Sometimes, people make a game for something other than gameplay fun. Some of these, as I've mentioned in the past, are called "games with a message" and suck. That's because they're trying to use the paradigm to get a message across, and like giant companies starting a blog, it doesn't work. The algorithms that let it work are not suitable given their goals and restrictions.
But sometimes you're forced to admit: what we consider gameplay is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of games which provide an experience that is wholly different from any of the "kinds of play" we generally endorse. They require no real skill, they have formless or unimportant goals.
Games like that weird "flying through clouds" game, or that "deer running through a forest game", or even the chronicals of Jaruu Tenk, which is a bit like an adventure game without any of the adventuring. There's also dozens of quirky little flash games that fit the bill.
These games are rare, but they provide an experience totally unlike any other games you can find. Raph's silly flapping thing is an example: with primitive graphics, bad UI, and charming music, it has NO goals or challenges of any kind. But it's still a very relaxing five minutes.
The thing about these games - and the reason they are so rare - is that they die quick. They are very relaxing, very calming, but they offer nothing juicy enough to keep us coming back. We learn everything there is to learn about the game, then move on.
These things are like a painting: you can love a painting. You can buy a painting. But you aren't going to spend a significant amount of your time over weeks or months staring earnestly at a painting. Maybe if you could hang one of these meditative games on a wall...
Normal games are more like books. They take serious time to get through and, a few months or years later, you may even read them again.
The question is... is there some way to produce a hybrid? A very relaxing game which keeps players coming back?
The game must have no real goals, but it must still have rewards that mean something to the player. The game must require no skill, but it must still offer a landscape which varies enough to hold interest.
How can something have meaningful rewards when the player doesn't need skill to get them and can't be rewarded power for getting them?
I'm sure there are many ways. Pipe up if you have any ideas. Here's the one I ran with:
The first, obvious answer is MMORPGs. They've already been nixing the skill requirements from them, replacing it with a time requirement. The same basic solution serves well in this case, too: it is not skill which this meditative game needs, but time.
The rewards and varying landscape are somewhat more difficult to achieve. We could follow in the footsteps of Jaruu Tenk, with a world that evolves over time. But that world is too small: in order to hold my interest, the world would need to be very large, and scripting a large world to change over time is flat-out impossible.
Most of these games have extremely limited worlds. "Small" is a misnomer, since most of them have infinite worlds which simply don't have anything in them. The reason for this is simple: it takes a lot to develop large worlds, and these games are always labors of love.
Some have larger worlds which don't change at all or change in meaningless ways. I think these games hold attention longer, but the difference between five minutes and twenty minutes is not enough to celebrate.
So, the solution I see is a game with a procedurally generated and self-altering world.
The thing is, the world has to be interesting, and it has to change in understandable but interesting ways.
Think of it as Myst, minus the puzzles, plus Pets, minus the feeding. You bomb lazily around this imaginary world, and you find out all sorts of really neat things... and the world changes even as you watch. Generations pass. Civilizations rise and change. New and interesting things happen.
Is it possible?
You would need to have some way of generating culturally significant content in a way which appeared to make sense. You would need to simulate people, but since the player wouldn't be interacting as a person, this would be significantly easier than it would otherwise need to be.
You would need to have some way for the player to interact with the world "vaguely" - such that there was no skill required, preferably not even a conscious UI - but we could lead the world automatically down the paths the player is most interested in.
Procedurally generating a world is insane. You would need to either simulate or pretend to simulate ecologies, cultures, buildings, cities, resource-gathering, technological/magical advance, people at war, people in love, people being born, people growing old, people knowing legends... and let the player meander through it, trailing sparks of interest behind him which take root and make the world change.
How could it all be done?
You would, of course, fake it. Fake ALLLLLLL of it. Even assuming that, it's still insane. And it would have to be done graphically: a text engine would not suit the mood.
Even then, I'm not convinced. The game dynamic itself would need to mutate over time, because once you're sick of the basic method of play, the game goes in the trash. And you get pretty sick of a zero-skill system pretty quick.
For example, if the primary method of play is spatial navigation (and it almost certainly is) your limits and capabilities need to change from day to day. Perhaps one day you play a bird. Later, you play a cat. Then a ghost. A butterfly. All are mobile things, but each provides an interesting new way to navigate the universe.
More powerfully, having your way of looking at the universe change over time would be even better. For example, as a butterfly you can only flap during the day. When night falls, you sleep. As a cat, the exact opposite. If you played a tree, you would see the world evolving, people growing old and having children around you in an impressionist swirl. As a bee, perhaps the world seems frozen in time to you, humans moving impossibly slowly. As a ghost, perhaps you can see the swirl of interpersonal relationships pulling humans towards each other, but be unable to see the physical walls which make up their world.
Is it even possible?