Most gamers love a game that can push the best visuals possible like Horizon Forbidden West or something that can offer the punishing gameplay loop of Elden Ring. However, that’s not all that gaming has to offer and as I grow older and older and older, sometimes it’s better to be able to unplug and look for a different type of experience. These are the types of games that can be played in 5-minute sessions or completed in one sitting, welcome everyone to the coming of Zen gaming. It’s the ability to unplug or relax and at times even games without needing to worry about remembering complex controls or in-game systems.
Zen gaming has been about for years but recently it’s hit new highs due to the busy lifestyle of many more modern gamers. To a point, subscription services have also helped these types of games become more popular as players are more likely to give them a try due to the low entry costs. That’s certainly true for me but they also tend to offer a cleanser of the palette while I jump from one game review to another. I’ve been able to play some of the games mentioned with massive breaks in between while never feeling the need to revisit control schemes or introduction levels.
They come in all shapes and sizes and pretty much anything with a simulator in its name could be included in this style of game. They also tend to offer interesting visual takes on games, which tend to be more simple than most of the AAA titles from major publishers, while still being some of the most beautiful games available.
Here are 5 of the best games I’ve played recently to relax and unwind and help block out some of the more horrible aspects of life that we are all growing to live with during the last few years.
Zen Gaming | Untitled Goose Game
This one was somewhat of a viral hit after its first trailer in 2019, and quickly gained a huge following thanks to the game’s charming graphical style and humour on offer.
Simply put this is a game where the player controls a goose and try to annoy as many people and cause as much trouble as they can. Kept in mind that in terms of trouble you won’t be robbing banks and mowing down pedestrians in your car like in GTA, think more turning on a radio in a library kind of hijinks.
Its humour carries the game a long way and it’s one of the very few games I’ve been able to play with my 4-year-old sitting in my lap while he yelled “MAKE HIM HONK AGAIN DAD”.
Dig a little deeper and you’ll see the influences of the recent Hitman trilogy, with players being free to take on each task in their own way and also dip into stealth to complete your to-do list.
The aforementioned to-do list is really just about being a bit of a bastard and annoying numerous townsfolk in an English village-style setting. I’ve spent quite a bit of time seeing how many different ways I can annoy the farmer from the opening level.
It’s a short game that players are unlikely to return to after their first experience, but that shouldn’t take away how great an experience it is to waste an afternoon or evening with.
Zen Gaming | PC Building Simulator
I could have included any of the many “simulator” games in this list. Trains, farming, lawnmower, the list of this style of game is nearly endless. From a personal point of view, PC building simulator hit all the right notes and is something I’ll play on and off for the foreseeable future.
It’s exactly what it says on the box, run a workshop that needs to build increasingly higher spec PCs and use the money from each sale to expand your customer base and bank balance to gain access to better parts. It’s simple from the start but also manages to give players useful insight into how real PC building should work.
When I first stepped into the PC building space, one of my friends joked that you’ll spend more time benchmarking and part shopping than what you will actually gaming, and here developer Claudiu Kiss has encompassed this in a game.
It’s not perfect, but it’s a great time waster. I’d love to see more parts from more brands and have a little more detail on how PCs are actually put together but hopefully, this can be added in either DLC or maybe even a sequel later down the line.
Zen Gaming | Abzu
Although it’s the oldest game featured in this is this article it’s also one of the best looking. Launching way back in 2016 as a digital-only title, the game put players in charge of navigating the ocean depths as a diver and helping to restore life to failing areas of the waters.
I’ve played the game on a few of the platforms it’s released on (Xbox One, Xbox One X and PC), and with each revisit to the watery depths I continue to be impressed with the world that’s been created. It’s simple in style but both the colour palette and audio raise the game to more than its first looks.
Although it’s a mostly standard exploration and puzzle-based gameplay, the story is well done and has overall deep meaning towards the damage that people continue to cause to the earth and its environments.
I’d say this is worth a try for anyone, but turn off all the lights and get your headphones on to really experience this title at its’s best.
Zen Gaming | Donut County
This extremely simple game turned out to be an absolute star that I ran into thanks to the joys of Gamepass.
Its premise… move a hole in the grown to swallow objects… the more you swallow the bigger the hole gets, which lets you swallow even bigger objects. It’s as simple as that.
However, the use of the game mechanics in puzzles gets deeper over time. Drain water from one place using the said hole, then take that to a bird to drink, until the original area is cleared of water to continue. All with very little hand-holding or explanations or tutorials.
It’s a compelling gameplay loop all backed up with some great writing and is genuinely funny at most times. I really loved the back and forth between main characters Mira (human) and BK (a raccoon) and their interactions with the inhabitants of Donut County.
You can play this on Gamepass on your mobile using touch screen controls making it one of the best mobile experiences I’ve had in a long time. For me, it highlights the types of experiences I’ve loved having the most thanks to the pickup and go nature of Gamepass.
Zen Gaming | Unpacking
Finally, we reach what I consider to be the ultimate “zen” game experience I’ve had in the last few years. Developed by Australian company Witch Beam and released on Windows, macOS, Linux, Switch and Xbox One in November 2021, Unpacking offer a fantastic escape from the normal gaming experience.
Once again simple in its gameplay loop, it features the player unpacking boxes of items into different rooms across different years in the main characters’ previous years. The items need to be stored on shelves, cupboards, drawers and tabletops and the game has a few rules that need to be followed as to where is suitable. This can be turned off so that stuff can be all over the floor but it then loses the puzzle elements of the game.
This game is Tetris but with household items.
The fact that the game takes place in different years means that the items being stored range from popular toys like the rubrics cube all the way to older game consoles like the GameCube featuring and even DVDs become Blu-Rays. It’s a true journey through life and all the items that we gather on the way to its end.
It does all of the above with a wonderful take on pixel style graphics and an exaggerated colour scheme that is befitting and works perfectly. There is no dialogue which leaves the game open to a lot of personal interpretations about how much people tend to cherish their belongings and hold on to some items for long periods of their life for both special reasons or social status. It’s a great experience and one I hope more people try out.