Meditative Gaming

With the slew of modern games mostly revolving around beating ten tonnes of shite out of something, someone or even each other, it’s refreshing to know that we do have a few alternatives.  The kind of games for those off-days where we feel like slipping in to a hypnotic coma and waking up to a repetition of colourful lights and custom music.
Meditative gaming (although not strictly a recognised genre yet) is an aspect of gaming that I have been rather enthused about on and off for a long time now.  Coincidentally, the frequency of such experiences always creep up on me, unawares, in much the same way as the hypnotic states they induce, such as a daydream or hallucinogenic drug that suddenly catches you off guard.  Subconsciously I’m drawn in, suddenly immersed, and before I know it, the dinner that I so carefully prepared and put in to the oven three hours ago has now burnt in to a lump of coal and firemen are breaking down my door while I remain oblivious to the rest of the outside world.

Meditative games usually involve: repetition (but not in a way that is boring or even consciously acknowledged), a constant focus on one element of the game, colourful and abstract visuals and, moody music (which can often be exchanged for your own custom music depending on the game in question).

So, what are examples of meditative games?  Well, I’ve put together a few here.  I’m sure there are plenty more and probably a few I’ve missed but anyway, here goes.

Every Extend Extra Extreme: a rather long winded title, and the kind of title that we see bandied around a lot these days with developers poking fun at the old school arcade and console titles of the 80s.  Today we have titles such as Super Meat BoyPowerUp Forever or the more controversial: Super Columbine Massacre RPG!  If the trend continues I’m sure we can expect titles in the future lavished with just as many superlatives; Super Knitting Fanatic Turbo Edition or Extreme Granny Bandit 5000 as a couple of examples.

But let’s just call it E4 for now.  E4 involves moving a small ship around the screen which is filled with moving shapes.  When the time is right you can detonate your ship causing a chain reaction that detonates all the little shapes around it.  When this happens each detonated shape provides an extra beat or layered element to the music.  The process is repeated and if you can keep the chain reaction going, the beats keep coming, building in to a cacophony of blissful electronica.  Get hit by one of the shapes and your ship is destroyed at which point the music dips to the basic melody you started with.  The effect of breaking the chain can be quite sudden and removes you from your previous trance-like state, bringing your conscious self back to reality.

Then there’s AudioSurf, a game that generates a virtual highway based on a music track of your choice.  This virtual road that you ride down undulates and accelerates according to the structure of the track you’re playing.  On the way, hit the coloured blocks scattered along the three highway lanes and avoid the grey ones. The blocks provide a certain focal point which draws your whole attention in to the game.

In AudioSurf, you’re not just listening to the music but you ARE the music, moving with the ebb and flow of the melody, responding to every beat, every jump in tempo and timbre.  As such, the immersion and focus on the symbiosis between music and game is pretty captivating.

Rez is also worth a mention.  The original game on Playstation 2 and Dreamcast pays homage to the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky.  As one of the founders of abstract art, Kandinsky’s work not only inspired the visual style of the game but also the name of the virtual world the player inhabits: The K-Project.

Flying gracefully through cyberspace, the timing of your targeted destruction of the viruses inside K-Project provides a layered beat to the music in a similar fashion to E4.  The hypnotic visuals and connection between your own interactions and the musical score make it an experience not dissimilar to watching Tron after drinking a pint of battery acid.

It’s evident that a lot of these games utilise music as an important aspect of their mechanics.  Rez in particular was designed to induce synesthesia, a state of mind where two separate cognitive functions mesh to form one whole experience.  In the case of Rez this was of course the interaction between the AI and its connection to the music.

flOw and Flower: two Playstation 3 games released through the PS3’s PSN network.  Both created by the independent American developerthatgamecompany (or TGC for short) they are an attempt to tap in to an emotional experience unseen in most games and make this experience accessible to a broad range of players.  Both games are probably more akin to relaxing meditative experiences than hypnotic ones. If Rez and E4 are cosmic acid trips then flOw and Flower are lovely, steamy bubble baths.

flOw involves guiding a microscopic-like organism around an eerie vacant ocean.  Your creature (if we can call it that) can consume smaller organisms and in doing so evolves its structure before diving deeper down in to the ocean to face bigger and more complex creatures.  Evolution is a strong theme throughout and is quite similar to Spore’s initial cell stage.

Flower is the spiritual successor to flOw and is meant to induce an emotional experience of relaxation and contentment.  Controlling the wind, you guide a single flower petal across a dark foreboding landscape bringing colour and life to the world.  There is no written narrative and it shuns many of the features that are so common in games: no lives, no points and no losing; it exists simply to evoke positive feelings.

Like FlowerEndless Ocean on Wii does away with the traditional aspects of videogame culture and gives us a free-roaming relaxing experience as a scuba diver in the depths of an ocean.  There is no stress and no resistance, no enemies and no game-over.  You simply explore the depths of the ocean discovering sunken treasure and photographing various fish to your heart’s content.  The game also allows the use of custom music so you can swim along happily to your own personal soundtrack.  While for some it may sound as exciting as a day trip to Swindon, for others it can provide an immersive tranquil experience and a fresh alternative to the grinding gears of war and constant calls to duty that we are so often bombarded with.

Wipeout (series): the first game in the series brought the original Playstation in to the media spotlight and became one of the most popular first release games on the system.  As a futuristic racing game, players glide around the gutter-like tracks at high speed using various power-ups to take advantage of their opponents.  Part of the popularity of the series can be attributed to the soundtracks which featured some of the best electronic artists of the time: The Future Sound of LondonThe Chemical BrothersOrbitalFlukeUnderworldPhotekLeftfieldDaft PunkSource Direct(whose track 2097 was created specifically for Wipeout 2097) and The Prodigy.  This popular mix of artists also prompted Ministry of Sound nightclub in London to install their own Playstation with a playable version of the game available to clubbers.

First time players may find the game a little taxing and would probably frustratingly bash in to the wall of every curve, like some mad, alcoholic Han Solo.  However, once a player has mastered the art of silkily gliding round corners, keeping a constant steady flow around the track, the result is a toxic mix of focussed hypnosis and euphoria over your new found finesse.

So there it is really, a mix of some of the best mind blowing, mescaline fuelled trip-out games. Try playing these at night with the lights out for the ultimate in mind-bending hypnotic gaming.

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