Abzu, Winter Tale, and Alone With You: The perks of zen gaming

It wasn't long ago that I played a bunch of high-action games back-to-back. Bot Vice, Super Mutant Alien Assault, Strike Vector EX, 10 Second Ninja X — all of these games deliver no-frills action. That's why the past few weeks have been especially noteworthy for me. After putting many hours into the aforementioned titles, I replayed Sound Shapes, and followed that up with Abzu. I then played Winter Novel. And I most recently played through Alone With You. All of these games are mellow experiences, and I feel as if they were a much-needed reset for me.

More importantly, these games helped clear my mind. They provided zen-like moments that I didn't know I wanted (or needed), but once I played them, I felt especially satisfied and at ease.

Sometimes You Need Something Different

Sitting down with an action game is a great way to relieve stress — not just for me, but probably for a lot of other people as well. Depending on the game, it's also a good way to shut off my thoughts for a bit and just let loose in a pixelated world of bullets and blood. But sometimes, it's not about relaxing with an onslaught of gunfire or a big dragon battle. Sometimes the best way to relax is with a game that's all about easing tension through serenity and actual relaxation.

This same sentiment can be applied to almost any form of entertainment. I love horror movies, for example, but I can't just watch slasher after slasher, so I'll throw in a classic witch movie like Suspiria or a tense horror thriller like Green Room. And when I find that I've been watching too much horror, I'll watch American Ultra or A Clockwork Orange or Swiss Army Man. (That last one wasn't great, but it was still solid and gave me that reset I didn't know I needed.)

The awesome thing about video games is that, like movies, there are basically countless options out there. So once I started feeling burned out from the back-to-back action, I switched to Sound Shapes, a platformer filled with excellent music from Beck, Deadmau5, I Am Robot and Proud, and other talented musical artists. It's slightly challenging in a few spots, but the quick respawns and lack of penalty for dying make the game easy to just get into and relax with. It's audiovisually pleasant and creates a rhythmic experience that's very much calming.

Serene Experiences Feel Great

Abzu from Giant Squid is another game that's driven by its audiovisual design. Aside from looking and sounding amazing, it plays really well, too. The smooth, flowing underwater gameplay is unlike anything I've played before. Abzu, much like thatgamecompany's Journey, is the type of game you play through in one go. Both of these titles are two-hour-long affairs that are cinematic and invigorating and refreshing.

For all the sense of wonder that Abzu provided me when I played it a few weeks ago, the thing that stood out to me even more was how calm it made me feel. Swimming with schools of fish, taking the protagonist to the deepest depths of the ocean, hearing the muffled underwater sounds — all of these things created a surreal, otherworldly vibe that I've never really experienced in other games. It was actually pretty amazing to just unwind while playing the game.

Games like Abzu and Journey are both effective at being meditative experiences. Because they don't plague the screen with UI stats or text boxes, you're free to get lost in their worlds and in your own thoughts without being taken out of either. You can think about everything going on in your life or you can think about nothing at all, but Abzu and Journey allow you to have peace of mind while you play. So even if you're preoccupied with more stressful thoughts, both games allow you to de-stress for a pleasant two-hour period.

Another game that does that, although not as well, is Ubisoft's Grow Home. Because that game is more rooted in traditional concepts, it isn't the perfect example of a zen-type of experience. But even so, the way it has the player obsessively climbing ever-growing stalks is highly therapeutic.

Avenues for Unique Stories

Now more than ever, video games are able to tell incredible stories that are captivating or unique or relatable. Winter Novel, an indie visual novel from DeXP, isn't complex, nor is it all that unique, but it tells a great story, and it does so in the least imposing way possible. It's a simple story about a guy and a girl who meet at work and become fast friends after they're both treated poorly by their boss.

Winter Novel (thankfully) isn't a love story — it's just a tale about friendship. How do you advance this story? By left clicking on the mouse to move to the next screen or line of dialogue. That's it. There are no multiple dialogue choices and no branching storylines. It's just you and a predetermined plot in a beautiful-looking ASCII visual novel. It's like reading a book for an hour-and-a-half, and for me, those were 90 genuinely enjoyable minutes filled with solid writing, a feel-good plot, and super-laid back gameplay.

Speaking of story and laid-back gameplay, I also most recently played Alone With You by Benjamin Rivers. This game also focuses primarily on telling a story through line after line of text, but it plays out more like interactive fiction, letting you select different dialogue options in whatever order you choose and offering multiple endings.

The gameplay loop of Alone With You has you going to different stations on a faraway planet, exploring them to discover what happened to the long-dead crew that once worked there, and then having conversations with holograms of said deceased crewmembers. It's a weird story, but the narrative-heavy design allows for such a story to be told. And because so much of it is text-based, it's easy to just sit back (preferably on a recliner, Vita in hand) and relax while you play and read your way through the story.

Both Winter Novel and Alone With You share a dedication to story as well as a reliance on lots of text. Obviously, if you're not big on reading, neither game will appeal to you. But if you like narrative — and solid narrative at that — these two titles provide different types of storytelling methods that work well in their respective genres. And they're so laid back in their approach yet still contemplative that they're equal parts stimulating and relaxing.

Exploring New Worlds

Games invite us into their unique worlds and tell us different stories and provide us with varying levels of gameplay mechanics. For as much as I love to play action-adventure games, platformers, and shooters, I've found that a good chill game is rewarding in its own way. For people who play a lot of action games, easygoing titles like Abzu and Sound Shapes can provide necessary respite after the 500th straight hour spent shooting dudes.

Then there are games like Winter Novel and Alone With You, which are meant to tell worthwhile stories through lengthy text much like a novel. These games are perfect for those moments when you just want to sit back and take in a good story. Then there's Journey, which doesn't even need to use words to tell its wonderful contemplative tale.

All of these games — and many others like them — are worthy of attention because they're so different from what we're used to. They may not boast dozens of hours worth of gameplay, but they use the little time we spend with them to leave a lasting impact in one way or another. It's been several weeks since I played Winter Novel — a potential sleeper hit of 2016 for me personally — but I've been thinking a lot about it since. And I also can't wait to play through Abzu again.

Of course, I should note that before going back, I'm thinking I'll have to switch it up once more. Maybe I'll play Ubermosh Vol. 3 or Doom or Ratchet & Clank. Hey, after all of the zen gaming I've done recently, I think I need to hit that reset button again.