There’s never been a better time to enjoy the comforting dopamine treadmill of a video game! Games take up most of your attention at any given time, making them perhaps the single best distraction for tough times, like every waking moment right now. So instead of watching scary numbers tick up on the news, why not watch soothing numbers tick up in a video game?
Below is a list of some games that feel right for this moment. The criteria: These recommended games should be meaty, not too stressful, and lacking in any major pandemic-related content.
Stardew Valley (PC, Mac, Linux, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Vita, iOS, Android)
A small-town farming simulator, Stardew Valley is a very relaxing game about managing a farm, growing crops, and maintaining relationships with local townsfolk. It’s the ultimate cozy game, with a meticulously crafted loop of watering crops, caring for livestock, crafting items, and spelunking for treasure, with tons of secrets and depth. Despite the simple looking graphics, this game is transportive, leading a friend of mine to remark after playing nonstop: “I just really started resenting reality.”
Factorio (Linux, PC, Mac)
Factorio is a game about creating order out of chaos. You’ve crash-landed on a planet and must build automated assembly lines to create a rocket ship to leave the planet. It’s easy to create simple manufacturing lines, but the meat and potatoes of the game is learning how to most efficiently create those lines, leading to a massive, sprawling factory. The most satisfying part of Factorio is seeing your factory hum along all by itself, the conveyor belts and furnaces and inserters all dancing in unison, making logistical design feel like an art form. If you have any interest in logistics, or if you really get off on those satisfying YouTube video compilations, check this one out.
Dragon Quest Builders 2 (PC, PS4, Switch)
This is basically Minecraft meets Dragon Quest, meaning that it’s a game all about building cool, blocky things, but with a lot more role-playing structure than the very open Minecraft sandbox. I love the openness of Minecraft, but sometimes I just want a game to tell me what to do, and Dragon Quest Builders 2 does a great job of making you feel creative, while also not having to do much thinking. It very gradually introduces all aspects of its systems to you through silly but highly structured adventuring romps while also leaving you alone on a special island devoted to your own creative efforts.
Slime Rancher (PC, Mac, PS4, Xbox One)
A game about wrangling adorable, cheerful slime monsters with a vacuum gun on a planet 10,000 light-years away. This first-person game is great for kids or families, with a cheery mood, fun environments to explore, weird slime interactions, and very gentle and forgiving gameplay. Plus it’s just fun to watch the slimes interact with one another in the giant techno-pens you set up for them. It’s also been updated many times over the past few years, meaning there’s a lot to dig into here.
Solitairica (Android, iOS, Mac, PC)*
This beefed-up, deck-building version of Solitaire is one of the best phone games I’ve played in years. It’s super easy to pick up, and the gameplay is tricky but rewarding, with great art and a ton of replayability. Perfect for lounging in bed alone while Friends reruns play in the background.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch)
This brand-new release couldn’t have come at a better time. The Animal Crossing series is about being a bobble-headed human living in a small village populated by animal townspeople who ask you to do favors for them: stuff like delivering furniture, rearranging their homes, buying clothes, basically all the things you can’t do right now! You also spend a lot of time just hanging out: picking fruit, planting flowers, fishing, catching bugs, and chatting inanely with your animal friends. The game follows a real-world calendar and time system, meaning that if you play it at night, it’s nighttime in the game, and activities change depending on the time of day, month, and season. Every town is different too, so you can visit your friend’s towns online, meet their neighbors, and pick their fruit. It’s sprightly, cute, and the perfect game to replace the life you used to have.
Tetris Effect (PC, PS4)
You basically know what this is already, It’s classic Tetris with trippy, hypnotizing visuals.
Final Fantasy XIV (PC, Mac, Xbox One, PS4)
I don’t usually play online RPGs because they are a huge time suck, and I like to pretend I have other goals that would require that hypothetical time. But now, as a single, childless person living alone, I’ve got nothing but time! So I took the plunge into the world of Eorzea, and I’m proud to say that I’m now a Level 23 cat-boy wizard who flings fire magic at the local fauna. There’s something very satisfying about the extremely predictable, steady level progression the game offers, and the prospect of being social and teaming up with other players in game seems like a welcome prospect for the coming days. It’s also fairly good at easing new players into its somewhat overwhelming world. Best of all, there’s a free trial you can play up to Level 35.
Civilization VI (PC, Mac, Linux, Switch, PS4, Xbox One)
The Civilization games are grand strategy that roughly simulate the growth of competing civilizations on a hex-based map. After picking from a fleet of beautifully animated real-world historical leaders, your civilization must compete economically, spiritually, and militarily to outmatch other civilizations. Civilization is one of history’s definitive time sinks, and the slow, beautiful creep of your civilization across the map is intoxicating and very addictive.
Baba Is You (PC, Mac, Linux, Switch)
This mind-melting puzzle game is all about logic. The rules of each puzzle are present as words on each map, and by rearranging the words you come up with new ways to solve puzzles. It’s devilishly hard, full of surprises, and charm.
The Witcher III (PC, Switch, PS4, Xbox One)
I was hesitant to recommend The Witcher III, only because its world-at-war fantasy setting can be pretty bleak. Still, if you don’t mind wading through some dark fantasy muck, you’ll find perhaps the most compelling narrative-driven role-playing game ever made. The Witcher III doesn’t require you to have played the previous games (or watched the Netflix show) to enjoy and is a perfect game if you’ve got a lot of time and are looking for something that will suck in you in with fascinating stories, great characters, and good combat for dozens and dozens of hours.
Correction, March 23, 2020: This post originally misspelled the name of the game Solitairica.