In the menu bar of my browser, I’ve added a bookmark called just “RELAX” that links to a gallery of geometrical shapes that slowly pulsate at about the pace of a meditative breath. Without this calm-down tool at my immediate disposal, I tend to find my breath, heart rate, and overall anxiety slowly ramping up over the course of a day until it’s evening and I realize that I am a tightly-wound jack-in-the-box and I’ve been bouncing my leg so hard for the last few hours that I’ve worn a hole in my sock.
Perhaps, I am willing to concede, a more sophisticated method of relaxation might be beneficial, and fortunately there are numerous pleasantly relaxing indie games coming out this month. August is apparently the month for deep breaths, island living, and low-stakes repetitive tasks that are completely meaningless. Well, maybe “completely meaningless” isn’t quite right—there are 600 muscles in the human body and if these cute games hold the potential to help us unclench at least a few of them, that seems quite meaningful indeed.
Here are a few of the most promising:
HERE COMES NIKO
I don’t think a game description has ever spoken to me as directly as “a cozy 3D platformer for tired people.” In this extremely adorable title from Frog Vibes, your boss (a frog with a necktie) has sent you to a chain of islands to make friends with local animals, explore attractive biomes, and complete jobs like fishing, making art, or tapping through dialogue. The look is Windwaker, the tasks are Animal Crossing, and your mission is to relax — with a strong focus on forming friendships, to which I say, oh thank God. I don’t get the sense that there’s a ton of narrative to unpack here; just a general pleasant island vacation with the lowest of possible stakes. Sometimes, low stakes mean that it’s hard to get too invested in a game; but is that necessarily a bad thing? When a game demands my daily attention, that pressure can be a turnoff. If it’s just something that I kinda, you know, casually check out when I remember, well that sounds like an extra-relaxing vibe.
Available August 3 on Switch and Steam.
Ever since I played A Short Hike, I’ve been looking for a game that can recapture the bliss of strolling through nature. (Without actually, you know, having to stroll through nature with my physical body. Ugh!) Haven Park is explicit about having been inspired by A Short Hike, and presents a pretty island full of customizable campgrounds. You play as Flint, a cute yellow bird who is essentially a camping concierge. Visitors arrive on your island with various requests, and it’s up to you to spruce things up so they have a nice time. (You can also just wander the forest if you prefer.) The art is a real pleasure here; in contrast to the bright colors and flat shading of Here Comes Niko, this one has a more muted palette and lovely day/night lighting. A quarantine project, the game was created by a single person, and although I am now feeling rather tense about not having been similarly productive over the last year, at least I have this game to calm me back down.
Available August 5 on Steam and Itch.io.
Somewhat more structured than either Here Comes Niko or Haven Park, Button City is a narrative adventure in which you accompany cute animals through arcade-style games in an enchanting diorama-style world. Progress through mini rhythm games, racers, dungeon crawls, and more as a modest story unfurls. Delightfully, this one comes with a cute-animal character creator, and a somewhat more robust narrative: You will team up with other critters to save your town — which exists as a series of toy-style houses on floating blocks of land — from the clutches of a greedy capitalist cat. An added bonus is that it was made in partnership with the company Wings, which focuses development resources on companies owned by women and marginalized genders. Lovely.
Available August 10 on Switch, PS5, XBox, and Steam.
ALSO: SENTIENT COMPUTER VIRUSES, MURDER MYSTERIES, and LAWN MOWING
The relaxation continues: Also coming out on August 10 is a Lawn Mowing Simulator, which is exactly what it sounds like. Later this month there’s Recompile, a TRON-looking shooter with meditative music; The Ramp, a stripped-down skateboarding sim; and a cozy murder mystery game. I’ll be reviewing those closer to release; for now, you’ve got weeks of island vacation time to enjoy.