2021 was A Lot. Everyone I know struggled more than usual last year—unsurprisingly, given the ongoing global pandemic, general resurgence of fascism, bleak headlines, and the more mundane but no less heartbreaking personal crises we’ve all been dealing with. For me, 2021 gave me several very long and particularly rough chronic illness flares that have continued into the new year, many caused or exacerbated by difficult life events, with the latest leaving me stuck in bed with no energy, a lot of pain, and an uncomfortable level of brain fog. When flaring up, I don’t have the capacity for much so I’ll usually watch films (the trashier, the better), spend hours on YouTube, and hopefully, play some games.
Gaming’s my favourite thing to do when flaring up because it’s less passive than watching TV or listening to podcasts, which lets me feel like I’m “doing” something when I physically can’t do anything. Games allow me to engage with a world and connect with characters when I’m at my most isolated, helping me to feel less alone and spark my imagination when just thinking can be difficult. Gaming also distracts me from pain, depression, anxiety, and any number of other fun flare symptoms like nausea or cramps.
Since my last flare, I’m still not totally out of the woods—honestly, I feel like I’ve spent most of the past year continuously wandering between the outskirts and the tangled depths of the Flare Up Woods—but I am feeling well enough to share some of the games I play when I’m going through a flare. For me, a good flare game needs to be calm, with easy controls that won’t put a lot of pressure on my hands, where my pain’s often pretty bad. That also means I need to be able to play the game with a controller, although many of the games on this list can also be played with a keyboard and mouse, and a few are available on mobile. Outside of controls, a good flare game lets me feel like I’m actively engaging in some way, whether by solving puzzles or completing quests, but at a low level of difficulty so I can comfortably play with brain fog.
I play most of my recommendations on a Switch Lite, which works best for me when bedbound, but most of these games are also available on PC and other platforms, if that works better for your own setup. And if you have your own flare game favourites, I’d love to hear about them!
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
March 20, 2020
Okay, this is an obvious pick, but it’s still a worthwhile one. I got a Switch Lite to play Animal Crossing: New Horizons specifically, and I was so excited to be able to play a chill, soothing game on my bad days. Full disclosure, I actually haven’t returned to my island since well before the new update, but New Horizons was my go-to flare (and insomnia) game for several months after its release. It works well because it doesn’t expect anything from you; you can play for as long or as little as you like, there are minimal buttons to press, and you can choose the focus of your session. I used to have a nice little routine where I’d check in with my villagers and the shops, water my various gardens, and call it a day after completing any mini-quests my neighbours provided. Other times, I’d set myself specific goals, like trying to catch a new bug or fish. It’s low energy, low stakes gaming with cute graphics that always cheer me up. New Horizons definitely has its issues, but if you own a Switch, it’s a good game for bad days.
The Quantum Astrophysicists Guild
PC, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS
April 8, 2021
Cozy Grove has frequently been likened to Animal Crossing, and it does have similar mechanics. You play as a “Spirit Scout” who’s trapped on an island with various ghostly bears. As you work to restore their memories and bring colour back to the island, you can collect bugs and fish, craft decor, bake recipes, decorate your home, and dress up your character. However, Cozy Grove differs from Animal Crossing in its somewhat morbid vibe—which, frankly, I’ve really needed recently. Look, it’s lovely checking in with your cute Animal Crossing neighbours, but sometimes, when you’re feeling like shit, it’s nice to chat with some dead bear friends about the pain of loss and the ways that life can hurt. The game’s beautiful, illustrated aesthetic and light tone ensure that these conversations never feel triggering or overly heavy, but it’s a comforting acknowledgement that it’s okay and normal to grieve and to feel insecure and invisible sometimes.
Cozy Grove is also more mission-driven than Animal Crossing, providing about 40 minutes of new content and quest progression each day. This provides a natural stopping point for a gaming session, although you can carry on foraging and harvesting if you want. Importantly, unlike Animal Crossing, Cozy Grove doesn’t count days in real time and only logs a new day when you start the game. That means you can go a week between Day 1 and Day 2 and the game won’t care; there’s no judgement or disappointment if you’re gone for a while. It’s my sick goth self’s favourite flare game, where I can spend a portion of a day in a soothing environment and then take a break so that I don’t wear myself out.
PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Android, iOS
September 3, 2019
The incredibly chill inbento is an ideal puzzle game when flaring up. You play a cat parent putting together bento boxes for your kitten kids, a simple story that’s conveyed through cute illustrations throughout the game. There are many, many stages to complete (I’ve been playing this game for over a year and I’m only halfway through), and it’s super easy to just play a few stages and then take a break. On each stage, you’re shown a picture of the bento box you’re trying to complete as well as a tiled grid that represents the bento you’re working on. You’re given a number of tiles to fit into the bento so that the finished product looks like the picture. As with similar puzzle games, inbento’s mechanics become increasingly involved. At the beginning, you’re working with basic tiles representing bento ingredients like rice and vegetables. Later in the game, you receive tiles that give you special abilities like swapping bento ingredients around. However, inbento never gives you too many different abilities to remember at once which is great for executive dysfunction and brain fog. I’ve never gotten stuck playing this game and it never feels too difficult or frustrating, but it’s challenging enough to engage a foggy brain while offering cute, happy cats at the same time.
PC, Mac, Linux, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One
November 2, 2021
Speaking of perfect puzzle games for flare ups, I immediately recognised Unpacking as one when it was released. Chill, low-stakes puzzling that also aims to make you feel warm and fuzzy? That’s a winner for me at any time, but especially when I’m looking for comfort and distraction during a flare. In Unpacking, you play a series of scenarios where you’re literally unpacking boxes and placing belongings around your home. The scenarios gently progress so that you start off in a childhood bedroom before moving into a college dorm, your first real apartment, and so on. The game allows you to progress once you’ve found a suitable spot for everything you’ve unpacked, so there’s a generous level of freedom in terms of “solving” the puzzles. You can also turn on a setting that allows you to place objects anywhere, which is ideal for very foggy days. Unpacking’s soft pixel art style is nostalgic and peaceful; if it’s that sort of day, you could totally just spend half an hour decorating the rooms however you want rather than moving onto the next puzzle. The game does use a cursor by default, which is slightly clunky with a controller, but you can use the touchscreen on a Switch if you prefer. Best of all, the game remembers your progress down to the last item you placed so you can safely take breaks at any time.
A Short Hike
PC, Mac, Linux, Nintendo Switch
April 5, 2019
If you’re craving exploration, A Short Hike is a cute, open world indie game that creates a space filled with adventure and potential alongside a short narrative. You play a bird attempting to reach the top of a mountain during a day out. Along the way, you meet other creatures, many of whom will give you sidequests to complete, and you have the option of wandering down various paths, gliding from cliff to cliff, and collecting treasure. It’s a charming game that isn’t super long, but I spent a couple of hours just exploring and helping out other characters. Every time I’ve picked up A Short Hike, I’ve felt a real sense of connection to the world created by designer Adam Robinson-Yu. The other hikers feel like they’ve got their own lives and goals, and there’s a gentle sense of progression as you unlock new abilities and make your way up the mountain. I used to love taking long walks regularly, and while there aren’t many wild green spaces in London, spending time among trees and green things has always been vital for my wellbeing. Unfortunately, since getting sick, I’m no longer able to take those walks, which also makes it harder to access nature. A Short Hike gives me a safe way to experience that sense of freedom, expanse, and being in the world—and lets me climb a mountain without needing a week in bed afterwards!
The First Tree
PC, Mac, Linux, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Android, iOS
September 14, 2017
Simple platformers work really well when I’m flaring up and want to feel straightforward progression without the complicated controls or fast pace of adventure games or shooters. The First Tree is a gorgeous platformer where you play as a fox looking for her lost cubs while a young couple narrates. The game is framed as one of the narrators’ dreams, serving as a metaphor for his grief following a tragedy. As the fox, you explore a variety of expansive levels, each representing a different season, where you uncover items from the narrator’s life, scattered across the landscape. As you progress, you learn more about the couple, their families, and the tragedy they’re mourning. The visuals are stunning and dreamy, the story is poignant, and the controls are simple, with no complicated jumps or puzzles to master and a sense of ease and flow to your movement as the fox. Whenever I’m going through a static, painful flare, it can be helpful to play something like The First Tree, which gives me a solid sense of progression and forward momentum.
YouTube and Twitch
Finally, when brain fog or pain is too intense to actually play any games, I’ll often watch video game playthroughs on YouTube or livestreams on Twitch. Streamers’ chatter is good for helping me to feel less alone when isolated, and it’s also a great way to experience games that I wouldn’t normally play myself, like horror games. Every game I’ve recommended here has been a big help to me during flares, but this year, I’ve had to spend far more time engaging with games via YouTube and Twitch instead—and that’s okay! I’ve watched playthroughs of games like Silent Hill 2 (which I always wanted to play but knew I’d never be able to handle), indie “VHS horror” Bloodwash (didn’t know this was a genre but I’m into it), a whole host of jumpscare games (no thanks, would never play), and, of course, The Sims (if I could play The Sims on my laptop, I would never escape). If you’re not sure where to start, try BlackGirlGamers and Deafgirl_gaming on Twitch or Teecup and lilsimsie on YouTube. Flares can be really hard, especially when they get in the way of doing things we enjoy, but watching playthroughs and livestreams can be a way to stay engaged with gaming until we can play our faves again.