The winter of 2020 and 2021 has absolutely sucked for large parts of the world.
It’s cold, it gets dark early, it’s unsafe to see friends and family in many cases, and many of us were already acutely restless before winter began. And it’s unlikely that things will improve in a practical way for most people until the spring or summer.
Until then, many of us are just kinda ... stuck. So what do you do if you just want to get through this winter as quickly as possible? What games should you play if you want to make time disappear, the sorts of games that you sit down to begin on a Saturday morning and the next time you look up it’s dark out — although that might be because it gets dark at 5 p.m. or so, but you get what I mean.
Some may point out that games like Skyrim and World of Warcraft are natural fits. The Civilization series is also notorious for making time disappear. But this list goes a little deeper to try to find a few games you either haven’t heard of, have been meaning to try, or didn’t realize were so effective at this task.
Let’s get to spring as quickly as we can, shall we? Here are the picks from Polygon’s writers and editors.
Valheim is a multiplayer survival game that has been taking the gaming world by storm, and for good reason. You play as a Viking warrior who has to survive in the wilderness, all the while collecting resources and building a base of operations to keep you safe. There are powerful enemies to slay, but cutting down a tree can be just as dangerous if you don’t position yourself correctly. You set your own pace and goals, and have to venture forth into the unknown to continue learning more skills and fighting more powerful foes.
Playing Valheim can also be about hanging out with some friends, building a homestead, making everything as comfortable as possible, while possibly spinning Taylor Swift’s folklore album in the background. Valheim does hand you explicit goals, but the game’s not about that. It’s about the call to try something you may not be quite ready for, while also embracing the comforts of home and hearth.
It’s a way to socialize with folks in a fantastical but relatively safe online environment — you can even toggle player-versus-player combat off completely — while sometimes going on a grand adventure. It’s not a desperate story of survival; it’s more about the power of even a very small community working toward the same goal, sometimes just spending time together and sharing the workload.
Valheim is far less like Thor: Ragnarok and far more like the characters of Letterkenny helping each other out with chores while shooting the shit. Part social call, part Amish barn-raising, Valheim is all about getting outside, being productive, and hoping your cart doesn’t fall over while you’re being attacked by a troll. Its Valhalla-by-way-of-cottagecore tone makes it one of the best ways to make a boring evening completely disappear, only to be replaced by fond memories of being eaten by a sea monster.
It was inevitable that Hades would end up on a list like this. Hades epitomizes the “one more round” mindset, as one playthrough quickly turns into another and, before you know it, it’s 4 a.m.
Hades is a roguelike game where you play as Zagreus, Hades’ son. He’s eager to escape his father’s underworld and reach the other gods of Olympus. That is the core of the main gameplay, and it takes the form of individual “runs” through Zagreus’ attempts to escape hell. Weapons, skills, and enemies are largely random, at least at first, and as you play, you figure out what works best for you.
If you’re defeated, it’s back to the start, time to run through the endless rooms once again, hoping that next time, you make it farther than the last. It’s a game that’s brutal but doesn’t feel punishing; there’s typically something important to glean from each run, whether that’s a story element or a skill perfectly suited for a specific challenge.
Incremental gains are what push me forward when I play Hades, and that’s what makes it hard to stop playing. I want to apply each new thing I’ve learned immediately, figuring out which boons to choose and when. And so, I go for one more round. And one more round. And, OK, for real this time, one more round.
I’ve had to stop trying to play just a round or two before bed, because I almost always end up staying up way too late. —Nicole Carpenter
Destiny 2 is my favorite game for wasting time. It’s a first-person MMO, but it’s more about collection than anything else. I can go into my menu, look at all the stuff I don’t have, and then target those items. Maybe I need to run the raid some more, or perhaps a Nightfall? I haven’t finished the quest to get my new Legendary grenade launcher from Season of the Chosen yet; maybe I can spend a few hours trying to rectify that?
I’ve collected nearly every Destiny weapon and Exotic item released since the original Destiny came out in 2014. According to a website literally called Time Wasted on Destiny, I’ve spent over 1800 hours in Destiny 2 since its launch in 2017, and hundreds more hours in the first game. I’ve restarted both of them on new accounts just to see the world with fresh eyes, replay the story, and collect all the fun items again. Why? Because, again, collecting stuff is the goal in Destiny, but also, the shooting is so much better than in other first-person games out there. When I ran out of things to collect in the past, I’ve simply started over so I can trick myself into playing more Destiny.
And that’s the loop for Destiny. I find something I want, I make the time to go get it, and I end up getting sucked into something else while talking to friends or just watching a video on my second monitor. It doesn’t matter how much I know the game and its areas backward and forward; there’s always something for me to focus on, even if it’s just getting a certain number of kills with a weapon type I rarely use to earn a virtual achievement that only I will ever see.
My relationship with Destiny shows some troubling behavior on my part, and it’s amazing my loved ones haven’t stepped in yet. But the series is comfort food for me. There’s almost always something I don’t have — or something I do have but that I want a better version of — for me to log on and chase. And in the times I have run out of Destiny to play, Bungie is always just a few months away from adding something new. —Ryan Gilliam
Dyson Sphere Program
Dyson Sphere Program isn’t a game about doing things. At its heart, it’s a game about learning how to do things, and then perfecting the art of doing those things in the most efficient manner possible.
The end goal is important, of course. You’re on an alien world trying to collect the necessary materials and create the necessary processes to power a supercomputer back home, but it’s the process that makes up the game itself.
The good news, for the purposes of this list, is that figuring out how to manage each step does not come easily, nor does it happen quickly. From collecting certain resources, to creating a series of factories and conveyor belts to process those resources into workable materials, and then bringing it all together to create new technologies and get things where they need to be as you slowly construct a literal Dyson sphere … you’re going to be here a while.
You have to fully concentrate on improving the process as much as possible as you play, which means that the hours slide off the clock like warm butter off a wobbly knife. While it’s satisfying to lean back every few hours and watch the infernal machinations of your energy-intensive industrial complex, doing so feels like breathing in for a second before you get back to it, and continue to travel through time as if each hour were only a minute long.
Hitman 3 is not a game that I expected to like. I’m not much of a stealth player; I prefer to run-and-gun my way through video games. No plan, just blasting my way through. The third entry in the current trilogy was my first of the long-running series, and I quickly learned that while there is flexibility in how to play, my run-and-gun method was not going to work.
I would have to play stealth.
As it turns out, I enjoy the slow, stealthy gameplay of Hitman 3. I feel compelled to pay attention to spaces in ways that I may not have otherwise, pausing to write down information in my notebook and plan out my means of attack. As my brain slows down — concentrating on details in the game — time seems to fly by.
Each level takes me a while to play, because I enjoy spending time looking around and observing. Noticing patterns in movement. Seeking out opportunities. Collecting stuff. By the time I finish a level, checking off all the goals I’ve wanted to meet, hours may have gone by. I was shocked the first time it happened. What felt like 20 minutes quickly bloomed into an hour or two of stealth mastery.
Compared to a game like Hades, which is so fast-paced, I was surprised that it was the slowness of Hitman 3 that made time speed by so much. —NC
Ratchet & Clank (2016)
2016’s Ratchet & Clank is a movie- ie-in game that’s also a partial remake of the original Ratchet & Clank from back in 2002. It follows Ratchet, the last lombax in the universe, and his unlikely pal Clank, a tiny robot packed with gadgets, in their adventure through the galaxy. The PS4 Ratchet & Clank game launched at $39.99, and it’s so good I’ve replayed it at least nine times in the past five years.
The game is only about 10 hours long, but in those 10 hours, you can upgrade your arsenal of weapons just by using them against your enemies, eventually transforming them into something different and more powerful. You can also collect items strewn about the planets, which unlock more powerful versions of those weapons for new game plus. And of course, you can unlock the RYNO — the ultimate weapon — which you can also upgrade.
Upgrading these weapons — and then taking them into new game plus to upgrade them further — makes for a diverse playthrough. I’m always swapping between my guns in an effort to improve every tool in my arsenal. If I’m trying to upgrade my Pixelizer all the way up, maybe I’ll also launch a Mr. Zurkon drone to support me — leveling him up at the same time. One is active and the other is passive, and I’ve learned how efficient I can be over multiple playthroughs.
The first time I played Ratchet & Clank (2016), it was a trip through a wonderfully crafted game. But now I’m all about blowing through each area, collecting everything I can, and racing to upgrade everything before I beat the game again. That’s the sign of something truly replayable for me.
Regardless of whether you’ve never picked up a Ratchet & Clank game, or you’ve beaten this one before, it’s the perfect title to return to every winter and burn through a quick handful of hours. —RG
Warframe is a free-to-play third-person shooter that you can play on Windows PC, Xbox One or above, PlayStation 4 or above, and Nintendo Switch. It has been out for about eight years, and it has so many systems and content in general that trying to find your way in can be daunting. But although it’s dense and confusing, Warframe is worth trying. Since its release in 2013, it has quietly become one of the best games currently available, and it did so without much mainstream acclaim or discussion, and without ripping off the player.
There’s even a plot twist that remains mostly secret outside of the Warframe community and is still a huge shock to new players when they reach it. The story may be beside the point for a lot of players, too, since some folks just like making the strangest or most interesting-looking space ninja they can, a practice known as “fashion frame.”
Even if you’re confused about why you’re doing anything — due to the overwhelming number of systems and the somewhat rough onboarding hours — the game still feels amazing to play, because the design team has honed the movement and combat into a nearly perfect experience. Then there’s the art style, which looks like H.R. Giger’s hairball, and a lovely, welcoming community of players who don’t really care why you’re suddenly playing; they’re just happy to have you.
Warframe is also designed so that just about anything and everything you do earns you something, or at least gets you a little closer to earning something. I never feel like my time is wasted or that I’m boring myself with the grind. Sometimes I just jump in to wander around and see what’s been added since my last visit.
And if you decide you do want to know exactly what’s going on, you certainly have time while locked inside for the winter to go through the various fan-made encyclopedias of guides, hints, videos, and various discussions online to learn all the ins and outs that you might have missed due to the sometimes inelegant way the game introduces new concepts to you.
Warframe doesn’t just make time go away; it wraps you in its loving embrace so tightly that you’ll never have time to wonder where an entire week just went.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
Let me start by saying that most people will not find The Binding of Isaac to be a relaxing time suck in the way that I do. I’ve played hundreds of hours of the top-down Legend of Zelda-inspired roguelike, and I can easily blow an entire night finishing run after run.
But The Binding of Isaac carries with it a pretty brutal learning curve, thanks to its hundreds of items, each of which can make or break a run. Getting good at Isaac is like learning a language, and until you develop that familiarity, it can be rough.
Now that I’ve baked into my brain what every item can do and what every enemy can throw at me, each run feels like an open-ended series of possibilities. It’s like using the language I’ve been studying in a conversation with a fluent speaker. It’s enormously satisfying, and because it’s been updated for the better part of a decade, there’s a metric ton of stuff to unlock or achieve. My play clock on Nintendo Switch currently reads 365 hours as I near my goal of unlocking the final secret. [Ed. note: Congrats to Russ, who unlocked it last week.] At least until the next expansion, Repentance, comes out later this year, adding a few hundred more secrets to chase. —Russ Frushtick
Obduction on Steam VR
Pandemic-born isolation and lack of travel has turned me toward my first great gaming love: exploratory puzzle adventure games. It might not be a remedy for the isolation, but it is better than staring at the four white walls of my living room every day.
This summer, I finally beat Riven for the first time, and in the wake of it, I started laying track for a lifelong goal finally made possible through consumer-accessible technology: I built a brand-new PC and bought an Oculus VR headset so that I could literally step into a Myst linking book. Saving up all the money and putting everything together took six months.
Now, if I were a smart person with normal ideas, I’d be playing The Room VR or some other cutting-edge, built-for-the-platform game where I could walk around my living room waving my hands in the air to manipulate hellishly frustrating secret box puzzles in a faraway land. But I’m not. Every night, I sit back down at the chair I work in, literally tether my head to my desk, and play 2016’s Obduction, an exploratory adventure game from the makers of Myst.
In the world of Obduction, I pull levers to find the secret entrance to a new room where I immediately stand still for 10 minutes just to read a bunch of journals, and by the time I reach a point where I realize I should stop, it turns out I’ve been in there for over an hour.
If you have the same kind of bad-idea brain that I do, I highly recommend it. Last night, I finally figured out how to get into the junkyard so I could turn the mine cart around to make more holographic rocks disappear, and I’m looking forward to finding out what’s behind them. —Susana Polo
Persona 5 Royal
For the past few weeks, my partner and I have stuck to the same routine. After we finish dinner and tidy up the kitchen, we pop on comfy clothes, grab some snacks, and cozy up in bed. Instead of putting on reruns of sitcoms or watching a new movie, we’ve been poking away at our playthrough of Persona 5 Royal, a 100-plus-hour Japanese role-playing game.
We’ve spent dozens of hours so far with our crew of lovable misfits trying to reform society by entering into the distorted minds of evil adults. The experience has become so routine that each time we make a new deal with a confidant in the game, which still happens even 50-plus hours into the story, we expertly mimic the subtle hand movements of the main character in the interrogation flashback cutscene. We’ve almost memorized the voice-over lines that are spoken when a new social contract is formed, and we often hum melodies from the game’s catchy soundtrack around the house daily.
Each night, it’s a toss-up between who notices it’s bedtime first and has to regretfully inform the other that it’s time to save the game and quit. We’re putting in a lot of extra time doing the optional side missions in Mementos on top of unraveling the main mysteries of the game. It feels like this is all we’ve been playing for weeks now, and yet, we’ve only reached the halfway point of the story. While the nightly grind through the game feels like it’s taking forever, the experience itself hasn’t gotten stale yet. I’m excited to see how the story ends and how we fill the void it’ll leave afterward. —Jeff Ramos