Gaming can evoke a wide range of emotions, from fear and stress to exhilaration and invigoration, but titles that instill a genuine sense of happiness are rarer than one might think. Typically, with all fun comes a darkness — and it’s difficult to find something that is bright through and through. Even then, some things that are meant to be joyous end up overbearing instead, more successfully producing a migraine instead of warming your heart.
There are plenty of experiences out there with a jolly exterior, but once you crack its shell, what lies underneath is anything but happy. Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch has a colorful aesthetic and adorable character designs, but its story is occupied by a darkness that revolves around trauma and overcoming grief. We’re not looking to highlight games like this today. The following are games that can make you happy without the baggage surrounding it, offering good vibes and joyous themes at the forefront. Every title on this list brought me happiness and still make me smile upon reflection.
Astro’s Playroom is the epitome of lighthearted fun without a darker core. If you’re a fan of PlayStation and its extensive history, this game will make you smile. It features a ton of references to classic and modern Sony exclusives, along with a collectible area for every piece of hardware the company has ever put out. Each soundtrack is upbeat and bursting with fun mechanical sound effects, with one even accompanied by adorable robotic vocals singing “I’m Your GPU” in a song that is unreasonably catchy.
It’s especially amusing that each area is linked to some part of the PlayStation 5, taking players through areas like SSD Speedway and CPU Plaza. Considering the game is free and automatically comes installed on the PS5, it’s a fun way to break in Sony’s latest and greatest hardware. If you’re in the mood for something that has nothing more to say other than being a love letter to a beloved facet of gaming history, Astro’s Playroom is a solid pick.
Sky: Children of the Light
Sky: Children of the Light is the only game in this list that betrays my initial promise of avoiding jolly-appearing games with a darker center. While it is a comfy foray into a soft, pastel world of joyous cooperation and peaceful vibes, the further the player dives into the game’s story and world, the more they’ll understand what really lies beneath.
Sky: Children of the Light is a game about the inevitability of death and the glory of rebirth, pushed along by the player’s run-ins with a mysterious entity enveloped by darkness. The final act of the game has the player running around a nightmarish hellscape littered with the corpses of fellow players who perished before them, and your only choice is to put every last bit of your energy into saving their souls with your light. There’s no way to survive this encounter; your death is inevitable. It’s grim and admittedly not the most jolly of endings, but every moment before this is the exact opposite.
Sky is a lovely little game about silently communicating with others through adorable emotes, little sounds you can emit by pressing a button, and holding hands as you skip through its cloudy aesthetic. Every animation and high-pitched noise brought the biggest smile to my face, and working together with adorable looking strangers to unlock new areas and discover secrets is unforgettable.
A Hat in Time
A Hat in Time is a lovely platformer that takes inspiration from Nintendo 64-era 3D platforming titles like Super Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie. Although it’s rough around the edges, Gears for Breakfast understands what made games from that time charming, tossing players into stylized and vibrant worlds that perfectly encapsulate the simple beauty of that aesthetic. Movement is key, and controlling Hat Girl feels great as she zips around on her scooter, double jumps, dashes and slides across areas that look straight out of Nintendo’s GameCube.
While there aren’t many areas, each one is fueled by a drastically different idea with special goals. In one level the player is climbing an escalating port town occupied by angry sailors, and in the next they’ll rush through a massive film studio, get tossed onto a train, and deduct who’s responsible for a murder in the style of a sepia film. So much of A Hat in Time is absolutely adorable, and each chapter has the weight and diversity of its own game.
A Short Hike
A Short Hike takes players on a journey to the summit of Hawk Peak in the shoes of a cute little bird trying to find her way in the world. It’s an easily digestible experience, taking only an hour or two to enjoy what the game has to offer. Overwhelmed with worry to take an important phone call, Claire has to climb to the top of the mountain to get cellphone reception. The player can run around and do various activities or interact with an endlessly supportive cast of characters. The peaceful winds, atmospheric soundtrack and gentle aesthetic give every moment of A Short Hike a reassuring warmth.
The day I launched A Short Hike was not a good one; I felt down, useless, and overwhelmed with the sensation that none of my actions could ever matter. But this is an experience that perfectly balances tranquility with positivity, managing to not be overbearing with its joyfulness while also harboring relatable themes rooted in anxiety and living in the moment. It’s a truly spectacular little game and one of my favorite feel-good experiences in the medium.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Animal Crossing holds an unwieldy amount of power over my heart. The shortest line of dialogue or the smallest emote from one of my villagers could easily bring me to tears. There’s something about the ethos of this series that makes every little moment, regardless of how underplayed, harbor the weight of a bomb.
New Horizons continues this trend and brings it to a slightly greater scale. Every piece of furniture and the littlest asset feels like it’s made with love, and each animation possesses a tangible joy. From the soft color palette to the diverse character personalities, Animal Crossing can offer an immersive feeling akin to a second life.
To put just how much emotional investment I have into context, I forgot to log in during my birthday and missed the party my villagers threw for me. Overwhelmed with grief and sadness that I did such an awful thing to them, I have not launched the game since.
See our full Animal Crossing: New Horizons review.
Tearaway: Unfolded has quickly become my favorite 3D platformer for its incredible level design and the creativity behind every paper-esque asset and animation. This is a journey that takes the player to a novel land of origami, offering unique ways to explore and battle as they progress through each area. It also has a joyous soundtrack that features frequent percussion and an explosive use of instruments to make every track sound somewhere between epic and silly. Unlike LittleBigPlanet, players can’t dive as deep into the creative aspects with Tearaway, but there are plenty of opportunities to customize their character
Tearaway: Unfolded brought a gigantic, silly smile across my face. It’s special to find a game that puts as much love into every little thing and features as many diverse looking areas as it does. It perfectly taps into the feeling that it was crafted through a child’s imagination, tossing you in the throes of a little kid’s origami wonderland.
I will never stop loving Minecraft. Beyond it being an absolute joy to play, I have important memories watching YouTubers like the Yogscast, Seananners and X go through their journeys in early 2010. And it isn’t just a game that remains nostalgic for me, as nearly every year I’m creating new memories by starting fresh playthroughs with friends by trying some new mod or joining a unique server with special rules.
Considerable periods of my life can be associated with a new Minecraft-based memory that could be identified as its own unique game experience. Whether it was playing classic Minecraft back at launch, rushing through the adventure game-esque terrors of Yogsquest, being raided in factions, building a cozy swamp-home, competing in Minecraft Hunger Games, or playing wild mods where you enter alternate dimensions and inadvertently cause tears in the space-time continuum, Minecraft is the gift that keeps on giving.
LittleBigPlanet is my favorite game of all time and is responsible for my greatest childhood memories. It was monumental in shaping my life today, as I spent thousands upon thousands of hours between the first two games over the course of five-or-so years. I met a majority of my best friends through this game; these are people I still hang out and meet physically quite frequently.
LittleBigPlanet perfectly understands how to ignite a child’s creativity, and there is nothing that evokes greater joy than experiencing that first-hand. And of course, many years ago, I was that child. Working on new projects every day and seeing what everyone else in the community had going on was magical. These games became my home, and were my most potent source of happiness day-to-day. They gave me the courage to be creative, pulled me up when I was down, and reassured me I was safe when I felt the opposite.
I have never invested so much energy into creating games, music, and worlds as I did as a teenager playing LittleBigPlanet. Recalling my innocence, joy, and confidence brings me to tears.