These Narrative Games Ditch Capitalism for Relaxation

Most games equate the accumulation of currency with progression, but these titles escape those capitalist mentalities.

Over the past few years, the cozy gaming community has heralded simulation games like Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Stardew Valley as pinnacles of relaxation. With adorable environments and carefree characters, these games promise escapism. But even though they’re meant as an escape, many of these titles replicate the real world’s capitalist systems, leading to gameplay that’s not as stress-free as it’s packaged to be.

I’ll admit that I’ve poured hours into expanding my reign over my Animal Crossing island and towns. And I’m even worse in Stardew Valley — the moment the game’s colorful title theme plays, I become a ruthless capitalist driven only by the thrill of maximizing my farm’s daily income (and romancing Emily).

A retreat is supposed to feel like an escape from capitalism, however, not a continuation of it. After months of getting unreasonably stressed over the pressure to achieve things in open-ended simulation games, I needed something different.

Enter the world of story-based vacation games. In this little niche, the main character steps away from daily life to tackle a challenge in a new setting, whether it’s as daunting as solving a mystery or as simple as enjoying 31 days in the Japanese countryside. Best of all, the players have zero responsibilities, (mostly) zero currency, and zero obligation to achieve anything through a capitalist system.

Playing A Short Hike two years ago was my introduction to this niche. The player steps into the tiny feet of Claire, a young bird who embarks on a journey to the top of a mountain in Hawk Peak Provincial Park to get phone reception.

To work her way up, Claire needs to find Golden Feathers, which improve her stamina and allow her to reach new heights. This mechanic introduces currency, as two Golden Feathers (and a really cool hat) are for sale at the park’s visitor center. Thankfully, it’s a system you can easily bypass, because the park alone holds enough Golden Feathers to reach the peak.

By the game’s end, I hadn’t used the feathers as currency at all, and it became clear the money system was more an afterthought than something critical to the title. As such, my sense of achievement wasn’t tied to any kind of currency progression — the reward instead came from exploration and the little joys the experience offered.

I became my own little Hawk Peak park ranger. I spent the vast majority of my playthrough fishing and searching for secret passages on my way up the mountain, not because I wanted to exchange items for coins, but because I just wanted to experience what the world had to offer. Discovering every nook and cranny of Hawk Peak made me feel comfortable letting it go, and that was the real achievement.

A Short Hike was the first time I had finished a game that didn’t correlate a sense of completion with anything material. The rest of these games, however, really dismantled the definition of accomplishment that other games have set as an industry standard.

In Firewatch, protagonist Henry takes on a job in a lookout tower of the Shoshone National Park in a bid to escape from his stressful home life. While his trip is brought on as a form of escapism, it quickly becomes much more than that as a mystery grips the few employees of the park.

Although Henry holds a job throughout the game, there are no constant reminders of labor and no mentions of money. He becomes deeply invested in the park itself, digging deeper into its history and even connecting with former inhabitants. In fact, he wants to be there (aside from dreading a few treacherous hikes) — it’s clear that he’s not in it for the money, he’s in it to escape.

Firewatch’s goal is ultimately about self-improvement. When it first released, critics called the game’s ending underwhelming, though it ultimately lends itself to a sense of realism. Better yet, it rejects the notion of Henry needing to achieve anything outwardly significant — while he doesn’t succeed in the way other games would expect him to, he makes worthwhile discoveries about himself, largely through short conversations via radio with his boss Delilah, and that’s enough for him.

Wide Ocean Big Jacket is even more delightfully unsatisfying. In this game, a family camping trip in a similar forest setting becomes the backdrop for awkward yet vaguely existential and illuminating conversations about sex, the future, and death. And that’s it.

I felt absolutely no sense of accomplishment when I finished playing. Attuned to watching statistics increase and saving the world in other games, I was left pining for some kind of significant ending or sense of achievement. In Firewatch, Henry at least evacuates a fire. But in the end of Wide Ocean Big Jacket, the campers simply pack up their things and head home with no major decisions, no natural disasters, no larger meaning to look for.

As I thought about the game during the following days, however, I realized that it wasn’t pointless. Its conversations felt real and oddly introspective. Even though the short gameplay segments (setting up tents, going on short hikes, birdwatching) were so mundane, I felt immersed because they so perfectly emulate the ordinary charm of family vacations.

The player’s almost passive involvement reminded me that there’s value in every situation — in Wide Ocean Big Jacket, just enjoying your time is the goal.

Perhaps no line of games espouses this value better than Boku no Natsuyasumi, a series of four titles released in Japan during the 2000s. Each game in the series follows Boku, a young boy on summer vacation. It’s clear from the beginning that each title lacks a goal — Boku is fully isolated from any form of responsibility, so he must simply enjoy his time on vacation.

The world of each BnN game (once Boku leaves his house) is peacefully lonely, with Boku only surrounded by the sights of rolling hills and jumping fish. For 31 days, the idyllic Japanese countryside world of BnN is the main character, and Boku himself is just a vehicle to learning more about it. At times, that can be as simple as sitting down on a chair and taking in the sounds of chirping crickets.

When he’s not relaxing, the way Boku explores his world is filled with an admirable sense of childlike wonder. Across the four games, the player is able to sled down a hill on cardboard, collect bugs and pit them against other kids in bug wrestling matches, and hop across little stones in a river.

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The colorful combination of BnN’s setting and protagonist creates a truly relaxing experience. There is quite literally no purpose to be found in BnN other than reliving your childhood, and because of this, it’s an unintentional masterclass in eliminating capitalism-induced stress from game design.

Whether intentionally or not, this niche is filled with rejections of the notion that success has to tie into capitalism. As these games taught me, heading into the forest, going on a little hike, and doing some introspection is enough. Better yet, in the case of Wide Ocean Big Jacket and Boku no Natsuyasumi, accomplishment doesn’t even have to be tied to anything — enjoying your time on Earth is an achievement in itself.