This is part of the L.A. Times 2021 gift guide. See the full guide here. If you make a purchase off one of our links, the L.A. Times may be compensated.
Play over the last year and a half has become one of the defining mediums of our lives.
Games, after all, provided the ability to connect, to share and to bond during a time when traveling and gatherings were limited. Although the video game industry has long been big business, many were prodded to remember the joy that is simply playing a game with a friend or loved one. Our list encompasses tech old and new, as well as some face-to-face options for celebrating the power of interactivity.
“A Mending,” from local developer, author and artist Shing Yin Khor, is a game that shows how play can inspire contemplation and conversation. Designed to be played solo or with one other person, “A Mending” is partly a tale about two friends who have long since gone their separate ways and partly a work that aims to provoke intimate thoughts.
It’s also a beautiful sight, coming with a cloth map and some basic sewing materials that allow the player to essentially create a handmade item while playing. Using a mix of role-playing game techniques as well as prompts from cards, “A Mending” celebrates our memories — the ones we’ve yet to make and those we thought forgotten.
$50 | 👉 Purchase here
“Blinks” is downright enchanting. A self-contained game that houses a number of experiences, the core set of “Blinks” features nine hexagonal cubes, each one packed with lights that respond to our touch, and each one housing a color-driven strategy game. We snap cubes together, create patterns with lights and think about play in new and surprising ways. Many can be played solo for a quiet night at home (hint: dim the lights), but “Blinks” is also great for traveling. Play it under the stars during a weekend getaway. “Blinks” will be as bright as the sky above.
$149 | 👉 Purchase here
Date or family night at Two Bit Circus
Thankfully, Two Bit Circus in downtown L.A. survived the pandemic, allowing this spin on an arcade to show locals what happens when the carnival games of yore are enhanced with modern, experimental tech. Even more exciting are what Two Bit Circus calls “story rooms,” where small groups can work to make candy or stage a haphazard surgery. No puppets are harmed — and no candy is made — in the latter two experiences, but there is plenty of chaos and laughs. Buy a package that starts at $70 for two and comes with $70 worth of games.
$70 | 👉 Purchase here
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‘Hades’ (physical edition)
“Hades,” released in 2020 but given a physical edition this year, is already one of the most beloved games of the past decade. This intricately designed hack-and-slash game uses death in inventive ways. We die often in this action game exploring Greek mythology — it’s embedded into the design of the genre the game belongs to — but death in “Hades” becomes less a point of frustration and more a way to go back to the start and get to know the Greek mythological characters. It’s also a reminder to truly get to know those we care about before it’s too late.
The key reason for buying the physical edition, however, is the 32-page art book that comes with it. “Hades,” for all its death and spells, is pretty, and full of characters we want to get to know better. Now we can explore both its look and its inhabitants.
$29.99 | 👉 Purchase here
Do not overlook this gem of an independent game. “Hoa” is an interactive children’s novel, a fairy tale set in a lush, elegantly imagined forest world inhabited by luminescent creatures. It’s best not to rush through “Hoa.” It’s a work that inspires patience, asking us to linger on each of its carefully drawn screens. It’s also approachable for young and old alike, as our spirit character can never “die” in the traditional video game sense. We simply run, jump, float, fly and explore a world we wish we could visit. “Hoa” is available for home computers and all major home video game consoles digitally and has physical editions for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.
$39.88 | 👉 Purchase here
‘The Infinite Playground’
“The Infinite Playground” is a guide for how we can think about play in our everyday lives. A dedication on the surface to Bernard De Koven — an influential game theorist who advocated games as a way to view the world — “The Infinite Playground” is an approachable celebration of his work that is filled with light game ideas, with minimal rules and often zero equipment needed. Want a game to play when walking down the street? That’s in here, as are games we can play as icebreakers. Mostly, it’s a collection of games that ask us to exercise our imagination.
$29.95 | 👉 Purchase here
Lab Rat escape room
One of L.A.'s wildest, weirdest and most celebrated escape rooms has reopened. “Lab Rat” is a sadistic, cartoon-like twist on mad-scientist tropes. Here, humans are the subjects, and rats are out to get their revenge after decades of being subjected to experimentation. Gather friends, solve puzzles and don’t get fake-murdered by an evil rat.
$148-$156 for a group of four | 👉 Purchase here
‘The Legend of Zelda’ (Game & Watch edition)
“The Legend of Zelda” has been reissued for many a Nintendo game system, but the retro style on the company’s early Game & Watch systems is one of our favorites. Why? Because it includes a clock and a timer with vintage “Zelda” graphics, and it looks lovely on a shelf.
Yes, you can play it, but it’s also a terrific way to watch the seconds tick by.
$49.99 | 👉 Purchase here
Nintendo Switch (OLED module)
Nintendo stopped competing with the Sonys and Microsofts of the world when it comes to pure tech prowess. Instead the Switch has excelled in versatility — working as a handheld machine as well as one that can dock and play like a more traditional console on the television. It’s also a device that specializes in approachable game experiences. For those who’ve waited and haven’t yet picked up a Switch, which was initially released in 2017, the OLED edition makes for a compelling case to pick one up now, offering a significantly better screen so every game looks a bit sharper.
$349.99 | 👉 Purchase here
Oculus Quest 2 (128-gig edition)
Yes, for years you have read that virtual reality is “the next big thing.” We know. We’re tired too. But here’s the thing: The Oculus Quest 2, at long last, makes the case that virtual reality is indeed the future, as it’s easy to use (cordless!), a cinch to take on and off, and home to a growing library of games that increasingly feel like transportive experiences rather than tech demos. A recent update to the system ups the storage capacity and makes the best overall home VR system a more compelling buy.
$299 | 👉 Purchase here
‘Ori and the Blind Forest’ (collector’s edition)
The two “Ori” games — “Ori and the Blind Forest” and “Ori and the Will of the Wisps” — could be treated as living paintings if they weren’t as challenging as they are. The games really are that beautiful, with mystical, twilight forests full of warm light, tranquil colors and odd creatures. Some of those critters are foreboding, causing Ori to flash brightly in pain when encountering them. Each time you hear that little yelp, it’s hard not to feel a tinge of sadness.
These are games that could be animated films, and local gallery and store iam8bit treats the Nintendo Switch versions with the reverence they deserve. This glow-in-the-dark box comes with a host of “Ori” items, but most of them are designed to celebrate the exquisiteness that is the game’s art.
$149 | 👉 Purchase here
‘A Playful Production Process’
In this textbook that doesn’t read like one, Richard Lemarchand discusses game design in a way that can make us better appreciate the medium and the level of work that goes into bringing an interactive story to life. A game design professor at USC, Lemarchand has written a book that is also a perfect gift for the budding game designer in your life — be it the teen who is thinking of studying game design or the entertainment professional who wants a better understanding of the future of entertainment. Most important, Lemarchand keeps it light, distilling subjects with a conversational tone.
$45 | 👉 Purchase here
First, a warning: If you purchase a Playdate now, it’s not arriving until after the holidays. But don’t write it off as a gift for that reason, as it’s best to get in as soon as possible on this tiny, independent game system.
Think of Gameboy games, only designed with more modern, borderline experimental techniques. Also, it has a crank, which allows for unexpected interactions. The black-and-white screen is crisp, and it’s more powerful than it looks: Once it’s set up and connected to the internet, users will be able to gather new games as they’re released. But what’s truly to love is that the mix of content is wide-ranging — short games, long games and weird games — and none of them are like anything offered on the major consoles.
$179 | 👉 Purchase here
‘Spiritfarer’ (collector’s edition)
“Spiritfarer” is a slow-paced game that has us tending to the needs of the dead and concerns of theirs that went unmet in the living world. Here in the afterlife, , the story reveals itself over hours as we construct a boat, go fishing and meet all sorts of mystical creatures that want our help. Drama is in the background, as “Spiritfarer” wants to celebrate life — and self-care — rather than make us sad.
Reissued in a special-edition box by iam8bit, this set comes in editions for the Nintendo Switch or Sony’s PlayStation 4. Its centerpiece is a fully functional glowing lantern. It won’t light a room, but it will help with the deep thinking the game inspires.
$199 | 👉 Purchase here
‘Where Should We Begin: A Game of Stories’
Play, says famed psychotherapist Esther Perel, is “the way we make sense of our lives.” That’s one reason she designed “Where Should We Begin,” a game designed to foster intimacy among friends and loved ones, creating safe boundaries that allow us to be vulnerable. More than just simple story prompts, Perel’s game is light therapy in a box, allowing players to devise their own conversational paths.
The goal: a game about the stories we tell, don’t tell, half tell and why. Prompts can be revealing — talk about a fantasy you’re conflicted about, or discuss a text you fantasize sending but won’t. The work ensures we’re closer to our play partners than we were before.
$40 | 👉 Purchase here
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