstacles and besting bad guys, as many gamers already know. Sometimes games can be places of refuge for an overtaxed mind, a place where we can go and surrender our daily anxieties and learn to be present in the world—even if that world is virtual. The following four games are ones that I highly recommend for the overworked gamer looking for a place to rest their mind for a moment. They can give you a sense of space when you’re surrounded by city walls, a sense of solitude when you can’t seem to find a moment alone, and a sense of beauty when you’re thoroughly tired of concrete and car exhaust.

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Proteus

I was introduced to Proteus back in 2013 through Becky Chamber’s article “Go Outside, If You Can. If Not, Play Video Games.” In it, Becky details one of the most attractive qualities of Proteus—the game’s ability to use the abstract to invoke visceral memories of actual spaces. It seemed interesting, and when I had the chance to pick it up in the Humble Indie Bundle 8, I grabbed it.

In Proteus, players explore a procedurally generated island following the rhythm of the natural world from day to night, season to season. The art is impressionistic, using blocky shapes and colors to give a sense of things rather than visually defining them. What the art lacks in detail, however, the audio makes up for in depth; the aural landscape of Proteus is one of the game’s best features. It’s not uncommon to hear a sound in the distance and be drawn towards it out of curiosity, or to get distracted at night by following an owl from tree to tree by its hoots. In a dark room with headphones on, it’s easy to fall into the gentle world of Proteus and lose yourself in it for a few hours.

Proteus isn’t entirely without its mysteries, of course. Strange things can happen on the island. Discovering the city was one of my favorite moments in the game, and hanging around the great oak tree on an autumn night can be quite interesting too. But Proteus is blessedly free of any jump scares or monsters, and anything strange you might find is also beautiful and benign as well. If you’re looking to relax with a no-pressure, beautifully crafted game, Proteus is the perfect choice.

ANTICHAMBER

Antichamber

Fans of Portal might recognize a bit of the premise behind Antichamber. You find yourself in a strange place with no memory of how you got there, receive a device that lets you manipulate the world around you, and have to use it to solve puzzles in the hope that advancing through the levels will eventually lead you to an exit. But where Portal uses hard logic with creative twists to create challenging puzzles, Antichamber goes out of its way to break the rules of reality: walls you can walk through if you don’t look at them, corridors that can only be accessed by looking through the right window, and rooms that can only be found if you approach them the right way. 

For all that, though, Antichamber is a relaxing experience. You can enter it at any point (once you’ve unlocked it), leave it at any point, and getting something wrong just means trying again until you get it right—no character death and no level restart unless you want to. Like Proteus, Antichamber uses minimalistic graphics, well-placed color blocking, and a lush aural landscape to design its atmospheric experience.

The soundtrack for Antichamber is as strange and surreal as the game itself, with each composition building in complexity as the player advances through from simple puzzles to more advanced ones. Ambient music, invisible birds, the sound of a distant ocean, and wind chimes are strategically placed in the game and paired with more traditional instruments to give a rich sense of space in an otherwise confined universe. If you’re looking for something a little more challenging without the demands of boss fights or complex narratives, then Antichamber has you covered.

DEAR ESTHER

Dear Esther

Beautiful, poetic, and melancholy, Dear Esther will break your heart from the moment you step ashore. Everything about this game is crafted to feed into a sense of wonder and loss, most especially the lovingly rendered Hebridean landscape. In our zombie-obsessed society, it’s easy to equate desolation with danger, and certainly I played the first few minutes of Dear Esther expecting something to jump out from between the shrub-covered hillsides. Shaking that feeling can take a while, but once it’s gone, exploring the landscape of Dear Esther becomes extremely enjoyable, if somewhat sad. The game is beautifully narrated by Nigel Carrington, and the plot is advanced simply by walking around the island. The music is simple and elegant, with most of the audio emphasis placed on the natural sounds of the sea, though the occasional well-placed creepy piano refrain pops up here and there.

There’s a fatalistic quality to the gameplay as the narrative draws you on towards its intended destination. It’s a rather short game, so without spoiling it too much, I’ll say that the narrator describes the experience of grief and sudden loss after the death of Esther in a car crash in a series of letters addressed to her. The letters grow progressively more personal while becoming increasingly convoluted, jumping between time, place, and person in the span of a few sentences. The landscape too becomes richer and more luminous the further in you go, even as it gets darker (both literally and metaphorically).

While I highly recommend Dear Esther, the story does deal with some heavy themes that might be difficult for certain people, so I suggest checking it out before you play if you feel that might be a problem for you.

Shelter

Shelter

I picked up Shelter on a whim a while ago after watching the game trailer and falling in love with the art style, which feels like a paper cut-out piece come to life. I never expected to become so attached to my small badger family, mourning each lost cub and rejoicing in small triumphs like finding new food and evading predators. Shelter has one simple goal: keep your cubs alive. There are plenty of things in the forest out to thwart that goal, from raging rivers to wildfires to inclement weather and more. Surviving until your cubs reach adulthood is a lot harder than it looks.

Artistically, Shelter feels a little like playing a classic children’s book, something reminiscent of Eric Carle’s illustrations in Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See and The Very Hungry Caterpillar. It’s a gentle game in the sense that it never blindsides you with unexpected, overwhelming visuals or deafening noise like some games do. The music and ambient sound is similarly gentle, featuring general forest noise, subdued drumming, and soft guitar refrains that reflect the mood of the moment: hopeful and quiet during general exploration, and a little more harsh when evading predators and forging through dangerous landscapes. Shelter is an experience, and definitely one worth having.

Honorable Mentions

Of course, there are plenty of games that deliver similar experiences to the four above, ones that are just as worthy of your time and attention and might be more along the lines of what you’re looking for at different times. A few honorable mentions include Dragon Age: Inquisition, Gone Home, Child of Light, Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), Skyrim, Soul BubblesThe Swapper, and The End. Each of these games feature beautiful soundtracks, complex spaces perfect for exploration, low-pressure puzzles, and/or a sense of being alone that makes them great for relaxing after a long day of dealing with the world and its multitude of people. The only reason why most of these didn’t make this particular list is because they might include random fights, possibly triggering subject matter, and/or visible human characters (which, when you’re trying to find a moment of simulated solitude, can be a bit distracting).

So there you have it—my list of games to play when you need an escape from the world and the world offers you none. It’s by no means comprehensive, so if you have any games that you play when you just need a break from everything, leave it below in the comments and tell us why you love it!

Happy gaming! 🙂

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2 Comments on “Finding Space: 4 Games for the Overworked Mind

  1. From the examples that you listed, I feel like Eidolon would also qualify as this kind of game. It has nice low-poly graphics, and big world to explore. There is no real objective other than to explore and collect some info cubes which give vague information about what happened in this world, with some low level survival elements that don’t go much further than eat every once in a while and don’t stay in the cold water for too long. It’s a nice game for when you don’t feel like playing games.

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  2. Shelter! I got that game a while back and, while I haven’t beaten it yet (the save system is temporary?), it really is unique and beautifully designed. I’d like to see more minimalist games like it.

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