Play by Play - Relaxing Games

By Brian • 25 September 2022

Thrashing evil from one side of the galaxy to another never gets boring, but it can be exhausting. Between all of these ship-flying, street-fighting, vampire-staking, laser-blasting adventures, even Bad (Enough) Dudes have to take a break every now and then! Danger and high anxiety might be what we do best, but sometimes, we want to take a casual walk in the woods, maybe experiment with growing some vegetables, make some friends with the townsfolk (because we like each other as people, not because we rescued them from bandits), and just take it easy for a spell. Is that too much to ask?

Luckily, when I need a break from saving the world, Video Land offers a wide assortment of relaxing experiences to take my mind off things. Two games, in particular, brought their peaceful, cathartic vibes to my screen over the last few weeks. One game is a newcomer, while the other makes a welcome return to my rotation.

What’s that, you say? Why play a game about walking in the woods when I can take a real walk in the woods by stepping outside my front door? Please. Bad (Enough) Dudes do things digitally. Besides, if my grandmother had anything to say about it, there was always a reason for us grandkids to stay inside:

  • Too hot
  • Too cold
  • Too windy
  • Too sunny
  • Too wet
  • There are bees (“They’ll sting you a hundred times!”)
  • There might be snakes
  • The neighbors’ bitey dog is out
  • Your mom and dad are almost here to pick you up

Good enough for me. So, let’s stay inside and check out these relaxing games.

A Short Hike

Ah, what a welcome departure from the daily grind. A Short Hike follows Claire, an anthropomorphic bird person, on an isometric getaway with her Aunt May to Hawk Peak Provincial Park. The park consists of a series of islands only accessible by ferry. Ultimately, at least at this point in the game, Claire’s only goal is to reach the summit of Hawk Peak—the only spot on the island with cell phone reception—so she can receive a phone call. She’s admittedly caught up in her own head over something, so I’m left wondering what’s going on and if the phone call is related.

However, the trip up the mountain can be as direct or meandering as Claire wants it to be. There are plenty of things to do on the islands, including talking to people, digging for treasure, completing fetch quests for needy park patrons (such as collecting 15 seashells for a kid on the beach), exploring the backcountry, fishing (of course), and more. Aside from collecting Golden Feathers, treasures that increase movement abilities essential to Claire’s climb up the mountain, there hasn’t been anything she’s had to do.

Everybody is so polite. Well, except one guy, and maybe he even has his reasons.

Here’s the thing. Based on what I’ve played, which is maybe two hours or so, overall, A Short Hike isn’t structurally any different from any roleplaying game. There’s a main quest—reaching the summit—and a bunch of optional sidequests. The difference is the tone and setting. We join Claire on this tranquil island, where she encounters outdoor enthusiasts enjoying their weekend. If they need a helping hand, it’s to find them a sand shovel or a lost hat or something, not to rescue their kidnapped children from raiders or bring order to a broken community. The setting isn’t a kingdom in turmoil or an active volcano—it’s a provincial park. It proves to be a deeply relaxing and casual atmosphere. Claire can help and interact with folks on the island as much or as little as her mood (and by that, I mean my mood) dictates, with minimal stakes or consequences one way or the other, completely without worrying about XP, reputation points, or sick loot. It may not sound very exciting, but I found tremendous value and peace in this unassuming game about a hike.

Man, all I can say is what a relief. It’s nice to have a break from all that stress. Give me enough games where I can walk around in very pretty places and maybe help some people out with their menial tasks along the way, and I might forget that I’m supposed to be rescuing the president from ninjas or whatever. A Short Hike is charming, funny, and just makes me feel good, like maybe things will be okay. Y’know, eventually.

Stardew Valley

I played a lot of Stardew Valley three or four years ago. I made it to autumn of my second year on the farm before my obsession cooled off and my playtime started to level out. Since then, I’ll play an in-game day or two here and there, but I’ve mostly stayed away.

That all changed a few weeks ago. My daughter was watching me play Metroid Dread. Her aunt came to visit, and my daughter pointed out to her how I was “trying to make a bad guy’s injury bigger.” I figured I’d better put that game away and try something a little less…well, injury-inducing. So, I picked up Stardew Valley for the first time in months and tried to piece together where I left off.

My haphazard greenhouse. This could be better organized, and fuller, but where's the time to do that?

I returned to a farm that seemed to be running pretty well, but with serious inefficiencies and organizational challenges. The farmhouse living room and kitchen were cluttered with chests full of all manner of supplies, cheese presses and mayonnaise machines cranking out product, and decorations that really didn’t go. Meanwhile, at the other end of the farm, a shed housing a handful of preserves jars and kegs produced some meager jams and wine. I thought it might be nice to upgrade to a bigger shed, get some more jars and kegs for increased production, and also move my crafting setup and farming supplies there. Likewise, my house needed a cellar for cheese and mayo-making, as well as aging my goods. With those upgrades, I could clean out the clutter in my house, only store food in my kitchen instead of ore and seeds and goodness knows what else, and finally get more organized. Remember, this is a video game I’m talking about here. Are we having fun or what?!

I used the winter to accomplish all of these organizational tasks, since I didn’t have to spend time watering or harvesting crops. (Well, except the stuff in the greenhouse.) I didn’t quite get done before spring, though—there are still some seeds and other farming supplies to move to the shed, and I didn’t get a chance to re-decorate, either. I also spent much of the winter mining to build up my stone and ore reserves, and chopping down a lot of trees (I have a forest farm), which grew especially thick and were choking out all of my walking lanes. I added some cobblestone walkways to better ensure the paths around the farm stay open.

My new cellar. The dank makes for a fine aged cheddar.

Are you still awake? Again, this probably doesn’t sound very exciting in writing. However, as a video game, all this strenuous farm maintenance offers a catharsis I can’t explain. Maybe it’s the satisfaction of “accomplishing” so much without doing any actual, physical work. Maybe, like in A Short Hike, it’s the tranquil setting and the fact that some would-be boss monster and his minions aren’t trying to beat my door down at any given moment. Whatever the case, it’s more fun than I can explain.

Now, that being said, Stardew Valley does differ from A Short Hike in that I’m running an active farm, and there is plenty of physical labor to endure. I’m not an expert or a powergamer, so as far as I can see, there isn’t enough time in the day to do everything in Stardew Valley. The game runs on a day-night cycle, and if my farmer isn’t in bed by two in the morning, he collapses where he stands and wakes up at Doc Harvey’s clinic the next morning, suffering from exhaustion. It is possible to overwhelm him, and the temptation to do so is very real. It’s easy to give him too many crops to manage. Too many animals to care for. Too many tasks to accomplish for too many friends around town. If I try to do too much, things start to not get done around the farm. The animals suffer. Relationships are tested, like those two days in a row I was in a hurry and managed to hit the wrong button at the wrong time and dug through Kent and Jodi’s trash can right in front of them. What a dumb misunderstanding to have to clear up.

My upgraded shed, with lots of brewing and pickling in progress, and a sweet workshop setup.

Much like real life, the secret to enjoying Stardew Valley is time management. Trying to do too much ends in stress, misery and accomplishing nothing. On the other hand, carefully considering my wants and needs and the available time in which to accomplish them makes for a much more enjoyable experience. It serves as an unlikely reminder to occasionally reexamine my own life, take inventory of how I spend my time, and refocus on the important things. [Insert joke about wasting time playing video games here.]

Bad (Enough) Dudes face a lot of tough and dangerous tasks, but perhaps their toughest task of all is to just relax and stop trying to do so much. Remember to take a break, and thanks for reading!