When people talk about escapism in video games, they usually mean huge, sprawling worlds you can get lost in. There are vast fantasy realms like in The Witcher, a post-apocalyptic wasteland of the Fallout series. The kinds of games you can play for dozens or hundreds of hours, losing an entire evening while the real world around you slips away. But who has time for that? Lately I’ve found myself searching for a different kind of escapism. Smaller spaces that don’t offer an entire world to explore — instead, they’re a brief getaway to calm my nerves.
Over the past week, two great examples of this have come out. One is the snowboarding adventure Alto’s Odyssey on the iPhone. An endless snowboarding game where the goal is ostensibly to rack up a high score and not crash doesn’t immediately sound like a soothing experience. But, like its predecessor, Alto’s Odyssey has a style and tone that are supremely chill. It’s like an extreme sport crossed with relaxation therapy. As you ride across the endless expanse of desert, you’ll come across beautiful scenery, from crumbling ruins far off in the distance, to a bright, glowing sun cutting through an intimidating sandstorm. You’ll fly through waterfalls and bounce off hot-air balloons.
Like many similar games, Alto induces an almost zen-like state, where the world outside melts away and you’re intimately focused on guiding a tiny snowboarder through an ancient desert city. (The game even includes a “zen” mode, where you don’t have to worry about crashing.) Part of what makes it work so well as an escape from the real world is the platform. Because it’s on a device you always have with you, you can jump into Alto’s Odyssey pretty much whenever you want. Stressful moments like riding a packed commuter train or the idle time before a big presentation can become peaceful. For me it’s a mental cool down, a few minutes to reset my brain. And a necessary aspect of the experience is headphones: they help you block out the world for a time, and immerse you in the game’s soothing soundtrack.
Fe, a new game from Swedish studio Zoink, provides a similar reprieve. It’s essentially a 3D platforming game — think a simplified Super Mario 64 — where you play as a mystical woodland creature exploring a colorful, but somewhat sinister forest. The space is made up of stark colors and jagged edges, but there’s a beauty to its mysteriousness. The game itself is fairly simple. You can jump and pick up certain objects, and for the most part you’re solving environmental puzzles while avoiding towering, robot-like creatures. If you get caught you can hide in some grass until they go away. When you find yourself lost, which is rare, there are birds who will show you the path forward.
Fe isn’t especially challenging, and the story is very minimalist and open to interpretation. But I love being in this world; splashing in a river or climbing a snowy mountain, peering off into the distance to see what wonders might await me. Fe is a game where your main way to interact with the world is to sing: a button lets you call out to other animals, and lull them with a wolf-like howl. The game is available on a wide range of platforms — including the PC, Xbox One, and PS4 — but I’ve found myself drawn to it on the Nintendo Switch. Just like with Alto’s Odyssey, this lets me both take the experience with me, and also pop in some headphones to fully immerse myself.
Crucial to both of these games is the ability to jump in and out seamlessly. Both can be enjoyed even if you only have five minutes to spare. A brief run through Alto’s Odyssey will take you through multiple areas in the game, and because the world is procedurally generated, you’re likely to see new things each time you play. And while you might not make much progress in Fe if you only have a few minutes, I’ve found myself enjoying simply existing in its space. It’s amazing how soothing it can be to sit under a tree and sing to some beavers.
There are plenty of other similar examples of these kinds of getaways, games that give you a few moments of respite to help clear your head. Mobile games like Neko Atsume or Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp similarly offer inviting, quiet places that don’t demand much from you. They’re simply there, whenever you might need them.