It’s that time of summer again, when it’s too hot if you’re not graced with a pool within arm’s reach. If you find yourself playing video games in the safety of an air-conditioned living room, and have exhausted the stories of “Spider-Man” or “Red Dead Redemption 2,” you might need to turn to some lesser-known titles to pass these last few weeks before the fall semester picks up.
While there are plenty of options to turn to, the best way to forget that there are classes to prep for is to get lost in an immersive game. Whether it sucks you in with its aesthetic, gameplay or overall story, here are five titles that’ll keep you cool through July and August.
1. Sea of Solitude (2019)
The newest out of the video games on this list, Jo-Mei Games’ “Sea of Solitude” follows a woman-turned-monster as she navigates a flooded city. Protagonist Kay navigates the sea that has surrounded her world, where lonely people turn into dark creatures. With only a boat to guide her, Kay travels through the channels of the darkened city to bring light back to it, and along the way, she encounters frightening monsters who reveal her insecurities. As she brings light back to the world, Kay realizes she must ultimately learn how to accept herself and the things she has done.
“Sea of Solitude” employs beautiful, stylized graphics in a story-driven game that has been described by the developers as wide-linear: while the plot and overall gameplay follow a linear path, players have the option to explore the setting and find collectibles along the way.
But, above all, it’s the story that takes center stage. Shifting between sun-drenched and pitch black, the flooded city acts as a mechanism for storytelling, where players learn about Kay’s family and everything that led to her isolated life on the water. Though heavy-handed, the metaphorical writing suggests that Kay’s journey is one of self-acceptance and mental health.
And despite the fantastical elements, the game takes a realistic approach to those topics. Players might or might not be satisfied with the ending, which doesn’t wrap everything up with a pretty bow, but because it gets real with its audience about mental health, “Sea of Solitude” is worth setting sail for.
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4
2. “Life is Strange” (2015)
While certainly not as new as “Sea of Solitude,” it’s hard to find anything as satisfying and unique among video games as Dontnod Entertainment’s “Life is Strange.” The game follows Max, a high school student who attends a prestigious art prep school in the Pacific Northwest. Max is a relatively normal girl, but she recently discovered that she has the power to turn back time.
Players must make a series of decisions, which influence the outcome of the game, and we’re allowed to turn back the clock as we see fit. Max’s choices begin to matter more and more as she becomes increasingly involved in a missing person’s case and encounters dangerous suspects, as well as a murderer who hides in plain sight.
Everything about the game is stunning, from the graphics to the gameplay to the storyline. Max’s passion for photography in a photogenic town results in some stunning views and plenty of Instagram-worthy shots. The gameplay is nothing to scoff at either; it says a lot when a video game can be easily enjoyed on a variety of platforms, including an iPhone. Players can explore a semi-open-world map and interact with tons of objects in each location, from operating a camera to firing a gun.
But even more enrapturing is the amazing narrative that the game builds. Ultimately, “Life is Strange” is a story about growing up, making decisions, building friendships and learning to bask in the oddities of life. Max’s humble beginnings as a photography student evolve as she becomes more involved with the lives of the other students and townspeople.
Though her supernatural abilities play a large role, the game is rooted in the beautiful, but often unforgiving, realities of personhood and coming of age.
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, iPhone, Android, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PS3, PS4
3. “Astroneer” (2019)
What if Minecraft was set in space? “Astroneer” is System Era Softworks’ answer to that question. Although it’s been circulating around the internet unofficially since 2016, the full version of the extraterrestrial sandbox game was finally released just this year.
Decked out in colorful astronaut garb, players dock on an undiscovered planet, armed only with a modest shelter and a spirit of adventure, and are free to get to work building a base, gathering resources and exploring the uninhabited land. Though it falls short on storytelling, the immersive qualities of “Astroneer” lie with its stylized graphics and interactive gameplay.
The world is painted with an oversaturated, cartoonish color palette, from deep-green grasses to red rock caverns and vast, ombre skies. Players have the ability to manipulate just about every square inch of the map in order to mine for vital resources to improve their base. The gameplay itself allows players to craft, mine or simply explore the universe at your disposal. There are endless opportunities to get lost in this game; what it lacks in story, it makes up for in playability.
Platforms: PC, Xbox One
4. “Prey” (2017)
As long as we’re talking about video games set in space, it’s worth mentioning this FPS from Bethesda. “Prey” takes place in an alternate universe in which President Kennedy was not assassinated, which accelerated the Space Race and allowed Americans to drastically advance their space technology.
The game is set in 2035 and you play as Morgan Yu aboard the Talos I, a large spacecraft meant for conducting research. When an alien species called the Typhon breach the ship, Morgan must use his research — involving neuro-modifications, which allow subjects to instantly learn skills — to defeat them.
The play style is semi-open world, with an overall linear plotline; however, players have the opportunity to make a few key choices throughout the game, which influence the ending. There is a small crafting mechanic that allows players to upgrade Morgan’s abilities, but, like most FPS video games, the gameplay is centered around combat.
What’s really intriguing about this game, though, is its map and storyline; Talos I is incredible, boasting tons of nooks and crannies to explore and manipulate. The art design is simply beautiful, and there’s plenty of Easter eggs scattered throughout the setting that do a lot of great storytelling on the side.
But the main story takes the cake in “Prey”. Between the characters’ backstories, to the high-stakes encounters with aliens, to the numerous plot twists that keep shaking everything up, there’s just so much going on in the “Prey” narrative. There is a lot to take in from this game, and it’ll take you quite a while to get through it all.
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One
5. “Firewatch” (2016)
If Smokey Bear made video games, it would look like this. The last title on this list is “Firewatch,” developed by Campo Santo. The game revolves around Henry, a young man who leaves his world behind to become a fire lookout in the Wyoming wilderness, but life off the grid becomes increasingly difficult, as a mystery unfolds before his eyes. With only the voice on the other end of his walkie-talkie, Henry must navigate his own loneliness, while discovering what secrets lie in the Shoshone National Forest.
As players first explore the Shoshone, the beautiful setting draws you in. Henry travels from his tower to various locations — including campsites, caves, lakes and more — keeping watch and making sure no one gets into trouble. The art design uses vivid colors to capture the natural beauties that players encounter along the way.
Although it’s described as an adventure game, most of the interactions, frankly, lack excitement; rather, what keeps players hooked is the narrative, which evolves from understated dialogue and rudimentary tasks, to a mystery that Henry solves all on his own.
Through conversations with his only lifeline, Delilah, players learn about Henry’s unfortunate past and the events that brought him to the Shoshone. A friendship blossoms between the two and sets the stage for their eventual partnership, when Henry discovers he is being watched.
“Firewatch” employs immaculate imagery and a low-concept play style; but more than that, the story itself keeps players locked in for hours of continuous gameplay.