Hello Games, Bethesda, Mojang
If you’ve found yourself with a lot of free time on your hands, you could use it to learn a new skill. But you won’t. You could do some of those projects you’ve been putting off. But you won’t do that, either. Nope, you’re going to play just a crap-ton of video games.
But which ones? Most linear games have a decided endpoint, and theoretically “endless” online multiplayer isn’t for everyone. It’s time to hunt for games with a huge amount of replay value. That’s the ability to dig into the game and play it more or less forever, or at the very least, hundreds or thousands of hours. We’re talking the kind of game that will last you not just a couple of years, but potentially a couple of leap years.
There are a lot of games that fit this mold, so we’ve broken down the following list into broad categories with some picks for the cream of the crop in each.
Editor’s note: Because game prices are so fluid and this is intended to be a comprehensive list, we have not included prices for the following games. Prices generally range between $10 and $60 for all the titles below.
Open World RPGs
If you want to sink your teeth into a massive game world, there’s no substitute for a big ol’ fantasy sandbox. These games include gargantuan overworlds, living breathing cities, huge amounts of dungeons, and so many storylines and side quests that you may literally never be able to finish them. If you do, and you happen to be playing on PC, you can add player modifications (Steam has them built-in!) to try out new stories, characters, items, and game mechanics.
- The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Everything): one of the most popular RPGs ever made, with an insane amount of dungeons and side-quests. When you’ve finished, try modding or the even elder Scrolls: Morrowind and Oblivion.
- Fallout 4 (PC, PS4, Xbox One): Fallout is Bethesda’s edgier sci-fi post-apocalypse version of the Elder Scrolls RPGs. The fourth game in the series is the most accessible, and it includes a deep crafting and base-building element.
- The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Switch, Wii U): The largest in the series game by far, This Zelda has a map scattered full of mini-dungeons and a crafting and cooking system that will have you hunting snails for weeks. The combat and atmosphere are also spot-on, even if the weapon degradation system is divisive.
- The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch): The Witcher 3 received universal acclaim on its release thanks to its combination of gritty fantasy roleplaying and open world exploration. Once you finish the story, you can replay it again and again to check out the branching paths of its morally grey narrative.
- Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen (Everything): This lesser-known open world fantasy game has a focus on an old-fashioned RPG party: your player character and three “pawns” controlled by the computer. You’ll level all of them up and balance them out to complement each other.
Open World Action Games
These games are like the RPGs above, just with less, you know, roleplaying. Grand Theft Auto is the template for the go-anywhere, do-anything action game, but it’s been copied and tweaked enough that it’s now more or less ubiquitous. We’ve picked the biggest and best of the bunch for you to sink your hours into.
- Grand Theft Auto V (PC, PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One): Possibly the biggest entertainment release ever, Rockstar has tweaked its city crime series to perfection. Explore I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-LA as three different career criminals in the main campaign, and when you’re ready, hop into the multiplayer madness of GTA Online.
- Red Dead Redemption II (PC, PS4, Xbox One): Essentially GTA dressed up as a cowboy, Red Dead Redemption II is easily one of the best-loved games of this generation. Check it out if you’re tired of stealing cars and want to try your hand at horse thieving instead—it also has an online component.
- Monster Hunter World (PC, PS4, Xbox One): Tracking down these massive monsters is the easy part: subduing them will require strategy and crafting, not to mention teamwork if you venture online.
- Assassin’s Creed series (Various): Starting with the pirate-themed Assassin’s Creed IV (2013), pretty much all of them feature gigantic sprawling maps so jam-packed with collectibles. With Assassin’s Creed Origins in 2017, the combat shifts to focus on RPG elements, but the games are only getting bigger.
- Just Cause series (Various): These games feature ridiculous plots, idiotic characters, endless enemies and weapons, and gigantic sandboxes to blow all of them up. Start with Just Cause 2 and its wonderful infinite parachute-grappling hook combo, then add wingsuits and jetpacks in Just Cause 3 and 4.
Most RPGs have some kind of crafting mechanic now, but for players who want to create absolutely anything in a game world, accept no substitutes for authentic tree-punching. Minecraft is the obvious inspiration for this genre, but there have been some impressive twists in the last few years.
- Minecraft (Everything): If you don’t know what Minecraft is at this point, I don’t know how you’re on the internet at all. Suffice it to say, combine endless amounts of vaguely dirty LEGOs with an incredible combination system and so-so graphics, and you get a gaming phenomenon.
- Dragon Quest Builders 2 (PC, PS4, Switch): It’s Minecraft, plus a Japanese RPG story. If you want a little more narrative and focus to go along with your building, it’s a great title to check out.
- Terraria (Everything): Minecraft, but in 2D. A good platforming alternative for gamers who don’t have a powerful PC or console.
- Starbound (PC, PS4, Xbox One): Minecraft, but in 2D and in space.
- Graveyard Keeper (Everything): You’re tasked with maintaining and improving a medieval graveyard. You’ll need to craft materials and fight monsters … which seems counter-intuitive because you’ll just have to dig their graves.
Endless Strategy Games
These strategy games let you build up a country and keep on building. Mostly turn-based, they’re the kind of games players can spend years and years tweaking to manage their ideal empire.
- Civilization VI (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, iOS): Civilization is the big daddy of turn-based strategy, and the latest entry lets you rule over a fictional Earth more or less forever. They keep expanding the game with new factions, too.
- Mount & Blade: Warband (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Android): This strategy game lets you wage war on a fictional kingdom and plan out your battles in real time, but you also get to hop in and fight it out with the enemy personally.
- Endless Space 2 (PC): In this strategy game, you’re taking over planets and star systems instead of cities and countries. Colonization and research are key to survival against rival star empires.
- Crusader Kings II (PC): This medieval quasi-religious strategy game looks a lot like Risk, but it’s packed with intrigue and backstabbing. Build up your empire in the name of God, and beat the hell out of rivals and victims.
- Europa Universalis IV (PC): Another Risk-style strategy game, this one lets you go conquering around the classical world in a renaissance-era map. Unique multiplayer lets dozens of players control a single nation.
These games are all about creating something ideal and keeping it that way. SimCity is the obvious inspiration, but that series has been surpassed and expanded into new and more interesting flavors by different developers. You can imagine these games as tiny digital terrariums you need to keep healthy.
- Cities: Skylines (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch): The city simulator on steroids. SimCity fans disappointed by that series’ stagnation will find more than they could ever want in this successor, including staggering transport customization.
- Planet Zoo (PC): This game has you managing a zoo with an insane amount of options and 80 species of animals. It is focused on ecology and conservation rather than simply keeping animals alive and attracting visitors.
- Dwarf Fortress (PC): This freeware classic tasks the player with creating a fortress from materials found in a randomly generated world. Don’t let the simple graphics fool you: it has a staggering amount of depth across disparate modes.
- Planet Coaster (PC, coming to PS4, Xbox One): An amusement park simulator focused on creating outlandish 3D roller coasters. Building custom rides (and then riding them in first person) is a highlight of the game.
- RimWorld (PC): This top-down management game has you running and maintaining a distant, randomly generated planet full of randomly generated refugees. Escape when you develop enough tech to get airborne, or stick around and revel in your creation.
Space Exploration Games
Why limit yourself to one digital world when you could have a billion or two? These games focus on exploring space (or a distant planet) and removing all barriers from the player. Whether focused on the stars themselves or individual planets, they offer massive worlds to explore and master.
- Elite: Dangerous (PC, PS4, Xbox One): This modern revival of a classic series gives you an upgradeable ship and a galaxy to explore from the cockpit. Go on your own personal star trek, become a space pirate, or just ferry goods from one system to another.
- No Man’s Sky (PC, PS4, Xbox One): This game mixes elements of crafting and space exploration with randomly generated planets teeming with wildlife that you can catalog for other players. Recent updates have added multiplayer and tons of new content.
- Subnautica (PC, PS4, Xbox One): This game shares a lot of elements with No Man’s Sky, except you’re exploring an alien ocean. Gather materials and craft ship parts to escape, or chill out in creative mode and build a city-sized underwater habitat.
- Avorion (PC): The universe isn’t the only randomly generated space for the player to explore—in Avorion the ships and stations are procedural, too. You can join with friends for co-op exploration, or conquering, or both.
- Astroneer (PC, PS4, Xbox One): This game sees you controlling a single adorable astronaut stranded on a variable world, collecting resources down to the planet’s core to expand your NASA-inspired tools until you can blast off into the next planet. Destroying and reforming the environments you find, as well as the unlimited sandbox mode, are the primary attractions.
Physics Sandbox Games
These games are more about the process than anything else, focusing on mastering the game’s engine than exploring or surviving. They’re not exactly “scientific,” but they’ll use your intuition to overcome the challenged presented.
- Kerbal Space Program (PC, PS4, Xbox One): If the Minions had tried to beat the Russians to the moon, it might look a lot like this. Don’t let the cutesy presentation fool you: Kerbal Space Program uses real physical principles to guide its spaceship creation and space flight management, and it’s punishingly difficult at times.
- Factorio (PC): Imagine an industrial factory as a single machine, and imagine yourself as the engineer that builds, maintains, and improves it. That’s Factorio, where you have to do just that to survive against a harsh planet or other players.
- Universe Sandbox (PC): Simulating space and gravity isn’t easy, but this game’s all about it. It’s less a conventional game and more a massive orrery that encompasses entire galaxies. Anyone with a passing interest in astronomy should find something they’ll enjoy.
- Besiege (PC): This game is set up as a series of puzzles in a vaguely Angry Birds style: just blow everything up. What puts it in this list is its modular tools for creating vehicles of grisly destruction. The grid-based building system includes an unlimited sandbox mode and support for Steam Workshop.
- Human Fall Flat (Everything): A physics puzzler in the purest sense, Human Fall Flat tells players to solve basic puzzles with their doughy avatars. It’s fun enough on its own, especially with up to eight online players, but what puts it in this list is that it has access to nearly unlimited levels created by other players.
Roguelike games don’t gain replayability from their sprawling world, but from insane difficulty, frequent deaths, and growing a little stronger on each new life. If you’d rather spend hours to master a few elements of one game than explore a gigantic universe, these are the games for you.
- Darkest Dungeon (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, iOS): This grim critical darling has you controlling a party of adventurers in turn-based RPG combat as they clear out dungeons and discover the dark secrets within them. How fitting.
- Streets of Rogue (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch): A top-down shooter on the surface, this game is hard to pin down. It takes place in a random and often hilarious city that changes in reaction to the player’s choices.
- Rogue Legacy (Everything): This pixelated platformer looks a lot like Castlevania, but both its world and its heroes are randomly generated. Each time you die, your next hero will get random and unpredictable traits that dramatically change the nature of the gameplay.
- Slay the Spire (Everything): You got your card game in my roguelike! In addition to randomized levels ascending the titular Spire, this game uses a card-based system for its battle turns. Victory (eventually) requires knowledge of both the deck and your enemies.
- Don’t Starve (Everything): This top-down game has a focus on survival and crafting, but the real draw is the hand-drawn sprites that are oozing with personality. The original game is great on its own, but the stand-alone expansion Don’t Starve Together adds co-op multiplayer.
Life Simulator Games
These games are less about conflict and threat, and more about simply living an idyllic fictional life. Their nature is open-ended and you can generally continue your provincial adventures after the condition for “winning” is long passed (if they even have one). They’re what you’re looking for if you want a game to chill within short daily sessions.
- Animal Crossing series (Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, Switch): Nintendo’s slice-of-life games might be their cutest, with players living a digital life in an adorable town populated with animals. The latest in the series, New Horizons, comes out for the Switch this month.
- Stardew Valley (Everything): A love letter to the classic Harvest Moon series, Stardew Valley injects the farming game with Minecraft-style resource gathering and a little dungeon crawling. Players have been known to pay more attention to their virtual crops (and relationships) than their real homes.
- The Sims 4 (PC, PS4, Xbox One): The Sims series continues with better graphics and tweaked settings. Since its launch in 2015, the fourth edition of the “people simulator” has added no less than 8 expansions and 16 smaller “stuff packs” for more elements to play with.
- My Time at Portia (PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch): Calling farming simulator My Time at Portia “heavily inspired” by Stardew Valley would be cynical. And accurate. But if you’re put off by the former’s thin story and 2D graphics, this one includes a bit more charm in its presentation.
- Tomodachi Life (Nintendo 3DS): Imagine if The Sims and Animal Crossing had a baby, and then dressed that baby up with Nintendo’s Mii avatars, and you’d get this game. It encourages you to make Mii characters based on your real-life friends and family … but you don’t need to if you’d rather lean into the escapism.
If you’re tired of everyone else’s games and are ready to make your own, there’s nothing stopping you … except your complete inability to program software, of course. These titles include simple game engines and user-friendly tools for creating your own levels or even complete games. Some of them can be shared with friends, or even encapsulated into their own games to fully publish. If you’ve got time on your hands to make your magnum opus, these tools will help you do it.
- Dreams (PS4): For a console-based game, Dreams is amazingly flexible and complex. It’s almost a PC-level creation engine, but its interface and programming tools are simple enough to use with a PS4 controller.
- Super Mario Maker 2 (Switch): Nintendo’s mascot helps you create 2D levels for him to traverse. Creatives will love the easy-to-use tools (though you do have to play a lot to unlock everything), but the real appeal is the online database of user-made levels to play through.
- RPG Maker MV (PC, PS4, Switch): The latest in this long-running series allows you to create 2D RPG games in the style of the classics from the Super Nintendo era. You can import your artwork or create your own within the game’s tools. Completed titles can be played on the PC or on mobile, with the upcoming PS4 and Switch versions allowing shared games on those platforms.
- Tabletop Simulator (PC): Part physics sandbox, part game creator, this surprisingly complex tool allows you to make 3D objects and custom rules for completely new dice, board, and miniature games. The Steam Workshop integration allows you to play games already created by the community.
- GameMaker Studio 2 Desktop (PC): Easily the most complex tool on this list, Game Maker Studio 2 makes creating a game more like working in Photoshop than line-by-line programming. Exported games can be played on almost any platform. Be prepared for a steep learning curve, even if you don’t need a CompSci degree to use it.