The Cozy Escapism of Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley

There are many reasons people play video games – to pass the time, to hear a story, or to bond with friends. But for many people, their reason for playing a game is escapism.

Escapism is when a person seeks to escape the real world – and all its boredom, frustrations, or stresses – through imagination, fantasy and entertainment. It can be hard to define what exactly makes a piece of media ‘escapist’, since everyone engages with the concept differently. Some people even engage in escapism purely through their own imagination, with no media. But in general, escapist media allows readers and/or players to escape to other, often more fanciful and wonderous, worlds. Many people use books and movies and even music as part of their escapism, but as video games have grown in popularity in recent decades, they’ve grown in popularity as escapist fiction as well.

Animal Crossing
Animal Crossing. By Alexandre Martin.

When escapist video games are discussed, the commonly pointed to examples are RPGs (roleplaying games), especially fantasy titles like Skyrim (2011). It’s not hard to see why. Fantasy is a genre often used in escapist literature, as it allows writers to construct a completely new world, one where things are different – and better – from the real world. Fantasy games similarly do this, and many, like Skyrim, allow their players to have some agency in their gameplay choices. If you want to be an all-powerful wizard, you can be. If that’s not your thing, you can be an incredibly strong swordsman or a sneaky thief. RPGs like these are often the perfect escapism media for many, as they allow players to have some control. Control that they may be lacking in their everyday life.

But while sword and sorcery RPGs make for a good example of escapism in games, they are not the only type of game. Nor are they the only form of escapism. In fact, going on social media it seems like many people’s escapism games of choice are the tonal opposite to games like Skyrim. Instead of escapism to a fantasy realm where you can kill a dragon, they seek escapism to a rather simpler world. It’s all ‘cozy’ games, games where you can farm and fish and plant flowers and make friends with in-game characters. A more relaxing form of escapism.

A screenshot from Skyrim, showing an armored player fighting a tree monster.
Fantasy games like Skyrim (2011) are what often come to mind when people think of escapist games.

Animal Crossing and Escapism during the Pandemic

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was published in March 2020, the same year that the Covid-19 pandemic swept the world. Looking back, it seems like the game was practically designed to be the perfect thing to relax with during what was an incredibly stressful time. In this latest entry in the Animal Crossing series, the player is a person who has just purchased a package to live on a little island, a beautiful slice of nature with rivers filled with fish, bugs buzzing around, and trees filled with fruit. While the player may spend their first day on the island in a tent, the place quickly grows and changes. Soon more villagers arrive at the island, all cute and quirky animal people, and more shops and buildings populate the landscape. Speaking of the landscape, the player is even given the chance to decorate their island as they see fit by creating ponds and rivers, raising and lowering the terrain, planting flowers, and placing structures.

There are goals in Animal Crossing, but there are few time limits imposed on them. You have to pay off your house, but there’s no interest on the loan, so you can take as long as you need. The museum stands empty initially, and it’s up to you to collect the bugs and fish for the exhibits – but the bugs and fish are seasonal, so it’s impossible to do it all at once. You’ll need to collect resources for various projects across the island – but you can only collect so many resources on a given day, and once you’ve collected everything, you may need to just sit and wait for more. As such, the game invites you to take it slow, decorate your home, and talk to the villagers on your island. The game’s unusual time system also helps here, as the game happens in real time – if it’s 10 o’clock in the real world, it’s 10 o’clock on your tropical island, there’s no time dilation as is found in most games. Once again, this puts minimal time pressure on the player, instead encouraging them to play daily.

Upon its release, New Horizons was widely praised, and it is currently the second best-selling game on the Nintendo Switch (surpassed only by the latest Mario Kart game). Reviewers praised it for many reasons, but there was often an emphasis put on just how relaxing it is, especially in the face of a global pandemic. It presented a world with no pandemic, and few pressing concerns beyond making your island look nicer. As such, it makes a great game for escapism.

The cover of Animal Crossing: Horizons, depicting a pair of humans and a number of animal people on a tropical beach.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (2020) is generally considered a great game to relax to.

This form of escapism may seem strange, when most works cited as escapism are often a little more ‘exciting’ that Animal Crossing, such as works of fantasy, sci fi, or pulpy detective fiction. Like Skyrim. But escapist literature does not just include these genres. Yes, some examples of escapist fiction are exciting and dramatic, allowing one to imagine themselves as a powerful warrior, mage, or detective, but many are a little more relaxing. For example, romance fiction often uses elements of escapism, allowing its readers to escape to a world of true love where things will turn out alright in the end. Utopian fiction, works set in an ideal or model world, is often also considered escapist literature, and the point of these works is often to show the shortcomings of our own world by imagining a better one. Escapism is about leaving our world behind for another, and there are many ways to do that, and many different worlds to leave for. It should be no surprise that some choose Animal Crossing over Skyrim.

But in this case it’s about more than just a difference in taste. Animal Crossing has always been relatively popular, but New Horizons is the bestselling entry in the series. Many blame the pandemic. People didn’t just want any escapism from the pandemic – any genre or type of game – they wanted Animal Crossing specifically.

Animal Crossing and Iyashikei

This type of escapism is certainly not unknown in Japan, Animal Crossing’s country of origin. The genre ‘iyashikei’ or ‘healing’ is often used to refer to relaxing slice-of-life anime and manga, pieces where there is little conflict – and when there is conflict, it’s often low-stakes or focused on personal development. The story generally ends happily and is often set in or near to nature.

A cover of My Neighbor Totoro, depicting the bunny-like titular spirits and two young girls sitting with them.
Totoro (1988) is generally considered to be an early example of the genre that later became known as Iyashikei.

One of the earlier and best-known pieces in this genre is the Studio Ghibli film My Neighbor Totoro (1988), an anime movie about a pair of girls who move to the countryside with their father, and come across the forest spirit Totoro. While there is conflict, when one of the girls is lost, it is quickly resolved with the aid of this magical spirit. Since then, the genre has told stories about high schoolers learning and developing, mundane life in magical worlds, and other similarly relaxing topics. While Animal Crossing may be a game rather than an anime, it seems to share a lot of similarities with other works in this genre with its natural setting and relaxing tone.

Iyashikei’s emergence and popularity is often linked to the trauma of certain crises in Japan, including the Great Hanshin Earthquake of 1995. The ‘healing’ name is quite literal; these are works that are intended to soothe and relax a person going through a hard time. Once again, this genre in general proved popular during the pandemic, with some media outlets recommending iyashikei works to relax a person’s pandemic anxiety. It’s no surprise that the same happened with Animal Crossing.

In fact, some feel that New Horizons made a specific attempt to be even more relaxing than previous entries in the game series. While even the earliest games were relatively calm, this latest game has made a few changes to make the game even more relaxing to players. One of the biggest ones is the villagers’ attitudes towards the player; in some of the early games, the villagers were initially cold and sometimes even outright mean. They only became nicer as they ‘got to know’ the player. There was even one character, a mole named Mr Resetti, who would yell at players if they quit the game without saving. He would pretend to reset their save if they did it too many times. In New Horizons, however, the villagers are noticeably much nicer from the beginning, and even Mr Resetti is much calmer, though he no longer appears when you forget to save.

While some people disliked these changes, saying they made the villagers feel more flat and less interesting, they do arguably make the game more calm – and even better for escapism. When imagining a perfect world to escape to, most people don’t want to be yelled at for quitting without saving, they want to make fast friends with a sweet cat.

A promotional image from Animal Crossing: Wild World, depicting some humans and animal people on a green hill, with cherry blossoms in the background.
Some of the early Animal Crossing games are said to be a little rougher around the edges, a little less relaxing.

Stardew Valley and a Longing for a Simpler Life

Though it’s a slightly different take to the escapism offered by Animal Crossing, another of the most prominent and obvious examples of these chill escapism games is Stardew Valley (2016). Its opening cutscene lays out this desire for escapism very neatly. At the beginning of the game (after character creation), the player is shown a cutscene of their ‘grandfather’, who gives them an envelope with the instruction to open it ‘when you feel crushed by the burden of modern life’. It then cuts to the player in a dingy office, working at a dirty desk under constant monitoring by a security camera. Obviously feeling this burden, they pull out their grandfather’s letter and discover that he has left them a farm. He wishes for them to reconnect with real people and nature, just like he once did. The player immediately packs up whatever life they may have had in the city and moves to the country to start a new life as a farmer, where they can find satisfaction, friendship, magic, and romance.

This opening is one that may be relatable to many inner-city adult gamers. If you’ve ever had a hard office or retail job, in a city where you rarely see any nature, you might start to long for a life in the countryside. To run away from everything and start afresh. Of course, in real life things are more difficult than it is in Stardew Valley. Most people don’t have the money or resources to just quit their boring job, and even if they did they’d soon find the work is a lot harder than Stardew makes it seem. And you certainly won’t make friends with any forest spirits in real life. But Stardew Valley appeals to that fantasy, making it less realistic but more accessible and more fun.

A screenshot from Stardew Valley, showing the player character and a few other people working in a dirty cubicle with a security camera watching them. The slogan 'Life's better with Joja' is on the wall above them, and the Joja logo is on the cubicles.
Stardew Valley (2016) may be known as a fun and somewhat relaxing game, but it starts from a place of stress and overwork.

However, the escapism that Stardew offers is rather different to Animal Crossing, not just in what you do, but in the difficulty. In Animal Crossing, you could pass time by talking to your villagers, browsing the museum, and inviting friends over. There are no time limits, and though the game sets you tasks, there’s little obligation to complete them. You can also time travel, so any events or seasonal insects you miss you can simply catch up on. Meanwhile, in Stardew Valley, it’s a little more stressful and fast-paced. At the start of the game, your farm is small and covered in weeds and debris. You have to hand-water all of your crops. You also have a limited amount of time to do any tasks each day (about 12 –13 minutes, depending on when you get to bed), and a limited amount of energy, so you need to allocate your time and responsibilities wisely. Not using them wisely results in penalties, loosing energy for the next day, or being forced to spend your hard-earned money. And the townsfolk can be resistant to the player at first, with some (such as Shane, Jas, and George) initially acting abrupt, uncertain, or shy towards you. Even your house is tiny at the start of the game, and any resources are more likely to be put to farming than to making nicer furniture.

While at times this may seem stressful, an odd choice of escapism compared to the more laid-back Animal Crossing, the same escapism elements are still present in Stardew. The desire to leave a pointless desk job brought up in the opening cutscene is repeated and expanded on throughout the game. In the town is a grocery store owned by the same company the player once worked for (a monopoly company called ‘Joja’), and over the course of the story, the player is given the chance to make them go out of business and leave the town, in favor of a group of nature spirits. Though it’s possible to side with the store instead of the town and spirits, few players do – according to online game retailer Steam, only 3.7% of players completed the ‘Joja’ route (siding with the corporation) vs. the 19.3% of players who completed the ‘town’ route (siding with the local people and the nature spirits). In addition, it’s generally a more expensive option to support the chain store instead of the more local option, as seeds are more expensive at the Jojamart. Being given the chance to not only leave a soul-crushing job, but to damage the company that caused it, may provide a sense of catharsis to players.

A screenshot from Stardew Valley, showing an abandoned building with a sign saying 'Jojamart'. There is a truck and a sign advertising Jojacola next to it, and a small forest spirit on the roof.
If you choose to help the forest spirits, the Jojamart is quickly abandoned.

In addition, while Stardew Valley may seem more difficult than Animal Crossing, it’s still quite forgiving. While there are penalties, most are quite short-term – if you lose money, you can always earn more, and if you lose all your energy, you’ll simply regain it at the start of the next day. The years and the seasons repeat, so even if you miss an event, growing a particular crop, or catching a seasonal fish, there’s always next time. There’s goals, but there’s no set time limit on doing them, so you can take as long as you need. That’s more forgiving than a lot of other games.

Similar to Animal Crossing, Stardew Valley also has friendship mechanics. Over the course of the game, you can talk to the npcs once a day, and give them gifts twice a week in order to increase how much they like you. With some characters, this can go from a friendship to a romance and even a marriage (or a roommate, in one case) and parenthood. Romance and marriage has been a staple of the farming sim genre ever since its inception. The Harvest Moon series, also known as the Story of Seasons series, has allowed the player character to get married to an eligible non-player character since the very first game was released in 1996. As one of the first and most iconic farming sims, this set the stage for romance to be a common element across the genre. However, many of these earlier farming sims had only particular types of romance – players could only marry candidates of the opposite gender. In the first Harvest Moon, you couldn’t even play as a female farmer. In recent years, however, this has changed. Indie farming sims such as Stardew Valley and many other smaller publications, such as the recently released Coral Island (2022), routinely have romance options regardless of gender. This has expanded to more recently published Harvest Moon games. Being able to have a romantic relationship with a charming npc is a big part of the escapism of these games for many people, and it attracts a lot of players.

In the stressful world we live in, it’s no surprise that many gamers wish to escape to one where they can live a rather simpler life. While not everyone finds Stardew Valley completely relaxing, due to its time and energy mechanics, it presents a world where the player has a fulfilling job, where they can see themselves succeed and thrive, and where they can make friends. They can build a life they may feel they can’t have in the real world, and this escapism contributes to Stardew Valley’s popularity.

A screenshot of Stardew Valley, showing the player in their farm on Ginger Island. There are fruit trees and blocks of growing plants, and simple wooden paths around the area.
With a bit of work, your farm in Stardew Valley can become beautiful.

Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley are, of course, only two games. And it’s unlike that their popularity stems solely from escapism – New Horizons comes from from one of the biggest video game companies in the world and is from a series that had seen years since its last mainline game. And farming sims have plenty of draws beyond escapism, like the satisfaction of watching your farm grow or the light romance mechanics.

And yet, in the midst of a crisis, why do individuals express the desire to live a life similar to that of these video games or to put more effort into their virtual worlds than in the real one? It’s difficult to fail to get why, for many individuals, escapism isn’t about being an all-powerful wizard or a strong warrior.

Cozy escapism is about wanting a life different from your own. One where you can unwind, make new friends, and do a job that satisfies you.

There are issues with escapism, especially when it comes to using video games for that purpose. Psychologists have found it can result in negative outcomes including social anxiety and loneliness. But escaping to video game worlds can also result in positive outcomes, such as enjoyment.

And, of course, relaxation.

When we live in a stressful time, with a pandemic still on our heels and a cost of living crisis, it’s hard to blame people who’d rather escape to a tropical island.

Works Cited

Hussain, U., Jabarkhail, S., Cunningham, G. B., and Madsen, J. A. (2021). The dual nature of escapism in video gaming: A meta-analytic approach. Computers in Human Behaviour Reports, 3(1).

Prinsen, E, and Schofield, D. (2021). Video Game Escapism During Quarantine. Computer and Information Science, 14(4), 36-46.

Willingham, AJ. (2020, March 30). Animal Crossing is letting people live out their wildest fantasy: Normalcy. CNN.

Lunn, P. (2022, April 26). In praise of iyashikei: why we love soothing anime where nothing happens. The Guardian.

Roquet, P. (2009). Ambient Literature and the Aesthetics of Calm: Mood Regulation in Contemporary Japanese Fiction. The Journal of Japanese Studies, 35(1), 87-111.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. I got Animal Crossing when I bought a Switch last year. I wasn’t sure what to make of it because I’ve never played games like that. I have a PS4 so I’m used to playing stuff like Assassin’s Creed or GTA.

    I was surprised just how fun it is to decorate your island, build stuff up and have a little routine. It made me decide to try Stardew Valley too, which is similar and also great.

    • That’s a nice admission from you. I feel there are a lot of PS/Xbox gamers in a similar position who get their head stuck up their backside thinking they’re “true gamers” and Nintendo is “for kids”. If they actually tried Nintendo’s games, they’d realise how good they are.

    • Nintendo rocks.

  2. Other than the games mentioned in the article, I really like VA-11 HALL-A as a laid back gaming experience. The plot is engaging and despite the dystopian setting, it’s a very laid back and comfy game to play.

    Which are other relaxing escapism games you all have enjoyed?

    • As a pair of relaxing (if weird) games, I really enjoyed Plug n Play and Kids by Etter Studio. Obviously, all of That Game Company’s output (need to get around to Journey soon).

    • RPG games can be quite nice to spend time in. Whilst not fighting monsters or carrying out quests it’s easy to be sidetracked by a lovely sunset. Maybe picking herbs and mushrooms for that potion you need, or following the packs of animals around. I followed a herd of deer halfway across the map in Witcher 3, fighting off the wolves who went to get them.

    • Ty Kerr

      I used to love Super Mario Sunshine. Not just for the gameplay, but because it was so warm and sunny and colourful and such a nice place to be. I used to enjoy just walking around, talking to the locals, having a swim or whatever easily as much as playing the game, it was so joyful and relaxing.

    • I play Bejeweled the way I used to obsessively play Solitaire with a deck of cards (a habit picked up from my father who picked it up from his father, and so on.) I kind of wish I could stop, and I periodically go through periods of deleting it, but I do find it weirdly relaxing.

    • Well, I loved just going on quiet safari walks in Monster Hunter World, once I realised many of the creatures weren’t evil or even aggressive and I could just watch them living their lives.

    • Games with a lot of space and a slow pace are a nice tranquilizer.

    • I’d definitely recommend Neo Cab as a worthy addition. Buried in the Apple Arcade game dump, it’s easily missed: a story, set in the near future, told through a series of characters who ride in the back of your taxi.

      It goes some places you wouldn’t expect it to, with an excellent insight into toxic relationships and manipulation, and it has a cool sci-fi vibe, reminiscent of old 90s adventure games like B.A.T. (Ask your Dad.)

    • Deangelo

      Used to wander around the tops of cathedrals in Assassins Creed, admiring the graphics and views unseen from the ground. Then spend half an hour trying to jump to a cliff instead of swan diving into water…

  3. It is good to play mindless games, very relaxing.

  4. Makaila

    Stardew Valley is amazeballs. Anyone needing to relax should also try out ABZU, which is a beautiful and charming experience. Or Gris. Or A Short Hike. All mega relaxing.

    • ABZU was like Meditation – the game…..possibly more relaxing than mediating.

  5. AC on the GameCube is in my top 3 games of all time. Sure there was still Nook (the crook) and stuff to buy, but it was about enjoying in not having much to do while noticing the passing of time and the seasons. Maybe nurturing some flowers and fruit trees, deciding you favorite fishing spot. My kids have just started playing my Gamecube version. They wander about, overjoyed to see the different insects appearing as summer arrives and catching them to donate to the museum.

    • Hezekiah

      You can play the switch one in exactly the same way. I do.

    • Rainbow

      I remember when it came out on Wii, I used to go round my friends house after school and terrorise people who hadn’t locked their gardens. We’d pull up all the trees and plants then have their mothers launch a tirade about how we should know better. Fond memories.

  6. tuuuune

    Great take on two really strong titles. Specifically, the absolute joy with Nintendo’s games is the escapist optimism and outright fun. A lot of gamers have shut themselves off to that over the years thinking Nintendo’s products are “for kids”, while they busy themselves on ridiculously juvenile titles like CoD.

    Well, no, Animal Crossing, Mario Kart, Zelda, Splatoon, any Mario platformer, Pikmin etc. etc. They’re all joyous and wonderful.

    • Nintendo are a company that is focused on game design above all. Not 4k resolution or raytraced lighting or fancy tech demos or any of that boring irrelevant stuff, but on the actual things that make a game fun to play.

    • Although I don’t think Nintendo’s products are for kids, they are ALSO for kids and often in my opinion to their detriment. For example Breath of the Wild was a cakewalk for me. The fighting system was boring and bland and the enemy variety was pathetic. The bosses were a joke. I just replayed the entire Witcher 3 and all DLC and I cannot believe how amazing that game is, even now, and the enemy variety and challenge on Death March is just awe inspiring. I tried to play Breath of the Wild again on Master mode and I got about 10% of the way before I got bored of it. I don’t understand how BOTW can rate above Witcher 3 when it has little kiddie chat bubbles and a dumbass story while you have all of the amazing writing, voice acting, and storytelling in Witcher 3. In short, Nintendo is way overrated and I often just don’t get it. I had the same issue with Half-Life versus Ocarina of Time when they both came out in the same year and Ocarina got all the game of the decade awards which I thought was a joke and then as well.

      • Yes, Nintendo’s games are for all ages. That’s the beauty of it. A five year old would love them. A 75 year old would, too, if they gave something like Super Mario 3D World a whirl. The games are joyous.

      • I’m glad Ocarina of Time got all the awards for that decade, thoroughly well deserved. Half-Life 2 is goddamn amazing, though. My favourite FPS ever.

  7. Animal Crossing is my ‘pottering about’ game when I want to just relax for a while. Still short of a few fish and bugs for my museum, though filling the art gallery might be a bit easier now Redd is a regular at Harv’s Island.
    Currently I’ve been rearranging my islanders’ homes onto the south shore and will turn the part of the island where most of them used to be into parks, revamping my island a bit.

    It’s nice and relaxing.

    • William

      Isn’t it all just utterly delightful and calming and reassuring?! And continually surprising. And I haven’t even got to the holiday homes yet. Love it to bits.

  8. Reilly T.

    Animal Crossing is a great game, although now I’ve unlocked the terraforming, I’ve drifted away from it. Still worth playing, the switch seems to be having a lot quieter year for high quality releases after an excellent couple of years.

    • Lorenzo

      Sadly one aspect of the game was destroyed recently, and that was the trading aspect of it with other places. Nintendo left a few glitches in the game which allowed for duplicating items, especially rare ones. So the online trading market is now flooded with ‘dupes’ making any trading pretty much useless.

  9. Stardew valley is such a phenomenal game. I picked it up for my switch last year, and have put in over 300 hours. It’s been the best way to de-stress, and it’s been a joy sharing the game with my children

    • Woah 300h? I assume it plays well in handheld. I’m interested in the game and contemplating buying the Switch. The main reason would be to play Breath of the Wild but also to have a console on the go. I’m usually going through my PS4 backlog when I find the time to play at home.

      • I rarely ever get to play on TV, so I use handheld, for me, it’s the best game to play handheld on the switch. Botw plays really well handheld too. I’ve been playing video games for over 30 years, and the switch is my favourite console that I’ve played

  10. Madalynn

    Maybe everyone loves AC because it’s a swan song to the world we thought we lived in—a world made for the benefit of man, a world without ecology.

    • Or maybe it’s just that in animal crossing as in life, we get the world we choose to see.

  11. Oompa Loompa

    Always makes me feel good to see Nintendo do well. A company that embodies creativity and fun at its heart. The bottom line never seems to be their prime motivation. Long may it continue.

  12. I’m playing dystopian apocalyptic games at the moment like metro and badlands, and adventure games with stunning graphics. I think gaming is great for mental health you can get completely lost in the game for an hour and any nagging worries are forgotten.

    • cantuuz

      I prefer relaxing, simple, mobile phone games.

      Plague, Inc. by Ndemic creations is probably the nicest of the lot.

    • Kathleen

      This is just a guess, but can playing some other more dystopian setting than our own can actually make us feel better…?

  13. Stardew valley is my all time favourite game. I’ve been gaming for over 30 years, and there’s something so ridiculously relaxing about stardew, it’s the closest I’ll get to meditation.

  14. I only just started playing Stardew Valley, but it seems to me if you just left it on in the background, the little farmer chap would starve to death?

    • I love it to death but boy is it not a game where you just do nothing.

    • You have to put him to bed, you don’t want him passing out in the town square..

  15. The hallmark of a good open-world game is one where you can lose yourself just hiking through the world on foot without really doing any quests, looking for points of interest or just trying to get to what looks like a cool part of the map. I love finding those little spots on the map which aren’t necessarily tied to parts of a quest or major activity, but in some ways tell their own little stories. Beth was great at this particular aspect of their world-building (at least in Oblivion, Fallout 3 and Skyrim, not played their more recent games), and Witcher 3 is also pretty darned good at this due to how organic the world and its layout feels. This kind of thing is probably the most ‘relaxed’ gaming I’ve experienced.

    I am otherwise unashamedly an action-junkie when it comes to gaming, I just love my games to be full of meaningful stuff to do.

    • I’d like to highlight Fable 2 as well. The land of Albion is full of woodland and fields to explore and little secrets to uncover. I must have spent days going from village to village trying to find a partner with the same name as my wife. I refuse to teleport anywhere and would always cxome home to visit my fictional kids after any big adventure.

      This made the end of the game even more melancholic: upon confronting Lucien you learn his goons have murdered your wife and children and your dog dies saving your life. On finishing the game you have 3 options: Resurrect all the people that died building Lucien’s tower, Resurrect your dog and family or have a million gold. I pragmatically chose to bring back the people. This meant my twilight years in the game were spent wandering alone, with no dog and no family to return to.

  16. Lizbeth

    A long time ago there was a game called Tir Na Nog on the Spectrum where I used to walk aimlessly down long empty roads. The sound was minimal and I didn’t have a map. So I just wandered around doing nothing and it was quite relaxing.

    • I never actually figured out what you were supposed to do BEYOND walking up and down – I just remember being in awe of the animation and thinking there was no way games could ever look better than that!

  17. Can’t afford a Nintendo Switch myself, but I play a lot of Minecraft in a great adult online community, we’re like a family. Also Stardew Valley is a lovely little game too for ‘escaping’ into a gentler world.

  18. Hot Pepper

    Stardew Valley is such a chill relaxing game, and the music reflects that. I particularly like the music from the Secret Woods, and that I can place a jukebox anywhere and play any track from the soundtrack. It’s a wonderfully generous feature, but then, Stardew Valley is a wonderfully generous game.

  19. I bought a Switch when they came out just to play Breath of the Wild.

    I spent most of that first year just playing Stardew Valley and not really doing an awful lot.

  20. With less and less time to escape or just disconnect, quiet games are always welcome: better than pokemons, neater than socials, truer than zeldas or bard’s tales.

  21. I personally loved going for a big long walk in Far Cry 5. Heading up into the mountains, following trails and looking out over the whole valley… and then a bear just came out of nowhere and killed me.

    But huge sandbox and open world approach is certainly a more relaxing “dip in and out” style of game.

  22. This article actually inspired me to fire up Stardew Valley again, so thanks! Although I can’t remember what the hell I was doing, so might have to start again.

  23. Stardew valley stresses me out.

    The limited amount of stamina I have, the goals you have to achieve, planting what I need to plant to maximise my productivity, remembering all the birthdays and buying the perfect presents. I don’t think it is a calming experience. I tend to go back to it thinking “I can’t wait for this” and usually last less than 1 season before it all just seems like too much busywork and I give up.

    Games like Firewatch, Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture, or Edith Finch are my go to if I just want a calming Sunday afternoon chilling out.

    • The trick is not to try to do too many things at once, I found… although trying to get everybody to like you was one of the harder bits! It is a lower-key game than some, but I never thought of it as a background game really – there is so much to do in it, even including dungeon exploration and fighting.

      I got most of the achievements by the end of my main game but to get some of the missing ones I will need to start a new game and join the evil soulless corporation, which I can’t quite bring myself to do! I didn’t manage to find everything for the museum either.

  24. For me Shenmue on the Dreamcast was the first game I played just to chill out on. I spent half the time just aimlessly wandering about exploring the areas. You can’t beat waiting for a bus, driving a forklift or trying to find some sailors! Now after all that time I get to revisit the story with Shenmue 3.

  25. Forza Horizon 4 is my current ‘chill’ game. I pick a nice slow car (normally an un-enhanced old mini) and just drive around the map, obeying the traffic laws and staying on the right side of the road.

  26. Zoe L

    Love how you contrasted Animal Crossing and Stardew. I played AC a lot during the pandemic, but fell off of it once I got back into a regular in-person job since I was never around to actually play during the right times of day. I just started playing Stardew recently, and while it definitely is more stressful because of how quickly days pass, I think I prefer it for that reason—waiting around for time to pass in AC is usually what caused me to fall out of it since I never wanted to time travel. I love how in Stardew I can just go to sleep and skip to the next day if I’ve tended my crops and there’s nothing else I want to do.

    I also think it’s super interesting with both of these games that, even though they are escapist in how they’re relaxing and cozy, there’s an ingrained sense of routine and repetition to them. Even in our escapist fantasies, so many of us find comfort in gameplay that mimics our real lives—having to earn money, make purchases, complete daily monotonous tasks. Seeking out that pattern even in our escapism is a little bit fascinating. Thanks for a great article!

  27. Escapism is a very marketable experience that these games grant us, and Nintendo was smart to have the release for New Horizons during the covid-19 epidemic. Indie creators especially are attempting to mimic these feelings while maintaining uniqueness in their aesthetics, characters, and general setting. A really recent example of this is Potion Permit where you play as an apothecary for a town, heal ailments, improve the town, build relationships, and explore the map. Heavily inspired by Stardew Valley, however, it has its own individual experience while providing escapism as a means to entice players.

  28. I think part of the value of games like Animal Crossing is the form of escapism they provide. They encourage the player to relax, but they also don’t tend to suck you in for hours upon hours. The game is limited to an internal clock system and you *will* run out of things to do after a certain point. Very well-written piece!

  29. Anna Samson

    I love both acnh and stardew valley! Reading this article was really interesting. I like how you compared it to the Japanese healing genre, I didn’t know about that

  30. Ethan Lau

    Living in such a fast-paced world can be overwhelming sometimes! I always struggle to understand how people can wind down by playing intense and competitive games…

  31. Patrick

    I read this article a while ago and it made me open up Animal Crossing for the first time since I got it. I love the relaxation these games offer, especially after a long tiring day at work. Thanks for the read and for the inspiration!

  32. With a world currently in such distress, it’s really no surprise that there’s a growing market for these sorts of games. Escapism has been climbing, visible in the book sale spike when Covid took place.

  33. I’m glad that we’re seeing more of these kinds of cozy/escapist forms of media. I struggle to think of many western counterparts that could fit into the healing genre, and I hope that in the future we will see more english-language movies/television/literature adopting some of these conventions and expanding the boundaries of the genre. Especially with the rise in popularity of cozy fantasy, I think we will start to see more works branching out into the realm of low-stakes, interpersonal, environmentally-focused fiction.

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