We often associate the great outdoors with sprawling spaces, vibrant ecosystems, and physical phenomena. But just as often, the allure of nature is in how it affects you emotionally.
Indie developers are masters of tapping into the latter. Without the budgets or manpower to construct the expansive living world of a Skyrim or Witcher, indie games tend to hone in on a feeling or emotion. It’s how we get tightly directed, finely written games like Firewatch and densely packed exploration sandboxes like A Short Hike.
The next time you’re stuck indoors and need some fresh air, try one of the following terrific indie games about nature and the great outdoors. (Need an easy way to grab a few of these titles? Get some gift cards or other gaming products from OffGamers here, and ease your shopping experience.)
Eco is a multiplayer survival sim set on a planet that’s on a crash course with a doomsday meteor. Players must work together to research technology that can blast the meteor to pieces without doing long-term damage to the planet’s sensitive ecosystem.
At its heart, Eco is about balance. Everything is connected: the sparkling lakes, the lush forests, the colorful wildlife… and you. Cut down a forest, and the hares will disappear—and, thus, a valuable food source. Your race against the clock requires building industry, which produces waste that pollutes the land. Left unchecked, this can lead to an environmental collapse as disastrous as the meteor landing.
Players can form a government, complete with a constitution, elections, government structure, and laws. This government sets a server’s rules of play, deciding things like who can own land and the punishments imposed for breaking the law. It’s a nuanced system that fosters community and, more importantly, spotlights the game’s environmentalist message.
Firewatch is a first-person mystery adventure that feels like an escape into nature, both for you and its protagonist, Henry. Following a personal tragedy, Henry finds a summer job as a fire lookout in the secluded woods of Wyoming. Strange things begin to happen not long after his arrival, and they seem to be connected to a mystery about a missing boy.
The swathe of Wyoming forest that Henry watches over is warm and welcoming—initially, at least. The art is stylized and almost painterly, its gorgeous environments laid out with strokes of a vivid and fiery palette. But things take a turn for the eerie after a routine night inspection leads to a surprise encounter.
Firewatch is a slow burn of intrigue that’s as captivating as the woodlands it recreates. Every oddity you encounter raises new questions that draw Henry further away from reality. You can’t help but be drawn into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories, secret government projects, and bizarre rumors about an eccentric gone AWOL in the Shoshone Park woods.
3. A Short Hike
A Short Hike, like its title, wastes no time getting right to the point. Claire is expecting a very important call, but Hawk Peak Provincial Park has no cell phone reception. Seeking a signal, Claire must hike the unfamiliar paths that lead to the mountain’s summit, meeting colorful characters along the way.
Claire’s journey is fine-tuned for nostalgia-inducing goodness. Trekking through Hawk Peak and its surrounding forest feels a bit like falling into a familiar embrace. The visuals are a large contributor to this; A Short Hike pays homage to DS-era Animal Crossing, with low-poly models, rough aliasing, and plenty of charm.
Although the road to the peak is fairly straightforward, you’re allowed to roam the park space with few hindrances. It’s hard not to be drawn to Hawk Peak’s many nooks, crannies, and winding side paths. As such, Claire’s goal of reaching the summit feels less like an objective than a suggestion—you’ll get there eventually, but not without first seeing the sights.
Those with a penchant for meditative experiences like Stardew Valley will find a lot to like in Lake. Set in the idyllic town of Providence Oaks, Oregon, you play as Meredith Weiss, a software developer who returns home from the big city to take over her father’s mail route.
Lake takes place over the course of two weeks. Every morning you must complete your job delivering mail, but whatever you do afterward is at your discretion. You can make your time in Providence Oaks as exciting or uneventful as you want—chat with the locals, catch up with an old friend, take a date to the movies, or go home and sink into a book.
That relaxed approach applies throughout Lake. There’s no rush, no primary objective or critical mission to work toward. Even as the game counts down the days, Providence Oaks feels like a place isolated in time, some distant rural paradise where you get to spend your days travelling down lonely roadways to a soothing score of birdsong and rustling leaves.
Grounded is a multiplayer survival simulator set in a small world turned big. You (and up to three other players) awaken in a cave to find you’ve been shrunk down to the size of an ant. Now, you must work together to find out what’s made you tiny and how you can get back to normal size.
A premise like that is hard to take too seriously. Grounded embraces its absurdity, utilizing its distorted scale in creative ways. A dew drop can sustain you for half a day, a sharpened twig is a go-to weapon against truck-sized spiders, and you can rest your head in a leaf lean-to. Not everything is practical, either—build that spider web basketball hoop, because why not?
While certainly playable, Grounded is a lesser experience when played solo. There’s a childlike wonder to the game that’s best shared with friends. If you can, grab a few pals and jump in fresh.
6. Green Hell
So far, the games on this list have highlighted the beauty of the great outdoors. By contrast, Green Hell is a gritty survival simulator that serves to remind you of how cruel and vicious nature can be.
You play as Jake, an anthropologist who, alongside his wife Mia, makes first contact with an isolated South American tribe. A tense introduction quickly devolves into chaos, and Jake soon finds himself stranded and alone in the jungle, his wife taken into custody by the tribesmen. Now Jake must learn to fend for himself in the hot jungle while trying to find Mia.
You don’t belong here, and Green Hell lets you know it. The rainforest is filled with hungry predators and poisonous plants that will kill you without warning. Even eating is a trial. There’s no in-game guide or manual to tell you what’s edible. You’ll just have to dig in and learn the hard way.
7. Alba: A Wildlife Adventure
Alba: A Wildlife Adventure is a free-roam discovery sandbox set in an enchanting nature reserve. Young Alba is on a mission to stop the construction of a hotel resort that will destroy the local wildlife, and so she takes up her camera and journal to find 50 people willing to sign her petition.
While the visuals are basic (at least by modern standards), wandering the idyllic environments in Alba is a treat. It’s immediately clear why Alba is so intent on preserving this place—it’s full of beautiful sights and colorful fauna that make it feel alive.
Alba needs to gather signatures, so much of your time is spent interacting with the local community. Some are willing to sign immediately, but more often, they’ll need some convincing. That’s where Alba’s camera comes in. Use the camera to capture photos of the various creatures that call this reserve home, much like a third-person open-world Pokémon Snap.
That does it for our list! While nothing quite matches the wonder of being out in nature, the titles in this list are pretty awesome substitutes.
What are your favorite video games about the great outdoors? Share your picks in the comments below!