Thursday, July 20, 2006

Meditative Games

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?



Craig Perko said...

Oh, and it would need really KICKIN' adaptive music running through at least five different cultures...

Chill said...

What about temporal navigation? Like you could go backward and forward in time, in some sort of smooth manner, and be able to change something in the past and then watch it change into the future. Then maybe, rewind, change again and see how it turns out differently. Doesn't even necessarily have to be a entire world, just has to be a system with aestically pleasing results.

Craig Perko said...

Hmmm... I don't see any reason that would be any more difficult than the insane things I've proposed already.

In fact, it might be easier! Yeah, you could use a really small world because the player could go through time and tweak it, essentially expanding it a hundredfold.

But you'd still need evolvent gameplay to keep it interesting... I think...

Time bandits could pop in from "time" to "time", too, giving you fresh chaos when the world gets to be too stale...

Yehuda said...

I was just going to say Myst when I got to the part where you did.

I hate to say it, but a religiously themed game might actually work well here.


Tide (Adam MacDonald) said...

it's a good idea. I mentioned on Raph's site that Cloud is a unique example of a "quiet" aesthetic. Also, Gamers With Jobs did a literal piece on Gaming Meditation awhile back. Thx.

Craig Perko said...

Yehuda: I won't make a religious game. Period. If someone else wants to, they can.

Tide: Thanks for the link, looks interesting.

Chill said...

Well, I suppose you could alter the verbs used by the player depending on what you are changing, what time it is, and how long its been there. That way, part of the game is finding out new ways of changing.

In fact, you could have a system where the verbs that the player would evolve on an algorithimic basis. Create a sort of meta-verb system. Insanity aside, I think that would be pretty cool.

Craig Perko said...

I have to think about it. It's a fascinating idea.

Duncan said...

I would venture that Uru Live is a first step in this direction. It is Myst, but with far more navigational- and community-based play than puzzle play. Especially since once the puzzles are solved, there is only the beauty of the ages left, and the community of people. In it's original design (and hopefully its resurrection) there will be new content regularly, affording an expanding and dynamic world and story. Perhaps not all of your vision, but certainly something that can be experienced without heavy play.

Perhaps closer to your description is Mike Oldfield's perennial vision of MusicVR. Initially an experiential game called Tr3sLunas, and now in a new iteration called Maestro. You experience a semi-dynamic world with the only purpose being to create and share dynamically generated music in a virtual world. He's been working on this for over a decade. The creation of music becomes the draw to return to the game; each experience is new. The game can then grow and change with new additions of content leading to exponential expansion of play. I think that it fits your description fairly well.

Patrick Dugan said...

This is actually somewhat close to what Chris Crawford is trying to do, in the sense of no skill required. Of course, he's eschewing space altogether.

Another interesting approach is the "Drama Princess" that the Endless Forest people are working on.

I imagine a venture like this would require a good platform, otherwise the ROI would be -40% or worse.

I'd like to do something with Dali's paintings, let players explore these surreal landscapes where things change in unpredictable, or seemingly unpredictable ways. As they spend time they begin to grok the arcane rhythms of the world, and thats is the reward. Meta verbs would probably fit right in.

Craig Perko said...

Good links, both of ya. I'm investigating!

Eric Poulton said...

I think you're definitely onto something, but I would personally take a different approach with this. Rather than trying to make a meditative game into a hybrid (which is possible but as you've established, insanely difficult), I would try to find a place that a meditative game can be enjoyed like a painting. I would try to "hang it on the wall."

The most natural fit I can think of is the desktop of your computer. I don't think it would be difficult at all to turn the desktop into a game of sorts. You could replace the static background with a dynamically generated world. For example, you could have a meadow with the grass waving, critters running around, even a basic ecosystem simulation, where seeds blow in the wind and wherever they land, a tree will grow over the course of a few days, etc. The wind could be controlled by the movement of the user's cursor. The scene could change seasons based on the time of year, and could even download weather information and reflect what the weather is like outside. And of course there would be a wide variety of modules (and definitely tools for users to create and share their own) to have all sorts of different types of worlds.

The overhead is probably too heavy to run something like this in the background on today's computers, but I'd be surprised if something like this doesn't come along in the next few years.

I love the ideas that have been thrown out here.

Craig Perko said...

Some games, like Jaruu Tenk, are essentially screensavers. The problem with that theory is simple: you're not looking at the screen when a screen saver turns on. Screen savers aren't something that holds your attention.

Some kind of life simulation which is active on your screen - like Pets, for example - might be the way to go. But you have to be careful not to be too irritating.

Anyhow, it's certainly more doable.

Lots of good comments, guys!

kestrel404 said...

I had a few ideas that could be strung together to create a sort-of game out of this.

First I started with the assumption that you wanted a mechanic that involved travelling long distances through interesting scenery. Not necessarily infinite distances, but enough so that it's effectively infinite. My first thought was to have a walking tour of the Mendelbrot set, but that requires fare more computation and is far less interesting than a lot of the alternatives. My next thought was of a Dyson Sphere - with a livable inner surface covered in city streets.

That's got a lot of appeal, from the game-building standpoint. First, it's a 'nearly-infinite' space (you're NEVER going to circumnavigate the 2 * Pi * 1 AU circumference of the sphere, let along explore the entire surface), you've got a ready-made pretty background no matter which direction you face, and the immediate environment is richly defineable while still being algorithmically generated.

Add a few more elements, like people, traffic, conversations, stores, building interiors, individualized rooms, etc. All of these can be defined algorithmically to any amount of complexity the author feels is worthwhile.

That covers the short-term draw of the game. Why would someone bother playing with this toy for more than an hour? You could add more toys and treadmill advancement (a trading engine to make money, a collect-the-widget quest, a mileage counter that gives bonuses, mini-games). While not boring, that seems pretty average. I haven't come up with a good solution here, unless you can tie it in with my second idea.

'Cause somebody's already gone and developed exactly what you're talking about, Craig. It's called the Internet. It's the ultimate time-sink, with a sort-of exploration game built in, it's multiplayer to the Nth degree (while still having a kickass single-player mode), and there's a very low skill-to-fun ratio involved.

I'm wondering if you can make the internet act MORE like a game than it does now, and what you'd be able to get out of it?

Craig Perko said...

It's not really the same. I don't think of surfing the net as "meditative".