2023 has been a great year for games, no doubt — but it’s a lot, isn’t it? There are so many brilliant games clamoring for our attention, and a lot of them are quite busy, noisy, or complex in themselves. Alan Wake 2 is an intense, fractured, and scary psychotropic horror game. Spider-Man 2 is a whole, bustling city full of slick distractions. Super Mario Bros. Wonder is an ever-shifting psychedelic fever dream of a platformer. Or maybe you’re considering resuming one of this year’s weighty role-playing games mid-playthrough — Starfield, Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty, or Baldur’s Gate 3. Somehow, Diablo 4 is already deep into its second season. It’s all a bit overwhelming.
It may seem counterintuitive to recommend another new game to you as the answer to this brain-scrambling glut — but trust me, I have just the thing. And it’s sitting right there on Game Pass. (It’s on PlayStation 5 and Steam, too.) It’s Jusant: a gorgeous, meditative rock-climbing adventure from Life Is Strange developer Don’t Nod.
Previewing Jusant back in August, I ventured that it might be the chill-out experience of the year; playing the final version now, my mind hasn’t changed. If it’s possible for a video game to be mindful, this one is. That’s not just because it’s very pretty, completely nonviolent, and generally calm in its aspect, with a minimal soundtrack that’s often no more than silence, footsteps, and a whisper of wind. It’s also because the game is all about being in the moment. There’s no leveling here, no endgame, no customization, no meta goals to tick off. It’s just you and a rock face, pulling yourself up one handhold at a time.
Set in an arid post-apocalypse after a great flood, Jusant has our young, well-shod solo adventurer climbing a giant rock tower that used to house an entire society of people when everything below was sea. Now, the tower-city appears deserted, and for an unstated reason, our hero must scale it, in the company of a cute water creature that has resonant, life-giving powers.
Jusant has given me things no other game this year — even the surprisingly fluid, organic, and mindful, in its own way, The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom — has done: space, quiet, and simplicity of purpose. Although there is a scattering of secrets and collectibles to find as you explore and ascend, and although the climbing challenges get increasingly intricate and puzzle-like as you move through the game, Jusant only ever asks you to think about where you’re going (clue: it’s always, eventually, up) and how you’re going to get there.
Playing this game genuinely clears my head. There’s another reason for that, I think: the gentle, physical rhythm of it. As you climb, the controller triggers map to your left and right hand grips, and the left stick directs your arms, so your fingers are doing a sort of kneading, seesaw action as you shift from one grip to the next. It’s just inherently relaxing. (How many video game control schemes can you say that about?)
There is more to Jusant than this, really. For one thing, the way the vanished society of tower-dwellers reveals itself to you gradually through notes, soundscapes, and the beautifully cracked and sun-bleached location design gives this lonely traversal game an emotional resonance it didn’t necessarily need, but that lends it some extra weight. Also, climbing techniques are soon complicated by environmental considerations like heat, which reduces your stamina and withers vines that your blob friend can help grow.
That all helps keep you engaged as you make your ascent. But the reason to boot up Jusant — or to download it from Game Pass, which you should do right now, if you subscribe (it’s on both Xbox and PC plans) — is to revel in the sheer minimal purity of it, and the fact that it only ever asks you to do one thing. As I wrote in August: “In a year in which more has so often turned out to be more, this game is less.” As we enter the final months of this exhausting, amazing gaming year, that’s doubly true.