Games are often a good tool for relaxation. You hop into virtual farms, explore strange worlds and lose yourself spending time with new people, telling you about their experiences and asking you to solve their problems. Slay dragons, kill terrorists, solve puzzles: all of it is considered something to look forward to at the end of the day to unwind. If you can just get this done, you can go home and grind into another quest, another mission and forget about all the stress that was today.
Those games, despite being relaxing, can even be stressful. Fast paced shooters and tasking games like Dark Souls have created a whole new genre of paradoxically stressful yet stress relieving games. For me, the game that most fits that description is Into the Breach.
Into the Breach demands attention not in the sense of quick reflexes, but constant evaluating and reevaluating. It’s a turn based strategy game that forces players to choose between losing a teammate, sacrificing civilians, and staving off an imminent alien threat. No matter what happens, I find myself asking if I can do better. Once the turn ends and the enemies’ plan unfolds, the gears turn again, forcing me to consider all the things I did wrong. If a pilot’s lost, or the grid loses too much power, that changes how the next battle will turn out, if not the entire run. It’s a devil’s cocktail of anxiety that I can’t get enough of.
Into the Breach is a game with inherently high stakes. Because of that, it helps players forget about their real-life problems. It’s the classic escapism of videogames: become so overwhelmed by one thing that you forget about everything else.
Even when the stakes are low, though, our minds—and the inherent nature of games—will ratchet up the stress and tension. Take Stardew Valley, for example. It’s a simple farming sim in which the player character leaves the city to kick it on their Grandpa’s farm. Like Into the Breach, Stardew puts pressure on players by offering lots of varying outcomes. The player isn’t obligated to do anything other than exist on the farm, and there isn’t even a way to ‘lose’ the game. Every mechanic is optional—but that doesn’t stop you from wanting to succeed in all of them. You regiment in-game days to the letter. Even when you purposefully dive into a game made with low stakes, like Stardew Valley,you force your own higher ones onto them.
You turn Stardew Valley into a race against the clock in an effort to optimize every aspect. You quickly find yourself avoiding your favorite parts so you can run endlessly across town, trying to complete every possible quest, give a gift to every townsperson whose affection you’re vying for, and carve out time to scrape money out of your crops. Monday you made 200 coins, how can you double that by Friday? You realize that passing out from exhaustion is actually more efficient than taking time to walk the player character home. You sacrifice so you can do more.
You share that with your pixelated self Maybe you tell yourself it’d be nice to get away and try living the slow country life, but it’s difficult to escape mentally, when work and normal parts of life demand that you constantly think about what’s next instead of what’s now. Frequently, it doesn’t matter that you’re having fun sitting by a pixelated pond catching fish. There has to be a next thing.
That’s the one thought that’s hard to run away from in slower paced games. When you aren’t forcing yourself into galaxy brain strategy games, slashing giant monsters or shooting strangers online, oftentimes you feel the need to supplement. There’s a constant sensation that something is lurking in the background, watching. Stressful situations are one of the few things that can take us out of our cyclical and equally taxing work lives. They mirror what we have to do on a daily basis, so that high paced anxiety is suddenly our cruise control. Not worrying almost seems odd. Jumping into a relaxing game like Stardew Valley, you expect there to be some third party watching over your accomplishments, measuring them against a set of imagined expectations.
That’s why Stardew becomes this mutation of relaxation and efficiency. With no end destination, you begin setting your own goals. At first, they’re simple. Upgrading your house for the first time is great—but it can be even bigger. And your pickaxe needs an upgrade. And the festival is in a few weeks. Being able to do anything is exactly what makes an ostensibly relaxing game like Stardew so stressful. Even though you have all the time in the world, it begs you to keep pushing yourself, pulling you in to work harder and harder at playing the game. There’s more to do, always. You want to do everything, no matter how ridiculous it may seem. It’s risky, and it’s stressful, and in the moment it might be anything but relaxing—but that’s why it feels so good.
Josh Hilgenberg is an intern at Paste.