“Stray” & 17 Other Atmospheric Video Games

Photos Courtesy Clockwise from Top Left): David Wehle/Do Games; Infinite Fall/Secret Lab/Finji; BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive; and Spry Fox

From shooters with battle royale brawls to platformers starring 30-year-old pink puffballs, there’s a video game genre out there for every player. But while slotting titles into categories by gameplay style — role-playing games (RPGs), idle games, fighting games, first-person shooters (FPS), and so on — can be helpful, sometimes you just want to delve into any old genre, so long as you vibe with the game’s feel. That’s where atmospheric video games like these come in.

For me, that means being wholly transported into a world that’s striking. And that can happen in a variety of ways. Maybe a game’s extensive lore keeps you coming back for more. Or maybe it’s the art direction and color palette. Or maybe it’s the mood-setting music. If you’re lucky, it’s all of those things working together to create an immersive experience. 

While the games on this list span multiple genres, they all have something in common: incredible atmospheres. From colorful, critter-filled worlds to dark forests populated by shadowy puppet-like figures to eerie neon-lit gas stations, these atmospheric games capture something unique — a feeling that’s unforgettable, immersive and singular.

Atmospheric Video Games That Encourage Exploration

Stray

As you might’ve seen on TikTok, the newly released Stray is one of 2022’s biggest gaming hits. That might be a little surprising since it’s a cat simulator. Of course, there’s also an intriguing story. The stray cat needs to escape a dystopian city — and unravel its mysteries — alongside their companion, a small drone called B-12. 

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Photo Courtesy: BlueTwelve Studio/Annapurna Interactive

With neon-lit streets, cluttered alleyways and abandoned storefronts, there’s a lot to explore. Best of all, you’re doing so from a cat’s point of view, which means you can interact with this Blade Runner-esque environment in really inventive, playful ways. 

Kentucky Route Zero

Developed by Cardboard Computer and published by Annapurna Interactive, Kentucky Route Zero is a point-and-click adventure game. It takes cues from choose-your-own-adventure novels as well as some of the earliest narrative-driven video games from the ’70s and ’80s, including the first-known work of interactive fiction, Colossal Cave Adventure. What sets Kentucky Route Zero apart, however, is its atmosphere — and its poetry.

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Photo Courtesy: Annapurna Interactive

The magical realist adventure game centers on a truck driver named Conway, who’s making his final delivery to an address that exists along The Zero — a secret highway running through the caves beneath Kentucky. Filled with mysterious characters, Kentucky Route Zero pulls you into its strange, somber world. 

Much like a play, it’s split into five acts, and each is punctuated by interstitials that reveal the world’s larger backstory and add to the sense that the game is not just a work of art, but a work of art interested in exploring the very nature of storytelling.

The First Tree

No, The First Tree isn’t a fox simulator a la the now very popular Stray (see above). Instead, it’s an extremely inventive approach to storytelling and, more specifically, narrative structure. In this third-person game, exploration is the driving force behind your progression, but there’s also two stories to follow. One of these narratives centers on a fox who’s trying to find her missing family, while the other is about a son who’s trying to mend his relationship with his estranged father. 

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Photo Courtesy: David Wehle/Do Games

The stories intertwine in lovely, unexpected ways. But it isn’t just the parallel narrative structure that makes The First Tree a must-play game. It’s also gorgeous — soft colors and shapes form the striking Alaskan landscapes and creatures that inhabit the land. It’s easy to get lost in this one for hours, even if you’re just admiring the surroundings.

Abzû

Abzû tells the story of a deep-sea diver who journeys through the ocean and, thanks to a magical spring, restores underwater life. The environments range from sea caverns and ancient ruins to coral gardens and sunlit swathes of open water. As you can see, every ounce of this cel-shaded world is gorgeous.

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Photo Courtesy: Giant Squid Studios/505 Games

Inspired by the game director’s love of scuba diving, Sumerian mythology, and cosmic ocean motifs, Abzû has a very distinct feel. “[It’s] a mechanically simple game, but a pleasurable one,” Eurogamer‘s review noted. Sure, the game’s camera can be occasionally wonky and the story isn’t super-rich, but you’ll be charmed by the colorful, fish-filled world. 

Firewatch

The first-person adventure game Firewatch is equal parts relaxing and thrilling — a potentially perfect mix when you’re stuck inside. Taking place in 1989, the game centers on Henry, a man who takes a job as a fire lookout in Shoshone National Forest in the wake of his wife’s early-onset dementia diagnosis.

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Photo Courtesy: Campo Santo, Ltd.

At first, you explore the beautiful scenery, scrambling up rock faces and hiking through the pine forest. Your only source of human contact comes in the form of Delilah, your fellow lookout and supervisor who’s only reachable via walkie-talkie. Soon enough, strange things start happening to Henry, and he and Delilah work to unravel an ever-growing conspiracy. Tense, unsettling, funny, and relaxing — the woods evoke so much in this character-driven game about self-imposed isolation.

Journey

In Journey, you control a robed figure who is traveling a vast desert, nearing a mountain that looms off in the distance. You can meet other players on your journey, but you cannot communicate with words — just a musical chime, which has the power to transform dull cloth into a shade of vibrant red. This mechanic also impacts the world around you and adds to the game’s progression.

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Photo Courtesy: Thatgamecompany

The music, which was composed by Austin Wintory, responds to the player’s actions and builds to a single theme that feels mimetic of the game’s emotional arc. The score was nominated for a Grammy — a first in video game history — and the game earned five BAFTAs for its audiovisual splendor. Often called one of the greatest video games of all time, Journey has a relentless beauty that’s easy to get lost in — and those startlingly emotional moments are a real bonus. 

Atmospheric Video Games With Puzzles to Solve

Monument Valley

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In this indie puzzle game, you lead Princess Ida through a series of mazes. Sounds straightforward, right? Think again. Those mazes are constructed from a series of optical illusions and seeming impossibilities, so it’s up to you to manipulate the world around the princess in order to conquer the mazes.

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Photo Courtesy: Ustwo Studio

The scant bit of narrative behind the game is that Princess Ida is on a journey to be forgiven for something, so it’s the M.C. Escher-esque look of the puzzles that pulls the player along. Inspired by the minimalist nature of Japanese woodblock prints, Monument Valley is a real feast for the eyes (and ears!). Although this impossibly beautiful, BAFTA-winning game may have a short run time, nothing beats the pocket of handheld serenity it provides. Plus, the sequel, Monument Valley 2, is also well worth it.

Portal 2

Developed by Valve, the folks behind Half-Life and Team Fortress, puzzle-platformer Portal 2 is arguably their best title. The original Portal, which was just tossed into a compilation of games called The Orange Box, was a surprise runaway success, prompting Valve to create a standalone sequel.

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Photo Courtesy: Valve

Like the original, this entry asks players to solve puzzles by placing portals around the “test chamber” environments so that they may teleport between them. All of these mental puzzles are set up by the mysterious Aperture Science Enrichment Center’s supercomputer GLaDOS, who tosses a few new elements, from tractor beams and lasers, into the gameplay. Thanks to its dark humor, fun mechanics, and great voice cast, Portal 2 has been dubbed one of the greatest games of all time. 

Atmospheric Video Games for Cozy Gamers

Cozy Grove

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Cozy Grove’s tagline says it all: come for the view, stay for the friends. Here, you’ll play as a Spirit Scout — kind of like a park-ranger-in-training whose task is to unearth a not-so-abandoned island’s secrets and soothe the ghosts that call the place home. It’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons-adjacent in some ways — you’re camping instead of building a town and the island is constantly changing, but it certainly scratches a similar itch. 

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Photo Courtesy: Spry Fox

If, like me, you abandoned Animal Crossing because the aimlessness that was once fun became truly overwhelming, Cozy Grove might be the antidote you’re looking for. There’s more direction and structure in Spry Fox’s game. With an overarching story unfurls over time and a daily roster of new tasks, there’s both a reason to return and an endpoint. Instead of sinking hours into the game each day, you’ll spend between 30 minutes to an hour checking off your virtual to-do list. And that’s kind of refreshing. 

As for the atmospheric quality, Cozy Grove offers a world you’ll want to spend time in. The dynamic, hand-drawn environments are stunning. As you progress, the dull, drained landscapes will fill with color, becoming lush and even more beautiful. It might be the closest thing to jumping into a watercolor painting or ink drawing since Capcom’s Okami.

Spiritfarer

When I needed to lay my Animal Crossing obsession to rest, we tried the next best thing: a game about animals who are crossing over. Spiritfarer, a game that’s about letting go, tasks players with guiding others into death. Yeah, you read that correctly. Thunder Lotus, the folks behind the title, bill it as “a cozy management game about dying.” As we’ve learned from Animal Crossing, managing things — even the mundane — can be extremely cathartic.

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Photo Courtesy: Thunder Lotus Games

Players take control of Stella, a ferrymaster to the deceased. Stella builds a boat to explore the world with so that she can befriend and care for the spirits of animals before they transition into the afterlife. Relax with your passengers. Make memories. And then… hug them goodbye. The mechanics are simple, but the grief is tough. Honestly, a game so centered around embracing feels especially therapeutic during this pandemic.

Atmospheric Video Games That Center on Art-Making

Behind the Frame: The Finest Scenery

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When it comes to discussing atmospheric games, something with “The Finest Scenery” as its subtitle seems a little on the nose. But the game really is wonderful to take in. More of an interactive novel or movie in some ways, Behind the Frame tells the story of an artist who’s working to finish her final piece for a gallery submission. 

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Photo Courtesy: Akatsuki Taiwan Inc./Silver Lining Studio/Akupara Games

An incredibly relaxing experience, this game boasts a slow pace, an immersive and colorful world, incredible hand-animated set-pieces and a calming soundtrack. Every painting has a story to tell — and a color combination that’ll make it just right. With light puzzle elements and just enough narrative to push you forward, Behind the Frame: The Finest Scenery will make you feel like you’re playing a character in one of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli’s films.

New Pokémon Snap 

If you’re looking for more in-depth coverage, check out my full review of New Pokémon Snap. Here, I’ll stick to the highlights. As you may know, this 2021 Switch game is the long-awaited sequel to Pokémon Snap (1999), a photography simulator for the Nintendo 64. At the time, Pokémon was quite the phenomenon, so while the gameplay — a departure from Pokémon’s RPG roots — seemed like an odd choice, it was actually a huge success.  

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Photo Courtesy: The Pokemon Company International/Nintendo

New Pokémon Snap takes the tried-and-true mechanics of the first game and improves on them. More importantly, it adds a great level of depth and detail to the environs you’re snapping pics of Pokémon in. Some Pokémon only appear at night, for example, while others might need to be coaxed out of hiding with treats.

The “levels” here are all different habitats, which means there’s an abundance of cute Poké-critters to meet and scenic vistas to gaze at through your virtual camera lens. It’s low-stakes exploration with a truly delightful atmosphere.

Platformers That Double as Atmospheric Video Games

Alto’s Adventure & Alto’s Odyssey

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In an infinite-runner game, your goal is to dodge obstacles — which will otherwise instantly K.O. your character. Meanwhile, said character continuously moves through the level, leaving no time to pause. All those split-second decisions can end in frustration, especially for newcomers to the genre.

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Photo Courtesy: Team Alto/Snowman

While we love a good game of Crash Bandicoot or Temple Run, they’re undoubtedly stressful, which is why Alto’s Adventure (and the sequel Alto’s Odyssey) makes our list. Backed by a serene soundtrack, the game centers on a snowboarder who’s coasting along through an ethereal atmosphere. Performing tricks is fun and satisfying, making this game the perfect handheld blend of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater-meets-spa day.  

Limbo

Often cited as among the greatest games of all time, 2010’s Limbo is a 2D puzzle-platformer that goes back to the genre’s side-scrolling beginnings, but leans into a unique physics system. The premise is simple; guide a boy through dangerous stages and find his sister. The game’s developer, Playdead, expects you to fail — a lot

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Photo Courtesy: Playdead/Xbox Game Studios

The game’s design evokes old-school horror movies or an eerie film noir. The lighting and grainy quality of the black-and-white visuals definitely calls these atmospheres to mind, but so does the apt use of ambient sounds. However, Limbo has received some criticism that you might want to take into consideration. The game’s ending has been called abrupt by some critics who wanted a more significant plot, and, with the sparse story in mind, it’s also a pretty short game. 

Atmospheric Video Games With a Focus On Adventure

Night in the Woods

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Looking to add a little more adventure to your queue of atmospheric video games? We’ve got you covered. First up is the much-loved, story-focused adventure game Night in the Woods, which was funded by an incredibly successful Kickstarter campaign several years ago.

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The 2017 hit centers on Mae Borowski, a college dropout who returns home to the Rust Belt-inspired Possum Springs. But the closure of the town’s coal mines has led to a lot of changes. Not to mention, her friends are different, too. And there’s something in the woods… 

Photo Courtesy: Secret Lab/Infinite Fall

From the crumbling town to the lush, inky woods to the vibrant zoomorphic characters that populate Possum Springs, Night in the Woods is incredibly transportive. It feels so original and fresh. In addition to the town’s atmosphere, the game is also punctuated by Mae’s increasingly vivid, strange dreams, which are taking a toll on her mental health. With strong writing and unparalleled art direction, Night in the Woods is worth spending some time with if you haven’t already. 

Shadow of the Colossus

Originally released in 2005 on the PlayStation 2, Shadow of the Colossus is the spiritual successor (and maybe-prequel) to the brilliant and under-appreciated Ico. If you’re unfamiliar with Ico, it looks like a Giorgio de Chirico painting — so, yes, it’s also very atmospheric — and the game boils down to being a giant escort mission. While it works beautifully for the story that’s being told, Shadow of the Colossus takes things to new heights — literally. 

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Here, you play as Wander. The young man hopes to revive Mono, a young woman whose body lies comatose in a temple, by calling upon the power of the entity Dormin. In order to obtain the power needed to save Mono, Wander enters a dangerous, abandoned region that’s populated by colossi.

Photo Courtesy: Team Ico/Sony Interactive Entertainment

These massive beings are spread out all over the map, and, at Dormin’s request, Wander must defeat them. In a sense, the game is like 16 boss battles in a row (with a good deal of traveling, by horseback and on foot, in between each confrontation). 

The sheer scale of the colossi is breathtaking. Plus, each being is vastly different from the next; defeating them means solving the puzzle of how to take them out using your very limited arsenal. To find each colossus, you can raise Wander’s sword to the sun; the beams of light will converge over the next lair. It’s a seamless open world, like a somewhat-precursor to Breath of the Wild (see below). And although the story is sparse, it’s incredibly poignant. 

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Hey, listen — The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild still places you firmly in the boots of a hero-in-training, but this game departs from the series’ long-running linear-style narrative and returns to the franchise’s open-world roots. Breath of the Wild encourages players to take their time and explore the breathtaking world around them. Better yet, experimentation is encouraged. And that’s why Breath of the Wild rounds out this list of atmospheric video games.

Photo Courtesy: Nintendo

With its incredible attention to detail and multi-faceted innovations when it comes to open-world design, Breath of the Wild has already been hailed as one of the greatest games of all time. Although you’ll square off against enemies with your sword, bow, and other armaments, the game isn’t combat-driven. Long story short, this epic lets you blow off steam with a lance and climb mountains for hours just so you can enjoy some astonishing vistas. Who could ask for more?

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