Why Can Sad Games Be So Relaxing?

I’m not much for chill video games. Farming and city simulators, puzzle games without time limits, relentlessly happy rhythm games –– none of them have ever felt all that relaxing for me. I’d rather relax with a complex narrative, a platformer, or an RPG.

Which is why Old Man’s Journey, Broken Rules’ 2017 game about an old man who remembers his life story while trekking across the country, so took me by surprise. 

I picked it up on sale on the Switch recently, and played it expecting it might turn out the same way things did when I played Harvest Moon, Animal Crossing, and so many other cute games with happy vibes: I would simply get bored.

But then something happened. Just when I was indeed getting tired of the titular old man remembering rosy, deliriously happy scenes of his marriage, they stopped being quite so pleasant. Then they stopped being happy altogether. And then they depicted the old man’s decision to leave his wife and child. Even the landscapes he wandered through weren’t so inviting anymore, and yet, I felt more relaxed than I had at any other point.

Old Man’s Journey isn’t the happiest game. You play as a man who abandoned his family and never managed to reconcile with them. So how could playing through a tragedy be relaxing? 

I’m not some kind of misery vampire. Human suffering is not sweet to me. I think it’s the gentleness with which Old Man’s Journey handles sadness that makes it soothing. The old man may be remembering something unpleasant, but birds still sing, music still plays, sheep still get in your way. Games like this don’t ignore or gloss over sorrow. Old Man’s Journey deals with tragedy delicately while allowing the old man and the player to see the beautiful things in life, and that got me to let my guard down.

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Maybe it’s myopic to mistrust games that don’t have some element of sorrow in them. After all, the structure of Old Man’s Journey is as much a fantasy as any relentlessly happy game; how forgiving do you think your loved ones would be if you walked out on them to look at whales, even if you did embark on a journey involving a comically long list of vehicles to see them again?

So I don’t mean to imply that games that never make you feel sad are worse than those that do. But recognizing that sorrow exists even in a world as beautiful as Old Man’s Journey is freeing for me. I don’t have to check any personal anxieties or regrets at the door to maintain the emotional atmosphere of a game when it explores similar themes on its own. Nobody likes feeling sad while playing a happy game, but a game that shows tragedy, treats it with compassion, and allows its characters to resolve it? I can feel however I want while playing and feel soothed every time.

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