The Best Games for Pandemic Stress, and How They Help You Cope
Updated: Jun 13, 2020
It’s no secret that we are living through difficult, unprecedented times. At the time of writing, the novel coronavirus has swept across the globe, killing hundreds of thousands, overwhelming entire countries’ healthcare systems, wreaking economic havoc, and forcing much of the world population into self-isolation and social distancing for indefinite periods of time; months, if not more, given the chance for multiple waves of infection over the next year and a half at least till we might possibly have a safe and effective vaccine ready for the public. This has provided a source of significant economic and existential anxiety, while simultaneously removing the often-essential human coping mechanisms of social contact, touch and affection. Closeness. The near entirety of our species is scrambling on the fly to adjust, finding ways to ease our minds and bridge the gaps between one another. This has led many to the same realization; that this is the time of video games. We need to let ourselves have this. It’s what games are made for. In our capitalist, hustle-culture society, we are told that our primary value (and therefore the route to happiness) is to be productive always, never content in stillness or play. Many of us feel utterly powerless, forced to continue working through the current hazard for often-meager pay, while still countless others are rendered jobless, stuck at home, feeling adrift. I’m here to suggest to you that we reclaim our personal down time and allow video games to help carry us through this period of uncertainty and unease.
As Xbox head Phil Spencer said in a recent IGN interview, gaming sales tends to stay stable throughout recession and societal crisis, even in dire economic situations such as the 2008 financial crisis. There is a good reason for this, as you will see. The amazing thing is that, with our modern infrastructure, all of this gaming can be done ethically while fully respecting physical distancing guidelines, as every single one of these titles can be purchased online (PlayStation Store, etc) and downloaded to your device without ever having to leave your home.
You may notice as you read that most of these games tend to fall into the categories of either power fantasies, light and relaxing escapes, stimulating adventures, or emotionally hefty deep dives into relevant themes, while a special few manage to thoroughly embody the best of many worlds, and do so to beautiful end.
Without further ado, here is my *personal* list of recommended games to help you cope with pandemic life – come with me as we dive headfirst into the many varied ways in which they seek to accomplish this.
*Skip to the end of the article for a full bullet-point list of all the games*
#1. Alien: Isolation
Alien: Isolation is not a mere game about your average, generic aliens. It is a game about THE Alien. The Xenomorph, the perfect killing machine featured in the classic ‘Alien’ science fiction series, a nightmare creature inspired by the dark and unsettling paintings of Swiss artist H.R Giger. Alien: Isolation takes place after the events of the first Alien film, following Amanda Ripley, the daughter of the film’s protagonist Ellen Ripley (a.k.a. ‘Ripley). The fate of Ripley and the rest of the Nostromo crew is still unknown. The cold, empty expanse of outer space keeps its secrets, it would seem. Finally though, fifteen years later, out of the darkness, a glimmer of light; the Nostromo’s flight recorder has been found, and you (Amanda) have been invited to join the crew tasked with retrieving it and the data it contains from Sevastopol Station (pictured below), a decrepit and derelict space station with secrets of its own, mid-decommission on the far reaches of the galactic frontier.
You know exactly where this is going. I could go on and on (and on and on) about just how immaculately the game nails the atmosphere and tone of director Ridley Scott’s masterful first entry to the science fiction horror franchise, far better than some of the subsequent entries, even. But that’s not entirely what I want to talk about with you.
You see, there are lessons to be learned from the game about fear itself. About how we often engage in behaviours that unwittingly exacerbate our own pre-existing fears in our attempts to cope with those very same fears. The game developers understood this and competently encoded these fear-generating dynamics into the game to create a terrifying, anxiety-ridden experience, and the beautiful thing is that we get to turn it around and reverse-engineer that experience into wisdom and healthy ways to avoid worsening our own lived real life pandemic fears and slipping further into spirals of anxiety; which is a beautiful thing, when you think about it, like transforming the dreaded venom of a deadly snake into life-saving medicine.
There are many, many ways in which the game manages to instill fear in its players, such as forcing you to dodge threats between necessarily sparse save-game terminals, but I’m going to focus on one dynamic in particular: the life-signs motion tracker. Remember that thing from the Alien films? The ever-iconic pulsing sound as the hidden alien enemies, dots on the simple green screen, crept silently ever closer and all around our protagonists.
As Amanda Ripley, you are profoundly helpless against the predatory threat of the xenomorph – it is, again, the perfect killing machine. You cannot kill it, you cannot injure it. For much of the game, your only real options, other than to toss a makeshift Molotov cocktail or create a distraction, are to stay vigilant, stay silent, often breathlessly skirting between the sparse hiding places as best you can. This leaves you glued to your motion tracker, constantly pulling it out, on the lookout for any threat that may or may not be lurking just around the corner or in the vents above. “Was that beep just random noise or was my motion tracker trying to tell me something??” The slightest creaking or hissing in the pipes has you ducking and whipping out the tracker, frozen in fear, eyes darting desperately back and forth between the often indistinct darkness around you and the bright green screen of the tracker, waiting to see if a signal of the ever-present threat is about to materialize out of the noise and uncertainty.
Even your eyes (the screen, Amanda’s eyes) cannot focus on both the environment around you and the tracker’s screen simultaneously, resulting in one or the other being perpetually soft-focus, leaving you irising back and forth nervously, never truly getting a full picture of your safety or the threat level. Does any of this sound familiar? Does any of this FEEL relatable right now? This is what it can feel like when we get too obsessively plugged into the 24/7 pandemic news updates and social media feeds on our phones. The news is an immensely important tool for disseminating important information and for keeping our society healthy and functioning safely, but when we don’t unplug we can add to our own fear and paranoia, fuelling the sense of an ever-present threat that is coming for us. We need the news. We need the motion-tracker. Both are essential tools for staying informed, for staying safe and healthy. But we must not forget to give ourselves space to breathe and time to unplug and unwind.
#2. Untitled Goose Game
Untitled Goose Game is not a narrative masterpiece, nor is it an action juggernaut of epic cinematic proportions. BUT it does possess of magical powers. One power, to be precise: the ability to take you back to another time. An innocent time, pre-pandemic, where all that the gaming world could talk about was this jerkface goose. That’s right, not only does the game let you play as a mischievous goose, but the entire point of it all is to find creative ways to torment and mess with the townsfolk. No violence, no death, just the playful pranks of an impressively ingenious and creative, if not a touch vindictive, goose. The music and simple visuals are profoundly pleasant, and you’re given a list of “tasks” to accomplish in each area, so the cognitive demands of the game are minimal for those of us too stressed for anything more. You can pick it up and put it down at any time without missing anything. There is such a simple, giddy joy in flaunting your open wings in victory and startling the humans you have outwitted and triumphed over with a boisterous honk from your beak. Just try it!
If you’re looking for a similarly relaxing game but with a much kinder spirit, ‘Unravel’ (and it’s sequel, ‘Unravel Two’, which has inventive co-op) just might meet your needs. You play as a little figure made of yarn, unraveling its yarny body to explore and reclaim the lost memories of the nice old lady whose house you reside in. It’s a 2D side-scrolling platformer with truly serene music and picturesque, almost photo-realistic 3D natural environments, and its moderate difficulty makes it accessible to a wide range of ages and experience levels.
#3. Mario Kart 8, Worms W.M.D, & Any Other Multiplayer Games
We may be physically distant from one another, but that doesn’t mean we can’t use many of the wonderful digital tools at our disposal in order to reach out to one another and maintain a sense of connection to our friends, family and humanity at large. **Even those of us with fairly unimpressive connection speeds**. That’s the beautiful thing about games such as Mario Kart and Worms W.M.D – they require such little signal bandwidth that people who can’t play the majority of online multiplayer games (big action titles, for example) still stand a good chance of being able to play the online modes! You’re also just as likely to be playing with people residing in Germany, Japan, Spain, etc, as you are to people in your own locality, and that’s a lovely thing at a time like this.
Oh, right! I almost forgot to talk about ‘Worms W.M.D’…. hmmm… something something, turn-based team battles… something something, adorably foul-mouthed soldier worms…
As for ‘Gang Beasts’ – fuck it, you know what, just watch the trailers for Gang Beasts and Worms W.M.D. on YouTube. My hand is sore from writing all night. If you watch the trailers and think they look like adorably fun hijinks and shenanigans, you’ll probably really enjoy them. Goodnight!
Aaaaand good morning to you! I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about how the people who lived through the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-1920, which killed an estimated 17,000,000-50,000,000 people nearly a century ago, were trapped in their homes, cut off from one another with little or nothing to do. We should count ourselves lucky and take advantage of our globally interconnected network, if only for a couple laps of pure, innocent Mario Kart. This is something I try to remind myself of when it feels like the walls are closing in just that little bit.
#4. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
I know, I know. I’m SUPPOSED to put this on the list. The thing is, I don’t have access to a Nintendo Switch console at the moment, so I’m not playing it, but apparently every single other human on the face of the planet is playing, judging by my social media feed. It looks adorable, and if you play there’s apparently a chance that famous actor and hobbit Elijah Wood may inquire about turnips and befriend you. Also, one of the co-writers of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has started his own talk show in the game entitled ‘Animal Talking’.
These truly are strange days, kids.
#5. Thomas Was Alone
Thomas Was Alone is a critically acclaimed, visually minimalist physics platformer about a group of anthropomorphized artificially intelligent geometric shapes, which casually explores our relationship as individuals to other humans. You might say it’s about people trying to find how they “fit” together. Get it… because they’re shapes… SHAPES! Thomas Was Alone is rather sweet and uplifting for an apparently simple platformer, and the challenge level of the puzzles is moderate but engaging, requiring some creative thinking, making this a really accessible title for all ages, experienced gamer and newcomer alike. And this incredibly inexpensive game ($10), which had a file size so small it only took six minutes to download on a rainy day with my slow, weather-dependent internet service, is available on SO many “platforms”… (get it… PLATFORMS! … because it’s a platformer…) from PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One and Wii U, all the way to Android, Microsoft Windows, iOS, Linux and OS X (Mac). This thing will play on almost anything.
#6. Rocket League
Do you or your love ones enjoy "sportsing it up", or watching other people sportsing it up on TV? Do you miss getting together to do one or even both of those things? Well, have I got something special for you! Rocket League, a game which deftly answers the age-old question, “what would it be like if rocket cars played soccer and other sports? Rocket League is just plain fun as hell, and I cannot think of a better, albeit unorthodox game for people who miss “the sports”, many of which will not be returning till 2021 at the earliest. Though my prestige and skilled mastery in the realm of sportsing it up in video games is probably quite evident to you now, the game’s various difficulty levels (for AI competitors) make it entirely accessible to players of all levels of skill and experience. Add some chips and drinks to the next grocery order and you’re right back to the old days watching – I wanna say, Tuesday night(?) – sports, with your choice of either single player or local and online multiplayer options right in the palms of your hands.
#7. The Jackbox Party Pack
This is one of the most important entries on this list, because you don’t even need a console to play the games in this collection! You and your socially distancing friends can play these party games online from your own homes, using anything from your phone or tablet, to your laptop or any other web-enabled device that can serve as a controller. Each player just needs to go to Jackbox.TV on their device, enter a “room code” for your group of friends, and you’re pretty much ready to go. My personal favourite of all the games is ‘Quiplash’ (sort of like Cards Against Humanity, but much better), but the titles in each party pack vary, so there’s a lot to choose from to match with your group’s own personal tastes.
#8. The Witness
A profound nothingness, the empty void. Then, out of nowhere and nothing: somethingness, everything, the entirety of the universe itself in all its abstractions. The first homo sapien travels across unknown lands. You, a new being, are born into the chaos of confusion and uncertainty, daunting initially, not unlike the first ever living cell, arising in the wet darkness with no privileged knowledge of its own existence or the world external. Now, present day, as a grown human being, an evolving organic pattern-recognition machine, you begin to play The Witness, an exploration puzzle game with no tutorials and no instructions, where the entire island setting is itself a series of often interconnected puzzles to solve and patterns to recognize.
There’s so much I want to say about The Witness and what is has to offer you. It gives you the feeling of accomplishment and overcoming obstacles when you may be feeling powerless and trapped in your own life. It is also possibly the most colourful game I have ever played, and is a staggering display of the dazzling capabilities of HDR (high dynamic range). The visual pallet, the quietly, deceptively simple geometry, pleasant soundscapes and sparse but treasured audio logs of thematic narration scattered throughout the game together make for one of the most profoundly relaxing, yet stimulating, interactive audio-visual experiences of my life. And that doesn’t even factor in the puzzle solving itself, the core mechanic of The Witness. The line between what is and is not a puzzle, between signal and noise, pattern and not-pattern, can be fundamentally blurred, and therein lays the soul of this truly one of a kind game. This is a title for those looking to slow it down and live in the peace that a combined curiosity and stillness can engender. I truly cannot recommend it highly enough.
**Author’s tip: if you can, select the 60fps (frames-per-second) setting, as the motion is absurdly smooth and soothing, and in my opinion is superior to the 30fps experience.
#9. ‘Until Dawn’, ‘Telling Lies’, & Any Full-Motion-Video Game
Do the words “let’s make it a Blockbuster night” fill you with an indescribable nostalgia as memories of long-lost family movie nights flood back to you? If so, then Until Dawn, Telling Lies, or any of the FMV (full-motion video) games available on the market might be just what you’re looking for. There’s a certain comfort in the chocolate-vanilla swirl of novelty vs familiarity and nostalgia that comes with FMV games. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, Wikipedia defines Full Motion Video as “…a video game narration technique that relies upon pre-recorded video files (rather than computer-generated imagery) to display action in a game.” Do you remember the “choose your own adventure” books you likely read as a child? FMV games are just that – choose your own adventure movies. Except they tend to be more thrilling and adult in content and target audience.
Until Dawn is a truly creepy, atmospheric, tension-building experience that, while technically not classified as FMV, does allow you to craft whatever horror story you want out of the choices you make for each of the characters. Tired of screaming at the screen because of the stupid decisions characters make? Take the reins yourself and see how you fare!
The branching story tree is expansive in the possible paths you can take and multiple endings you can arrive at – a handful of main ending types, with hundreds of smaller possible variations of those types – even an unlikely one in which you can actually save every single playable character… if you’re sharp enough to manage it, that is.
Until Dawn can be enjoyed in fearful isolation and darkness, or with roommates (any and all family and friends when the pandemic is over) as backseat gamers playfully tossing suggestions back and forth for which choice to make, revelling in the subtle dark comedy of crafting horror movie tropes as a team and seeing them play out before your eyes.
‘Telling Lies’, on the other hand, is an award-winning (FMV) digital detective story, tasking the player with unraveling a mystery using only the tools provided and footage of video calls between four people. I don’t have much to say about this game yet, because at the time of writing it is still downloading to my playstation! I’ve been eagerly awaiting a PS4 port of the game for months, as I’ve heard only great things. So maybe, just maybe, if this game piques your interest, we’ll be sharing the same novel experience of discovery and investigation, wittingly or not, from across the space that divides us all.
#10. The ‘Uncharted’ Games (The Nathan Drake Collection, Uncharted 4, The Lost Legacy)
Do you want to go on a road trip with your friends and family right now? Have you ever wondered what it would be like to play as the adventurous treasure hunter Indiana Jones in a video game? Well, short of pulling out that leather whip for some good, old-fashioned, NSFW quarantine playtime and experimentation, Uncharted has you covered. Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection (games 1-3) is always available on the playstation store for a steal, and even in those earlier games the traversal and rock climbing can’t be beat, with big action set pieces that will STILL to this day make you gasp and say “holy shit!” There was one moment in Uncharted 3 in which I died because I didn’t pickup the controller after the cutscene ended seamlessly without me realizing, setting up an action that was so damn badass and cinematic that I never imagined I’d ever be given the chance to experience it in actual gameplay.
Uncharted 4, though, is studio Naughty Dog’s technological magnum opus, the culmination of all lessons learned from previous Uncharted titles’ gameplay and graphics, as well as the contemplative emotional sensibilities of their narrative masterpiece ‘The Last of Us’ (though Naughty Dog is releasing The Last of Us Part II on June 19th, which looks to be a graphical and narrative behemoth, potentially outperforming all of the studio's prior work). During the opening act of Uncharted 4, our plucky protagonist Nathan Drake (think: the quick-witted love-child of Indiana Jones and Nathan Fillion) sits down to play old playstation games with his wife as they unwind and talk about the direction of their now same-shit-different-day lives together. All of this emotional groundwork and character building gives actual stakes to the action, whether it be dangling off the side of an ancient, crumbling building or mountain hanging over a lost civilization, or being dragged through the mud behind an armoured mercenary vehicle crashing through an old farmers’ market on the other side of the world as you attempt to shoot your enemies before they shoot you.
It’s beyond magical.
Conversing with your travel companions as your rental jeep scales a majestic mountainside feels like the adventure of a lifetime. It feels like the joyous, free-spirited, unburdened road trip I think we all kind of need right now.
#11. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild is unadulterated, open-world ADHD heaven, and you should definitely play it if you have the chance (even watching roommates play it is surprisingly enjoyable). Okay, let me explain my reasoning for such a bold statement. I tend to crave focused, linear narratives that take me on a storied ride and don’t force me to ask frustrated questions like “where the hell am I supposed to go and what am I supposed to do?? What is the actual purpose for any of this??” Open-world games tend to seed those questions within me. But the thing about Breath of the Wild’s open world is that there is so much joy in just getting lost and sidetracked in the game, because that is how the world’s space is designed. That is the purpose behind the game’s design. The landscape isn’t a series of destinations and tasks scattered across a map with empty spaces in between that you’re meant to want to skip or fast-travel across. The journey is the destination.
So much of the hundreds of hours I put into the game were spent setting a destination and hopping onto one of my stabled horses (affectionately named ‘Mr. Peanutbutter’ and ‘Starlord’), but then getting distracted by a passerby along the way, or pulling out my glider and jumping off the highest point nearby, but then veering off towards a strange, beautiful sight or camp of monsters, eventually forgetting my initial destination and not being at all bothered by that fact.
So much time spent just taking in the majestic landscapes and appropriately sparse jaunts of piano-driven music. Revelling in the freedom of it all. Even the combat is so deeply playful, given said freedom to improvise your approach to almost everything in the game. There’s something surprisingly adorable about standing uphill from a monster camp, and rolling a glowing, spherical magical bomb down the hill, waiting till the curious creatures waddle over to investigate till you detonate and send them wailing off into the distance.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild allows you to take back the joys of our meandering and unconstructed hours, and that is something truly quite special right about now.
#12. Death Stranding
This is possibly the most difficult game to write about right now. You see, Death Stranding kind of... is our world right now. In the game, you play as Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus), a “porter” (delivery carrier) tasked with reconnecting an isolated and broken society pulled apart by a disastrous global cataclysm. It’s a dangerous act, stepping out the door, as there are potential threats everywhere. But your job is “essential” for society. People are so lonely and isolated from one another, deprived of human connection, the most basic needs of human touch and affection, that many have to take smart drugs (controlled release of oxytocin – a hormone related to human connection) just to function and get through the day. As a porter, you are tasked with transporting medicines such as the aforementioned smart drugs, as well as other essential materials to help rebuild and sustain life, to and from various waystations and cities, connecting them to the “chiral” communication network as you go. It’s sometimes derided as being a “walking simulator”, but I honestly cannot think of a better compliment to give this game than that. After taking on a contract, mapping and assembling your loadout of cargo and necessary gear, you set out for your destination across the beautiful, untamed mountainous terrain. The walking animations are so smooth, dynamic and responsive as I’m attempting to balance the 100+ kilograms of cargo strapped to my body, that I genuinely feel like a free-roaming mountaineer on an adventure.
The game also reminds us that we need to take care of not just each other but ourselves as well. You put your boots through a LOT, and they degrade (faster or slower, depending upon your actions) as you use them, so you need to craft replacements and carry backups or Sam will begin to take damage walking barefoot if his boots break on the job. If you don’t rest and recharge, your endurance/stamina will deplete, making basic tasks difficult.
Making it difficult to be a productive and functioning human being – so even if that is our only goal in life or in the game, we must also remember to maintain our well-being in order to do so. Back to the whole “walking simulator” bit – the individual legs of the journeys, trekking between waystations and cities, are not short, insignificant jaunts. For me, they’re often more than twenty minutes of travel each!
And this is another way in which Death Stranding feels almost prescient, as it makes a case for how art and entertainment (such as video games) can help us deal with emptiness. When I realized this, I was in the middle of traversing a rocky mountain stream, clearly still many minutes away from my destination visible off in the distance at the bottom of the slope I was descending, when a lovely song began playing. No, not the original orchestral score – a soft alternative rock song, accompanied by a title card, like the start of a music video, informing me I was listening to ‘Don’t Be So Serious’ by ‘Low Roar’. The song was BRIDGING the gaps between spaces, like we do in real life with various forms of art – a song or podcast for the long walk home, a video game at the end of the night – to connect us to experiences and, ultimately, each other. Death Stranding does this at various points throughout the story, moments which I quickly began to crave.
Death Stranding is a constant tension between various, often-conflicting forces, needs and goals. A balancing act to maintain. In real life, I go to work and shop for groceries, despite the danger of the virus, because I need food and a roof over my head to survive. I stay home and isolate from friends and family to keep us all safe, but I need the human touch and connection that I’m no longer getting in order to cope with the stress of the pandemic. It’s a push and pull.
Death Stranding’s themes are so deeply embedded into every action, every dynamic of the game from narrative to pure gameplay, that you feel the themes embodied in it’s soul, even in the quiet spaces between exposition and scripted narrative beats. People are forced to stay inside or forced to go outside in order to do their jobs, either way facing the danger of a seemingly ever-present, but functionally invisible, threat. In the game’s case, it’s BT’s and timefall; in our case, the novel coronavirus. For this reason, and many others, Death Stranding becomes a game about our time. Some players might understandably find the experience too oppressive or stressful right now. Some may take comfort in the task-like nature of the experience, as if productively working through an exciting to-do list. Still others may find catharsis and emotional release – a relief from loneliness and isolation by connecting to the shared human experience of those very feelings – by diving head first into the timely themes and experiences explored in one of the most innovative AAA games of the generation.
#13. Journey Collector’s Edition (including ‘Flow’ & ‘Flower’)
The Journey Collector’s Edition was there for me when I needed it, and I think that just maybe it could be there for many of you reading this right now as well. It was a profoundly unstable time for me when I played it, plagued with 24/7 anxiety from which there was little reprieve. BUT at the end of the workday, I got to come home and plug in ‘Flower’ (bundled with the collector’s edition), and for that half hour the beating in my chest and spinning in my head would calm, as I was just a flower petal floating in the breeze, flying as swiftly or gently as I wanted across the meadows, through the valleys and over the hills, as the sound of the wind softly rustling through the tall grass swept over me, the game’s musical score dynamically responding to the actions I took, making me both player and creator, a composer of my own de-stressing melodies.
That was all I needed to do, all I needed to be - a petal in the wind. The tasks were simple, but strangely soothing and rewarding. Both ‘Flower’ and ‘Journey’ (critically acclaimed game of the year) utilize motion controls in character and camera movement to place the player in a relaxed state of “flow” that I had never before felt in a game. Journey is the, well, journey of a living tapestry of history traveling through the desert ruins of a desiccated and lost civilization.
Or rather, that is my own personal interpretation – without any expository dialog to ground the story in specifics, Journey can be many things to many people. The game is less of a defined narrative and more of a symbolic journey through emotion itself. There is both joy and loss, but the soothing nature of the beautiful visuals, music that dynamically responds to player actions, and the smooth flow of the primarily motion-controlled traversal make this entry to the list simultaneously relaxing and moving, an undaunting and approachably cathartic release, one which I cannot recommend highly enough right now.
#14. God of War (2018)
2018’s spiritual reboot to the God of War franchise is an interesting game to talk about. I’ve always felt that it’s a chimera, containing the DNA of both a linear, focused, emotionally-driven narrative, as well as the free-flowing sense of exploration and discovery of a fully realized open-world, embodying the best of both game styles, with immensely satisfying gameplay to boot. You play as Kratos, a Spartan warrior and the son of Zeus, who has lost his mortal family as a result of his worship of battle and conquest, having been tricked into slaying his own wife and daughter by Ares, the Greek god of war. After a seven game long (four on console, three on mobile/portable) rampage of vengeance and slaughter, having killed nearly the entire pantheon of Greek gods, the only enemy Kratos has left, the only one still remaining to blame, is Kratos himself. He is a broken man, haunted by loss and the regrets of past mistakes he cannot outrun.
This is where we find him in God of War (2018), having started a new family with a wife and a son; having begun to rebuild himself again, now with new dangers coming to their door, threatening to tear it all down once more.
***Trust me, you do not have to play any of the prior games to fully appreciate the 2018 reboot, but you should very much search Google or YouTube for ”what you need to know before playing God of War 2018”.
If you are interested in dipping your toes a bit into the narratively simplistic, hack-n-slash, button-mashing badassery of the previous entries, God of War III Remastered (pictured above) is a perfect choice – it’s chronologically the most recent pre-reboot game in the series, and it’s usually available for a reasonable price.
Just as God of War (2018 - pictured above) never sacrifices the small but truly powerful emotional story beats at the alter of big, worldly events and epic action, we are all, each of us and our experiences, our own small part of the greater whole that is this unprecedented global moment. The game gives you the comfort of being pulled along for a narrative ride (as with ‘The Last of Us’ and other titles on this list), as well as a joyful sense of freedom and exploration (again, like other list entries such as ‘Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’ and ‘Death Stranding’), which works together seamlessly with the experience of discovering new lands, deftly granting the player a sense of adventurous reprieve from our current confinement and stressors in these pandemic times.
Trust me, this one’s beyond special.
#15. A Plague Tale: Innocence
I know, I know. I mean, SWEET CHRISTMAS, it’s a LITTLE on the nose, right? The thing is, the game has something to teach us. A lesson of sorts. In A Plague Tale, you play as Amecia, a young girl who has been thrust into guardianship of her even younger brother, Hugo, immediately after being forcibly separated from their parents in a religious inquisition fueled by a devastating, semi-fictional pandemic set in 1348.
The setting of fourteenth-century France is like a beautiful tapestry, perforated violently with the brutality, decay, fear and death of plague-life prior to the advent of modern medicine. The game has the visual polish of a AAA big budget affair, with the spirit of an indie game. And that spirit, well… you play as children. Which means that the game doesn’t take violence for granted – a stark contrast to much of the gaming industry - nor does it revel in it. The children are vulnerable and afraid. They are weak and do not wish to kill anyone, they simply do what they must to survive.
We’re all afraid right now. Some of us handle that fear better than others. Some show it, some don’t. Some are wracked with anxiety, some are reactive in unhealthy and unhelpful ways, and some are struggling to find the energy to get through the day. Deep down, on some level, we are all still just our childhood selves, vulnerable and afraid. Let us all grant the patience and warm light of kindness to ourselves and each other that we would wish a parent grant to a child in such need. In this regard, A Plague Tale: Innocence serves as a powerful and poignant reminder to hold in regard as we navigate together the dark and unforgiving waters we find ourselves in today as a society.
#16. Mad Max
There’s just something so darkly peaceful about zooming across the post-apocalyptic, Australian sandscape in a fully armoured and customized, 12-cylinder, gas-guzzling rust bucket with no windshield, as the warm light of the setting sun sighs and gives way to the cool blue hues of dusk, the moon and stars shining softly overhead.
Maybe you can’t really leave the house right now, but open up some windows and you can feel the breeze in your hair as you rip across the wasteland in an unexpectedly great game tonally inspired by, but not based upon, the nitro-injected wild ride that was 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. (Which is getting a prequel, by the way!)
#17. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
“Set in the Viking Age, a broken Celtic warrior embarks upon a haunting vision quest into Viking hell to fight for the soul of her dead lover.”
I will start off by saying that Hellblade is by far one of the most profound, transformative experiences I have ever had as a gamer. It is the most respectful handling of mental illness I have ever seen in a game, or possibly any entertainment medium, because the game tackles the issue in a way that games are arguably poised to do better than other storytelling mediums or art forms. You see, Senua hears voices in her head… or, rather, you hear the voices in your head just as she does in hers.
The game uses binaural audio for the voices, which is a special recording setup that utilizes paired microphones set inside the ear cannels of an artificial head. This creates the illusion that the voices really are all around you. Because of this, at the start of the game, a message from the developers appears, telling you that the most highly recommended way to experience the Hellblade is through headphones (a pair of stereo headphones is FAR more immersive than even the best 5.1 surrounded sound theater system). Playing the game like this will not simply transport you to another place, another world, it will take you inside Senua’s own internal world… it will bring you into her mind and let you be it, let you live it.
That’s why this game has such a special place on this list (and in my heart, personally). It transports you more immersively and completely than any game I know, and to so intimately get to share in another’s experiences is such a precious commodity right now. Hellblade may allow one a tearful release of all the all the stressors and buried feelings difficult to process in this time of uncertainty, like collecting hidden drops of morning dew and turning them into the nourishment of drinkable water. And for that, I am truly grateful.
The game cautions you in the beginning, “warning: the game contains representations of psychosis. People with experience of psychosis as well as professionals in psychiatry have assisted in these depictions.” That says it all. It is followed later by a second warning, the suggestion of permadeath mechanic in the game. “…if the rot reaches Senua’s head, her quest is over.” Without risking spoilers, I cannot tell you why that shouldn’t scare you away (don’t google it, either), but suffice to say, for a gamer such as myself with rather slow reflexes and moderate skills at best, this caused no problem for me. What it did was add to the stakes and ground the story emotionally even further. It made me feel like every action mattered, as if my motivations were truly aligned with Senua’s.
If the prospect of a deep, profound journey, diving out of your current confines and into the world of another’s mind sounds like a enticing right now, then Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the game for you. There is no HUD (heads-up display) to tell you what to do, just the various voices in your head providing guidance and direction, and a nagging uncertainty that may never really abate... can you really trust them to show you the way?
#18. Wolfenstein & Doom (‘Wolfenstein: New World Order’ & ‘The New Colossus’, ‘Doom’ (2016) and ‘Doom: Eternal’)
The Wolfenstein series is set in an alternate history in which the Nazi’s won WWII and took over the world (though the game focuses on America). For a game that has you playing the badass, Nazi-killing, resistance-fighter motherfucker ‘BJ Blazkowicz’, Wolfenstein is surprisingly sentimental.
The emotional and narrative depth really is there if you want to look for it (believe me, the video essays about its deep and thoughtful political commentary are coming), despite the fact that the games are also the absolute pinnacle realization of the classic male power fantasy. But that’s actually what I’m going to talk about today; how they make you feel like a goddam unstoppable badass. How they make you feel… empowered. It’s an antidote to the same cover-shooter formula many actions games have fallen into variations of in recent years. The formula goes something like this: duck behind cover, pop up or out to engage in combat, get hurt, retreat and return to cover to use a health pack or wait for your nearly depleted health bar to automatically refill after a moment away from danger, then return to combat. Rinse and repeat. Cautious action formats can work wonderfully for games like ‘The Last of Us’ (pictured below), adding to the tension and desperation of limited resources in a collapsed, post-pandemic world, where charging forwards recklessly might just get you killed.
Unfortunately, for many games the over-reliance on cautious cover-shooter formulas leaves the player feeling beaten back, weak and frustrated, breaking the sense of energy, flow, and empowered progression that Wolfenstein just nails. The beautiful thing about Wolfenstein is that it actually REWARDS you for pushing forwards into dangerous combat, surrounded by enemies on all sides as you take them down one by one. You feel truly empowered, fighting off and destroying a seemingly omnipresent, invasive, oppressive force – what else do I need to say?
The game gives you a staggering sense of agency in a world currently deprived of it. This is not just push-forwards combat, this is sprint-forwards combat. Run and gun. Almost dead? You bolt your ass towards or around the enemy, lunge and slaughter them with your combat axe, grab what health and ammo you can, and keep shooting.
The soundtrack will also energize you even further, making you feel like a nazi-killing god of metal and justice.
Take back control.
Now, if the push-forwards, high-energy Nazi-killing action of the Wolfenstein games sounds enticing, ‘Doom’ (2016) and the more recent ‘Doom: Eternal’ have taken that formula and injected it with liquid nitrous-oxide aggression and momentum.
There’s something so visceral about being desperately near-death or almost out of ammo, shooting the nearest demon to stagger it and then lunging forwards to rip it in half with a chainsaw or your bare hands in order to extract the reward of health and ammo drops.
Even the metal-driven soundtrack (same composer as with Wolfenstein, ‘Mick Gordon’) was orchestrated not to make you fear the demons, but to make it clear as you rip and tear that you are the Doom Slayer, the waking nightmare for all of demon-kind. They fear you. And for if only a moment, while playing Doom, surging forwards and dominating the world external, you may feel just that little bit less vulnerable in these hard times.
And that isn’t nothing.
#19. Tetris Effect
Get ready to take back control over the rapturous pounding of your heavy beating heart from the anxieties of today. The Tetris Effect is an experience, one I never expected to have. Prior to Tetris Effect, my predominant experience of Tetris was a quick sequence of states:
I) Hey, it’s Tetris!
II) This is pretty fun, I guess.
III) Ok, it’s getting frustrating and/or boring.
IV) Well, that five minutes is over now.
Tetris Effect, however, is a different beast. It is Tetris in its most evolved state. I could go on and on about all its differing effect modes, and just how much variety and replayability they add to the game, but what I’d rather talk about are the various ways the game makes you feel. In the menu, there are two quotes that tease what’s in store for you in Journey Mode.
“Play the main campaign, a voyage of emotion and discovery.”
“Explore from the outer reaches of the galaxy to the depths of your soul.”
Journey Mode is just that – a journey – through many chapters with a wide variety of themes and locales. The soundtrack dynamically responds to every move you make, effectively making you a part of the creation process, while the moving visualizations feel as if they’re telling a story. Both elements work together to envelope you in the heat of gameplay across themed stages that are staggeringly beautiful and even, at times, pretty awe-inspiring, each theme a sample from an incredibly diverse array of cultures and historical moments in the progression of the human race.
Remember when I mentioned how this game will help you take back your beating heart? Gameplay is perpetually ebbing and flowing back and forth between superbly gentle and serene vs incredibly intense and challenging, ramping up and slowing down the speed of the falling blocks in conjunction with the music.
Some stages are a relaxing stroll through a forest at dawn, while others will have your heart beating through your chest so hard that you’ll swear you got in your thirty minutes of cardio for the day. You’ll get so far into “the zone”, that zen-like state of flow, that you may feel as if the game has placed you into some form of meditative trance. It’s not only a fantastic escape, it’s a wonderful way to recontextualize the uncomfortable pounding in our chests that can seem to be all-encompassing for the moment in which we find ourselves as a species.
When the end of the game was nearing, I actually came to expect something verging on profound. All that is to say, this is not your grandparents’ Tetris. Tetris Effect is a love letter to Tetris that, in an abstract way, tells the story of humanity and celebrates our progress as a species by making you feel like a constructive part of it, a nice reminder that we’re all in this together.
#20. Jedi: Fallen Order
As a narrative driven, single-player adventure, Jedi: Fallen Order marks a long-awaited return to form for Star Wars video games. You play as young Jedi padawan Cal Kestis, hiding out as a shipyard scrapper having five years ago survived Order 66, the command to kill all Jedi, which was given by then “Supreme Chancellor” Palpatine, having been awarded “temporary emergency powers” (proposed by the clearly evil Sith Lord, Jar Jar Binks) after convincing the Galactic Senate that a separatist plot, and eventually the Jedi Order, were a direct threat to the republic.
The gameplay and combat in Fallen Order are phenomenally satisfying, offering the perfect level of challenge across various difficulty levels that can be switched back and forth at any time during play. As Cal Kestis – you know what, fuck it! Do you like Star Wars and action games? Then play this game! Just do it, just play it! I swear you’ll feel like a seriously badass Jedi as you parry attacks and cut through storm troopers and other enemies with your highly personally customizable lightsaber. It’s just SO good. The variety of worlds to explore adds to the experience, making this a fantastic way to pass the time right now.
#21. The Last of Us (Remastered)
The Last of Us is an incredibly special game, to say the least. It was almost universally heralded as both a masterpiece as well as a landmark for video games as an art form and storytelling medium. It raised the bar. For many, it expanded what video games could be, and showed they had the narrative potential to rival or even surpass anything Hollywood puts out in a year. I would recommend you play this game even if we weren’t currently in the midst of a pandemic. I once invited my Mom over to my house, having told her that the purpose was a surprise, and then sitting her down to play the first half hour of the game so we could bond over it. She isn’t even a gamer! In any given conversation I am a part of, there is a roughly 27% chance I will find a way to talk about this phenomenal game. That being said, there is a simple and beautiful reason this game deserves the very top spot on this list.
But first, a quick introduction! The Last of Us is set in a post-pandemic world (I know, I know) in which society as we know it has collapsed. The parasitic ‘cordyceps’ fungus has mutated and jumped to humans (a fungus in real life, though not a threat as it has no interest in humans), going viral and turning the infected into violent, fungal-flowering, cannibalistic monstrosities, devoid of any semblance of their past humanity. I refuse to reduce them to the simplistic and generic moniker, “zombies.” I won’t do it!
In the game, you play as Joel, a grizzled smuggler with a past who is tasked with transporting a young girl, Ellie, safely across the perilous desolation that is the wasteland of America past/of the wasteland that once was America. I’m unwilling to spoil the story by giving away any more specifics. It’s a beautiful tale of loss, isolation, vulnerability, and among other things, companionship and humanity.
But back to the reason it’s at the top of the list, the beautiful thing it can do for you right now in this pandemic (I know I’ve used the word “beautiful” THRICE already, but it’s honestly just the best word for this game). The thing about the game is that it is an incredibly focused, linear narrative. Chapter to chapter, scene to scene, every single action you take feels imbued with purpose, with clear intent.
There is something profoundly cathartic and comforting about a gaming experience that deftly carries you through the depths of such heavy a narrative and socially relevant themes, with the knowledge that there is a destination and that you, the player, will be ok. That even when the characters and story are wrought with pain and uncertainty, you the player may rest at ease, certain in the knowledge that, for the next few hours at least, your purpose is simply to allow yourself to be carried on an emotional and captivating journey, and to enjoy the experience.
You don’t have to make any of the types of hard decisions we’re currently faced with – the storytellers take you where you need to go. To allow the very real anxieties and uncertainties of our lives right now to wash away, if only for the duration of a game, is a beautiful thing that I hope we all have a chance to feel in these trying times.
**I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that The Last of Us Part II is coming out June 19th, 2020, which is another reason to get the first game! Beware, there are MAJOR spoilers leaked online for the much awaited sequel, so I would be careful on the internet if researching this topic.
**Please, beloved readers, do NOT inform me of, or share in the comments, anything even remotely related to spoiled storylines, plot points, general emotional conflicts or themes, or even just your personal interpretations, as it would crush me and ruin the story for many others. Thank you!**
You may have found that this article was less of a list of games, and more of a discussion of the various ways in which we all deal with stress, anxiety, threats, powerlessness, uncertainty and isolation. If so, then you’ve touched upon the spirit of what I’m trying to convey and explore. What I’m trying to share with you all… that every single human you’ve ever known or not known, connected with or not connected with, the entirety of the human species, our shared tribe – we’re all living a collective historic moment, stranded (or harboured) on this island Earth amidst an infinite ocean of cold, unforgiving emptiness. Let’s be kind to both others and ourselves, and, when we can, allow ourselves without shame, the joy and shared communal experiences that video games can bring.
**I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we’re all tangled in a complicated web of class structure and systemic privilege, between and within societies, and we’re all subject to the suffering of the pandemic in different ways and at different levels, some of us not at all. I would not pretend otherwise, but video games unfortunately are not the solution to those problems, so I digress.**
The pandemics of past generations had everyone stuck inside, no entertainment or digital communication, sending letters to loved ones, only hoping the recipients were still alive by the time of arrival weeks later. Let us use technology and whatever safe means we have to connect when we can, be it with a friend or family member, experience or story. Remember, you’re only unproductive by the standards of the world we lived in over two months ago… and that world is gone now. The capitalist assertion that productivity and self-worth are intrinsically linked, a sentiment our society unwittingly or implicitly embraced in the Before Time, was unhealthy even then and is deserving of reconsideration. While we’re questioning and rebuilding from the mess of the present, let’s build something better. Something kinder. A new normal. And maybe, just maybe, video games can play a small role in reconsidering what we value; be a part of the antidote to hustle culture, a playful tool to help rethink the purpose we see in the personal hours of our lives, if not simply a great way to help us all get though these hard times together.
Mental Health Note
While video games can be a wonderful way to pass the time, there is NO substitute for proper mental health care, and if you’re having a hard time of it there are wonderful services such as Better Help (www.betterhelp.com), which offers incredibly affordable online counselling via chat, video and phone, anytime and anywhere, with licensed, board-accredited counsellors. It’s also important to remember that rest, proper diet, journaling and exercise (YouTube has a million videos of routines you can do in your living room) are crucial factors in maintaining mental and physical health. I cannot espouse enough the value of regular journaling to help with the mental processing of difficult emotions.
In addition to that, if you have counsel in the form of video chat with friends and family but still you’re having a hard time in your own head and feel like being creative to help process your emotions, you could try, I dunno, writing an article… maybe one that quickly and unintentionally blossoms into thesis paper sized deep dive and takes well over two months of your limited spare time and energy to write. You know, about some personal topic like… say, the ways in which video games can help us cope with the pandemic… to pull out a random, entirely unrelated example that I heard from a friend of a friend of mine.
Condensed List of Games Included in the Article:
1. Alien: Isolation
2. Untitled Goose Game & Unravel
3. Mario Kart 8, Worms W.M.D, Gang Beasts, & any other online/offline/local multiplayer
4. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
5. Thomas Was Alone
6. Rocket League
7. The Jackbox Party Pack
8. The Witness
9. Until Dawn, Telling Lies, & Any FMV Game
10. Uncharted (Nathan Drake Collection, Uncharted 4, The Lost Legacy)
11. Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
12. Death Stranding
13. Journey Collector’s Edition (including Flow & Flower)
14. God of War (2018)
15. A Plague Tale: Innocence
16. Mad Max
17. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
18. Wolfenstein: New World Order & Wolfenstein: The New Colossus,
Doom (2016) & Doom: Eternal
19. Tetris Effect
20. Jedi: Fallen Order
21. The Last of Us (Remastered)