For parents, the Christmas vacation is, at its best, a fortnight of Sundays. No school, but also everything else is closed, too, and everyone you know is busy seeing family. 2020’s holiday break is, as is only proper for 2020, all of that but even harder. Two weeks of being at home, unable to go anywhere, see even your own extended family. It’s sort of like prison, but you still have to raise your kids.
But there are ways to survive! And the very best are those that engage both child and adult, which is where this list of gaming suggestions comes in. These are games, both well known and not, long and short, that should offer moments of respite during the vacation.
For clarity’s sake, let me explain a few things first. This list skews younger, because—let’s be honest here—if your kids are older, they’re good playing video games without you cramping their style. (If you’ve managed to raise a 12 year old who wants to share the couch with you as you take turns on Fortnite, God bless you, but you also don’t need this article’s advice!) And this isn’t all about co-op or multiplayer—there’s just as much joy to be found passing a controller back and forth as you work on a single-player game together.
It’s also worth saying here that the wanton lack of games appropriate for younger kids—that a list like this is even necessary—is a sad thing. Time was, for every Mortal Kombat there was a Sonic, while now the industry has swerved significantly to a predominantly adult-only industry.
However, there remain some extremely obvious suggestions in this field, and I’ve tried to avoid most of those below. But for the sake of completion, yes, of course Minecraft. And FIFA. And Animal Crossing. And most likely any other first-party Nintendo Switch releases. Whiling away the holiday hours with some Mario Kart 8 or Overcooked sounds wonderful. But what about when you’ve wrung every last drop out of the obvious? Well...
PC, iOS, Android
Amanita Games are very famous for their wonderful little adventure/puzzle games, the likes of Machinarium, Botanicula and Samorost. But Chuchel seems to have gone a little less noticed (beyond an unfortunate kerfuffle), despite being my absolute favorite of the lot. And a big part of why is how much fun my kid and I have had playing it together.
Rather than being one continuous story, point-and-click puzzler Chuchel is much more like episodes of a favorite cartoon. In each chapter you try to help the titular orange fluffball get hold of a cherry, while he’s thwarted in this goal by various comic mishaps. The joy here is clicking on everything just to find out what amusing events will unfold—so much so that finding the correct solution too early will most likely have you restart the level in an effort to find more of the “wrong” ones before you move on.
It’s consistently laugh out loud funny, for both old and young, for all the same reasons a Roadrunner cartoon is. Hunching over the same tablet, everyone tapping at different things, trying out different ideas, this is a gorgeous way to spend some family gaming time.
A particularly odd feature of younger education is the avoidance of keyboards. Obviously children need to learn to write with a pencil, despite the likelihood of rarely doing so again in their future—letter formation is vital for getting reading and writing working in their brains. But it’s still peculiarly rare that kids are learning to type on keyboards at all, with such modern technology usually the preserve of IT lessons. I find this odd, since it’s the means they’ll be using for the vast majority of their writing throughout their adult life (even if it’s floaty glowing spacekeyboards by the time they’re there), and am keen to get my boy typing now that he’s pretty good at writing. And Epistory: Typing Chroncles seems like a great way in.
Typing games aren’t new. The most legendary is of course 1999’s The Typing Of The Dead, but that’s not particularly helpful here. However Epistory is. From Fishing Cactus Games, it’s a beautiful action-RPG game in which you fight off encroaching enemies, or remove obstacles, by typing in words. Set in an origami world, it all flutters and folds in the most satisfying way, as you type your way to victory. And importantly, it’s pretty involved. You gain XP in battles, and spend it upgrading skills, including those of the three-tailed fox on which your character rides. Plus there are lovely details, like typing in “OPTIONS” at any point will open up the corresponding menu.
This obviously makes learning where the keys are on a keyboard a lot more appealing to children who’ve learned their alphabets, but scales up to be a challenging game for adults too. Plus, if you’ve ever fancied teaching yourself to use a DVORAK layout or similar, it can be adjusted accordingly. (As well as AZERTY, QWERTZ, COLEMAK, WORKMAN, NEO2 and BEPO.) It’s more than a novelty typing sim—it’s a properly realised RPG with a very unique set of controls. (There is a spiritual sequel called Nanotale: Typing Chronicles, however this is still in Early Access, with only half the content—the full game should be released early next year.)
I would assume this to be a very obvious suggestion, if it weren’t for the fact that almost everyone I know hasn’t tried it. I get why—it’s a tricky sell. It is, after all, a $60 box of cardboard. But oh my goodness, it is as close to actual magic as I’ve ever experienced.
First and foremost, this is I think the most exquisitely well designed and executed product Nintendo has ever released. Which is no small claim. Along with the many sheets of push-out cardboard shapes you get a game cartridge, which converts your Switch into a motorbike handlebar, a portrait-orientated fishing hole, or even video screen for a piano. But it also provides the most refined and beautiful set of instructions you’ll have ever encountered. Building Labo’s creations takes time, but every single step is meticulously demonstrated in a three-dimensional interactive set of animated instructions, through which you can skip forward or rewind, while rotating to find the perfect angle. I cannot fathom how neither Lego nor Ikea has licensed this technology for themselves. (Although Nintendo schools Lego all over again with the instructions that come with the recent Mario kits.) This makes it approachable to adults and children, and allowed me and my son to craft together in absolute bliss. It is so elegant and effective, ensuring you can convert your flat card into fishing rods complete with retracting lines, or a piano that uses a combination of reflective strips and your joycon’s infrared detector to let nothing else but cardboard and rubber bands become a functioning piano.
It’s the piano I can’t get over. The Switch itself slots into a holder on the front, but the piano’s keys and controls do not directly interact with it at all. You press a cardboard key down, and that note plays on the device, and it’s witchcraft. This then becomes even more extraordinary when you drop one of the cardboard buttons you’ve built into the holes in the top, and rotate them to distort the notes you’re playing. Or turn those notes into the caterwauled meows of a group of kittens. Or ghosts. Or (and this makes me so happy) old men moaning. Sure, it’s the infrared camera noticing the movement of the variously sized reflective strips that makes it happen, but believe me, when you look at them, their apparent simplicity, even then you’ll still ponder if real-life magic is involved.
Xbox, PlayStation, iOS, Android, PC, Switch
These are of course the go-to examples of games to play with kids. And there’s a good reason: they’re the best. Since the seminal Lego Star Wars so gloriously poked good-natured fun at the prequel trilogy, while also being a massive, engrossing action-platform game, they’ve released dozens of hugely enjoyable titles tied in to many different franchises. While developers Traveller’s Tales can absolutely be castigated for the franchise’s diminishing returns, and its peculiar failure to ever address the key issues with every one of them (the vehicle controls, the refusal to let you adjust the camera to see what you’re doing in key moments, the haphazard way you switch between playable characters, and many more), it doesn’t change the fact that they produce enormous, detailed and engrossing games that appeal equally to grown ups and kids.
They’re not all perfect. I’d recommend avoiding the Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones and Pirates Of The Caribbean games, which feel particularly phoned in compared to others. And definitely don’t touch The Lego Movie Videogame, that manages to at once ruin the entire point of the film, and be a deeply bland game in its own right. However, if you want countless hours of Lego-smashing, coin-collecting, puzzle-solving, co-op excellence, I’d especially recommend Lego Marvel Super Heroes, Lego Star Wars III (any of them really, but the first is feeling dated now), and my absolute favorites, Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4, and Years 5-7. I’ve never cared much for the boy wizard, but these games are masterful pieces of design.
Any of them will let you and a kid grab a controller each, and jump into fantastically destructible worlds, smashing and collecting, while endlessly switching between vast rosters of characters from your favorite movie franchises.
At first glance, Subnautica doesn’t appear like a kid-friendly game. It’s a survival sim, set on an alien world, with base-building, elaborate crafting, and a storyline about exploring an irradiated ship and alien ruins. However, alongside being all those things, it’s also a game about swimming about under the sea and finding really cool creatures.
Younger kids aren’t going to get to grips with most of its systems alone, but sat next to you on the sofa, they’re going to be hooked by what’s happening. Part of developer Unknown Worlds’ genius is the combination of recognizably Earth-like undersea biomes like kelp forests, coral reefs and deep trenches, with alien creatures that riff on our own fish, crustaceans, and the mysterious denizens of the deepest waters. Stumbling upon these, then swimming about after them, is absolutely enthralling for younger eyes.
Base-building offers that comforting cozy sense of safety and home, a place they know you can retreat to when it all gets too much outside. Especially when you encounter… no, I’ll not spoil it. Honestly, kids will be transfixed by this one, while you get to engage with its in-depth systems and intriguing plot.
PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
ABZU is the absolute flip of Subnautica. This features Earth’s underwater species, although here in a distinctly alien setting. But with absolutely everything else stripped away, resulting in a sublime game that’s as much an exercise in zen meditation as it is a compelling game of exploration.
Its storyline is ambiguous, but it boils down to your being a diver, swimming through underwater alien chambers, solving very simple puzzles to open doors or unleash more life into the waters. It accurately recreates hundreds of recognisable fish and underwater mammals, all of which can be swum amongst, and the larger of which can be swum alongside. Which means there are magical moments to be found clinging on to the fin of a dolphin, swooping along with its pod, or accompanying a leopard shark as it hunts smaller fishies. Or when your leaping out of the water inspires a group of orcas to do the same. It’s breathtaking.
There are ways to learn the names of every creature you encounter, which makes it ideal for inquisitive minds, especially if yours are going through that inevitable underwater creatures phase. But more than anything, this is a beautiful, peaceful, relaxing game, perfect for injecting some moments of calm into your frantic holiday break.
OK, admittedly this one should most likely have been included in the over-obvious list at the top. But at the same time, I want to see if I can bring over some new converts to a game I resisted playing for four years thinking it wouldn’t be for me.
I knew nothing about Pokémon until August this year, and didn’t care to. And then when my son found the cartoon on Netflix, I figured we’d have a look, and wow have we fallen in deep. We’re now level 37, we have the most spectacular collection of Shinies (don’t worry, it doesn’t matter what these are… yet), and our socially isolated social lives are being arranged around the game’s regular special events. Because of course what makes this special is it’s a game you really need to play outside.
It’s unquestionably an abysmally designed game in so many ways. It fails to teach its most basic systems, and thanks to my son’s spreading Pokémon fever through his classroom, I’ve been recruited by multiple parents to try to explain it to them. I’m afraid I can’t do that for you. But hey, I managed. And it was worth it, because it’s become a source of so much joy between me and my kid, as we’ve progressed through so very many goals and landmark moments. Oh my, the day we caught Mewtwo.
You can play it in absolute isolation as you venture outdoors on vital healthy walks, and it has magically switched my child from one who endlessly whined about his aching legs to one who complains when it’s time to stop. It has been such a boon during a year of lockdowns, and will continue to be so through this strangest of Christmases.