Observed

Sometimes the only way to get a reprieve from this surreal world is to take a journey to an even more surreal world. A tall order in 2021, but Small Planeteers are giving it their best shot. Here are the games we’re playing this winter.

Alien planet, open world, underwater adventure: what else do you need? Subnautica: Below Zero perfectly captures the sheer vastness and darkness of the ocean, and the fears and exhilaration that come with it. 

The game in itself is not straight-up horror or scary, just survival, but it translates that wonder of exploration so realistically (especially how I play it in VR). Sidenote: the scary side of exploring darkness is a surprisingly common theme for a lot of Youtube streamers. -Andres Perez

On the surface, No Man’s Sky is a survival and exploration game, but it’s stunningly ambitious scope is hard to define. It does a really good job of constantly updating your goals and priorities for what you are trying to accomplish.

For instance, there are alien languages you can learn, so I ran around looking for knowledge stones to increase my language skills. I wanted a new ship, ended up finding a broken-down one, and went out and gathered up all the resources I needed to fix it up. I then used that ship to travel to a new planet and start building a base, etc, etc.

The worlds and creatures you encounter are super-diverse and interesting. Also, if you play in VR, the exploration is AMAZING. You feel like you are physically standing on this giant planet with all this lush vegetation, and then this crazy looking huge monkey creature goes walking by. -Nick Bowlin

The Forest is a cool, semi-sandbox VR game of survival. You’ve crash-landed and your son has been taken by the local cannibals (it happens) so now you must use your wits to build weapons and shelter in order to survive and find your son.

Nestled within the horror-movie premise is a very fun multiplayer experience, and The Forest does a good job making things creepy and giving you room to explore and figure things out on your own. -Taylor Plimpton

Strategy card game Hearthstone is great because you can tweak your strategy in subtle or massive ways over time. The gameplay gives you the opportunity to learn new things or get new ideas all the time, so no one game ever plays out like any game before it.

Blizzard does an excellent job of introducing new cards/wrinkles every six months or so, so you always need to be evolving. It also has a massive active user base, so there’s always someone challenging to play against right away. -Gavin Fraser

I really like the psychological aspect of Among Us, the (very) popular multiplayer game where imposters in your party are trying to sabotage and/or murder crew members on a spaceship.

If you play with the same people a lot, you start to learn their tells (e.g. getting quiet, pointing the blame at someone else, etc.). My friends and I get on Houseparty and play together, so it’s been a nice way to see them during quarantine and socialize. -Jackie Newman

It’s really hard to translate such a location-based group activity into something that works genuinely well at home. I like that the makers found a way to keep the Escape the Room home challenges simple, while still maintaining a high level of problem-solving. 

You can download and print out one of the many kits in minutes, and each “room” has different props that create a unique experience (and very much require a team effort). -Taylor Plimpton

After the severe disappointment of Crash Bandicoot, I think I’m playing Pro Skater now because it reminds me of playing the original version when I was a kid. The new version has the exact same maps, beautifully rendered, which boosts the nostalgia factor. 

That said, the graphics are amazing, and the challenges are very fun. It’s nice (and rare) to see a game successfully navigate a reboot while keeping the original magic. -Julien Morin

Speaking of nostalgia, it’s still going strong for Super Smash Bros. It’s been around so long, it’s easy to take for granted how good it is. The competitive nature of the game is timeless, and like Mario Kart, it’s just fun. 

There’s a famously robust online community that plays the game, so you can easily find the skill level you’re comfortable with and start playing. -Mahmud Ashik

Rummikub (pronounced rummy-cube) is one of those things you always see on the shelf in the Target games aisle but typically skip over. That is a huge mistake. 

This old-school, tile-based rummy game is easy to jump into if you’re looking for a sociable activity that’s engaging but not indecipherable. Play never goes on too long and occasionally activates the STEM side of the brain. Serve with hot toddy. -Matt Brown

Is this the best-ever game about cooperative municipal construction? A fantastically esoteric premise — wealthy citizens build up medieval Prague — makes for an evolving experience where players are constantly weighing cost and benefit options. Game creator Vladimir Suchy was raised in Prague, and his childhood walks around the city inspired him to capture the personal and political mechanics of building something complex and beautiful. -Quinn McHenry