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These 5 simple, social video games can restore your faith in humanity

Todd Martens
Los Angeles Times

There are many ways to communicate, and arguably one of the oldest is play. Before "Fortnite," "Minecraft," "Myst," "Tetris" and "Pong," there were backyard baseball diamonds, chessboards and hopscotch tiles etched or placed on the ground.

To be human is to play.

As many of us transition to a life of social distancing, the bonding power of play will only become more important. And for many, play is already a powerful way to connect.

Consider that "Fortnite" is as much a social media platform for friends and marketing events as it is a competitive game. And the way in which we share creations in a "Super Mario Maker" or a "Minecraft" is a sort of personalized digital postcard that we're unleashing to the world.

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So at a time where meeting "IRL" is heavily discouraged, virtual play dates can become our salvation when it comes to socialization. No wonder so many were eagerly awaiting the arrival of Nintendo's "Animal Crossing: New Horizons" last week. While some may opt for old-fashioned board game nights, many of which can pair well across distances with a little effort, trust and a video-conferencing app, this also may be a good time to discover — or rediscover — a medium that is shaping modern entertainment.

It's a crazy food fight in "Butter Royale" on Apple Arcade. (Mighty Bear Games)

And while most people have at least heard about "Fortnite," not everyone is a game player and able to jump into the deep end of that popular arena. So for those on the prowl for a game that's social, friendly and doesn't require much prior experience with the medium, here are a few of the relatively simple and inviting ways to interact via play. And if none of the below strike your fancy, don't forget about the joys of "Mario Kart," which is now available for mobile phones.

"Kind Words (lo fi chill beats to write to)."

First, a game that may, for some, stretch the very definition of a game. Fears of contracting the novel coronavirus — or worries that a loved one might — can be anxiety-inducing, to say the least. Couple that with a lack of socializing, and many of us may need some self care, the kind that passive entertainment can't necessarily provide.

Enter "Kind Words." First, "Kind Words" is in no way a substitute for seeking help related to mental health, but it can be a comforting platform, a way to connect anonymously with a community largely intent on providing an ear to someone who needs it. Just boot up the game, available for home computers, write out a concern and wait for the responses. Or instead offer words of encouragement to others. Along the way you'll collect virtual stickers to help you decorate your digital space.

Already, coronavirus is having an impact on the game's community; among the posts seen were those expressing fear of eventually returning to school — "it's dangerous to go out" — as well as those from people who suddenly got laid off.

"Butter Royale"

You probably won't be making friends in "Butter Royale" — although you can team up with your pals — but one thing games excel at is pure nonsensical ridiculousness.

Games, thankfully, still have a sense of juvenilia that other more brand-focused mediums can't always get away with. Think of "Butter Royale" as a streamlined take on the battle royale craze made popular by "PUBG," "Fortnite" and "Apex Legends," among others.

If you're new to the genre, expect to lose. But hey, if you're going to get destroyed in a battle with strangers, best to get hit with virtual hot dogs rather than bullets.

Out now for Apple Arcade, the tech company's subscription service for mobile games that is home to a number of fetching multiplayer titles, "Butter Royale" is essentially an absurd food fight set among city blocks with easy-to-grasp touch controls. While officials right now are discouraging us from non-essential travel to cities such as San Francisco, in "Butter Royale" we can fling weaponized baguettes at strangers in "San Francheesco." From Singapore-based Mighty Bear Games, "Butter Royale" is family-friendly, each match is over in a minute or two, and overall the game is stripped of the stress you'll find in more violent takes on the genre.

So go drench some randoms in condiments.

"The Library of Babble"

"Love is one of the most important things on the planet" reads an opening screen in "The Library of Babble," an independent game available for a small donation from Demi Schanzel. There is no audio. The words are presented aurally naked — background noise is up to the user. Before us we see a small, geological landscape, a sort of abstract map of tectonic plates. With our arrow keys, or a touchscreen, if your home computer has one, we move left, right, up and down, occasionally encountering images of plants or trees.

The world, the game is telling us, is built on language and communication. If we traverse far enough and venture into some as-yet-undiscovered parts of the game's map, we can leave anonymous messages for someone else to find. But mostly we'll just encounter words, thoughts and memories of others.

In turn, it becomes sort of an antisocial media feed, as we discover the inner thoughts of those stripped of the more performative aspects of online communication. Mostly what we'll find is melancholy, an ever evolving mix of hurt and hope.

"When the messages started to appear, and I realized they were fragmented mementos from those before me," reads one self-referential note, "I don't think I have ever wanted happiness more than I do for you."

"Knights and Bikes"

"Knights and Bikes" begins with a supply delivery. A down-on-its luck island is in financial ruins, its places of escape now shuttered and rotting, and its residents appear ill. Toilet paper arrives in its opening moments, and it's clear from the get-go that this is what passes for a good day on the coasts of Penfurzy. What was initially designed as a comic-like game fit for young adults, and may soon become an animated TV series, suddenly appears to reflect our new reality.

Sounds bleak, but it's not. "Knights and Bikes" puts players — it's recommended to play with a friend, which can be done locally or online — in control of two young girls with vivid imaginations. Video games and playgrounds don't excite Demelza; she wants adventure, and adventure she gets her with new pal Nessa.

An abandoned mini-golf course becomes a gateway to treasure hunting, and as the game unfolds we discover a whole fantastical world of monsters and knights, much of it on bikes (new abilities are introduced slowly, making the game inviting for newcomers).

Or do we? "Knights and Bikes" constantly blurs the line between fiction and reality, and the paper-art style is always shifting. Are we simply seeing what the girls are viewing in their head, or are these events actually happening? Available for home computers, the PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch, "Knights and Bikes" is a love letter to imagination, and how it can help us survive the bleakest of times.

"Sky: Children of the Light"

Consider "Sky: Children of the Light," which has been downloaded more than 10 million times, a modern, interactive fairy tale. Its kingdom is alternately otherworldly and familiar — "Sky" pulls its imagery from the constellations, its mysteries from the stars and its language from music — a place where candles are currency and its challenges are rooted in the quest to understand.

A multiplayer, online-only game, "Sky" encourages collaboration. Through sound and flight we'll illuminate a once-majestic world. We fly together, we play music together, and we explode fireworks rather than bombs. As we learn more about its mythical universe — i.e., become better at the game — we even gain the ability to hug one another and leave notes of gratitude for future travelers.

"Sky," available now for Apple devices and coming soon to Android (a Switch release is planned for 2020), appeals to our adventurous, inquisitive spirit, and its game world is laid out like Disneyland: a hub in the center that leads to various thematic realms. To uncover its secrets we'll have to learn the game's wordless language, which itself becomes part of the adventure.