There is nothing quite like the awe that is inspired upon first entering a vast new virtual world. The allure these games create is one very unique to them; their appeal is scarcely found anywhere else. It is here a player is tempted to settle in and explore until the light of the sun stretches in through their window. So much is conveyed in an instant — the sounds of a serene forest, perhaps, or the buzzing of wildlife combines with a relatively minimalistic interface to give a sense of weightlessness and wanderlust. These are many users’ favorite memories, and they can be had at the very outset of an adventure.
Games like Minecraft, Stardew Valley and Guild Wars 2 have proven to be paradigmatic in my personal experience. Each expertly delivers such a sense of scale, though they do so with strikingly different methods. Minecraft offers its sense of scale primarily from the literal size of its map; it is procedurally generated, so in theory, a player could walk indefinitely in a single direction and encounter interesting structures and events along the way.
Stardew Valley’s maps are much smaller and more traditional, however. Rather than boasting a theoretically infinite playable area, it focuses very deeply on refining the limited space it presents. Here a player is able to go deep rather than wide, as its attention to detail is truly remarkable. Lastly, Guild Wars 2 strikes a middle-ground between Minecraft and Stardew Valley. Because it is a massively multiplayer online game, it still is able to offer large map sizes, but it is also able to pack these maps with a considerable amount of detail such that each portion is given an identity and unique features that make them more distinct than Minecraft’s biomes.
It ought to be surprising how these three games are able to achieve such a similar effect even though they are considered to be in different genres. But what one must note is that, while the moment-to-moment gameplay is different, they are quite identical spiritually. This is due to at least three reasons: Their structures encourage exploration; their encounters are relatively easily prepared for; and the stakes are low.
These three factors are crucial in understanding how Minecraft, Stardew Valley and Guild Wars 2 are distinct from other games like the Dark Souls series that also encourage exploration. While that first condition is met in Dark Souls, the latter two are not — someone’s first time playing through a Dark Souls game will be intense because they lose a lot of progress when they die, and the game contains countless deadly surprises so that its punishing mechanics become much more routinely experienced. To understand why the tranquil games I have mentioned meet those three criteria so well, one must understand the fundamentals of each game relative to them.
Minecraft, for starters, makes it quite easy for a semi-experienced player to manage their risk, and its encounters are usually anticipated. After any player’s first night, they understand that the monsters can be scary and that they need to find shelter, but also, that this threat is mitigated by a bed and a chest. Whenever the player dies, they drop all their items and respawn where their bed is placed. By keeping their valuable resources near where they place their bed, a smart player is able to ensure they have the equipment to retrieve their lost goods and experience points.
Also, the way in which Minecraft incentivizes exploration makes it so that monsters can be easily avoided. When mining for resources, for instance, ensuring the area is lit up and scouting for enemies virtually guarantees safety. Even if a monster or two slips through the cracks, their damage output is limited against armor and a competently used shield. As such, Minecraft meets the previous three standards, and therefore is able to be played tranquilly.
Stardew Valley is different in that combat is not necessarily a key part of gameplay. The player can choose how they want to make money; one possibility is fighting in dungeons, where enemies can become quite strong the deeper you go. Obviously, if an individual wanted to play Stardew Valley more tranquilly, their choice would be to make money farming or fishing. These methods are very calming and can’t go too wrong — worst-case scenario, you miss a fish or have a few crops eaten by crows.
Even if one wants to venture into a dungeon, death is not possible. Rather, if the player’s health pool is depleted, they pass out and lose some currency. The only penalty besides this is that an item is lost at random, but this too can be bought back. Additionally, Stardew Valley’s exploration is mostly concerned with attending the town’s events and developing relationships with its dynamic characters, which is inherently less punishing than other modes of exploration. Because the stakes are generally low, and the riskiest activity allows your progress to be salvaged with a bit of currency, Stardew Valley, too, meets the three standards.
Guild Wars 2 is probably the most punishing out of all three games. Dying in the open world doesn’t cause a player to lose experience, but it does usually force them to travel back and restart whatever quest they failed. This is combined with the fact that the enemies in some sections of Guild Wars 2, especially in higher-level areas, are far more threatening to a novice player than in either Stardew Valley or in Minecraft.
Here the punishment isn’t the loss of physical resources, but instead, the loss of time — dying over and over again can be extremely annoying since some quests are required to progress the core story and can go on for some time. It is also easy to mess up your build, as Guild Wars 2 offers many systems and choices for an individual to customize their kit. With this freedom comes nonlinearity, and with that nonlinearity frequently comes confusion.
While it can be difficult to know if you have built your character properly, the reason Guild Wars 2 succeeds in being tranquil is because it effectively telegraphs dangerous and non-threatening areas. Anyone can tell that the Ruins of Orr is not a friendly place due to the constant fighting visible even from the map. With this knowledge, these places can be avoided, and the tranquil experience preserved.
Calming, peaceful gaming is extraordinarily important considering how difficult most of our lives have been recently. For me, there’s nothing like playing some Minecraft after being tilted off of the face of the Earth in League of Legends or after a difficult day in school. Hearing the great sound design and experiencing everything a world has to offer is cathartic, and in many ways is similar to therapy. Understanding why these games are able to capture that relaxing essence is important; it helps us to know exactly the mechanisms clicking away under their surfaces, allowing us to replicate their magic in other art if we so please. In a world of such great confusion, it’s consoling to be able to step back and dissolve into something tranquil, if only for a moment.