This post has been in the making for quite some time. I’ve restarted it twice from scratch but that’s ok, every new beginning is preceded by a magnificent ending.
Zen Games is the idea of a game that allows you to reach a state of relaxation by playing it. Often times we have associated games with the adverse effect of relaxation; when we think of video games we think of action, adventure, guns, explosions, and massive boss fights. Whilst this is, in most cases true there have also been instances of games that can relax you and enthrall you simultaneously. The first couple of games that come to mind are:
These games are special in the sense that their goal is not for you to defeat enemies or save the princess, but instead, they answer the question;
Can a game be relaxing and fun at the same time?
Let’s dive into what Zen Games are and how we as developers can hope to bring new experiences of relaxation, entertainment, and storytelling into our games.
“Journey is a wordless story told through gameplay and visual-only cutscenes. The player’s character begins near a small sand dune in a vast desert. Walking to the top of the dune, the character can see looming in the far distance a large mysterious mountain with a glowing crevice that splits its peak.” Wikipedia
This game is FANTASTIC! When Journey came out back in 2012 there had rarely been an experience like it before. It depicted a tall figure dressed in a red robe that whilst not able to talk was still able to tell a story through its movements and the way it interacted with its environment.
Personally, the things that made this game a Zen game and perhaps the first if not one of the first of this kind of gaming experience was the effortless combination of a flowing movement that resembles that of a piece of cloth waving in the wind, with a soundtrack that was relaxing and interesting all at the same time. It is important to note that this combination of movement/player controls and music is a staple of all other zen games as well. The way the player can control the character will dictate the potential of a game to bring the player to a state of Zen, a clunky game gives stress and anxiety; the opposite of zen.
This flowing movement was enhanced by vast desert landscapes and the flying interactive elements in the environment.
Journey is a piece of art, and sure all games can be considered art, but when we look at Journey we see a game that can take a player from frustration and anger after a hard’s day of work to a zen state of pure relaxation and bliss.
Another very important aspect of the Zen Games is its color palettes and the way color is used to invoke certain emotions from the player. Let’s take a look at a couple of different levels from Journey and break down how color is used to enhance the experience of the player.
By taking a look at these screenshots we can see how the colors are predominantly used in such a way that no single color is clashing with the rest of the palette. Normally we see vast expanses of space interconnected with large often dark contrasting buildings/structures giving a feeling of always being in a wide open space, even when we are inside a room we feel like we can breathe.
It is important to note that games in this new genre we are deeming Zen Games, are essentially enjoyed through the act of existing inside of it rather than conquering, dominating, or beating a level through standard means of game progression. When it comes to Zen Games players are just as happy playing the game as they are simply having it on the screen and enjoying the beautiful music, wonderful art, and cinematic animation. It’s almost as if the game itself is a living breathing entity that we must co-exist with and appreciate rather than domineer and beat into submission.
Like a flower that we must take care of and enjoy its growth through patience and active observation. This brings us to our next game.
When I first got Journey it was actually bundled with this game. At first, it seemed like just a test demo, but upon closer inspection, I realized that I was looking at the predecessor of Journey as well as many other games that would follow soon after it.
Flower was created by thatgamecompany, the same studio to produce Journey and at first glance, it appears to be nothing more than a demo for testing out the wind mechanics as well as the flowy movement of our Red Robed Hero in Journey. Flower is however much more than that. According to Wikipedia;
“Flower was primarily intended to arouse positive emotions in the player, rather than to be a challenging and “fun” game.”
Here we see yet another staple of what we call “Zen Games” the innate goal of creating positive emotions in the player such as relaxation, joy, curiosity, and wonder. In this game, you play as a petal flowing in the wind and it is your mission to guide this petal along the beautiful and expansive countryside setting in order to open up more flowers and grow your flock of flowing petals.
Coupled with reflective chords that are brought to life with each new petal collected, we are brought into a meditative experience much like a bell being rung in our deepest states of relaxation. Through the use of non-violent story progression, we slowly rejuvenate the decrepit city with our stream of wonderful flowers, and a new theme is added to our arsenal of “Zen Games” definitions. Growth.
Zen games are defined by their use of slow story progression, contemplative design, and a knack to bring the player to introspection. Flow is by no means an exception. In this inventive game of carnivorous musicality, we are tasked with the mission of eating as many “cells” as we can in order to further our growth. Whilst this might sound combative or hedonistic in nature, it actually is a relaxing and trance-inducing experience very much like meditating or going out into nature.
The beautiful score is accompanied by our inputs which allows us to become part-time orchestra conductors with each new being we consume. This is a beautiful example of how simple Zen Games can be and how good controls coupled with a wonderful soundtrack and simple art design can give us a sense of peace and allow us room to breathe, think and be.
Simple art mixed with a beautiful soundtrack by Austin Wintory, allows the players to zone out and enter a state much like deep rest. These moments whilst often few and far between in other games are the bread and butter of Zen games, due to the fact that the whole goal of these sorts of games is to relax, enjoy and reflect upon the inner silence caused by these experiences. There are no hard boss battles, no finicky controls that we must overcome nor stressful music that triggers our adrenaline receptors, there is only peace, melody, and aesthetical pleasantries. Far from boring these games are captivating, exciting, and riddled with deep meaning.
Zen Games follow a simple yet proven formula;
- Simple to digest art style: Whether that means a cohesive palette of colors or big shapes without too many noisy details and complicated edges and curves, the goal is to fill the screen without cluttering it.
- Beautiful sound design, bonus if the player has a hand co-creating the score with their inputs.
- Large open explorable spaces. That allows the player room to breathe and wonder.
- Easy to understand and easy-to-use controls.
- Clearly defined goals and storytelling elements.
- Accessible to new and veteran gamers alike.
The idea is to create an experience that relaxes, an experience that allows you to sit back on your couch and let go of time and space and just zen out, instead of having you at the edge of your seat screaming at the TV because you got headshotted for the 20th time in a row.
A wonderful side effect of Zen Games is that they can serve as the first point of contact between video game culture and nongamers. Because of their innate nature of relaxation and exploration through simple but profound experiences, would-be gamers can easily grow accustomed to controls, joysticks, and the interconnected environments apparent in all sorts of video games. Often these Zen Games are devoid of enemies or hard puzzles which makes them a great first grab for small children, non-gamers, and the elderly. The perfect way in which the music and the art combines also makes for great bonding experiences between people that can no doubt last lifetimes.
Often these experiences are short and to the point in terms of objectives with added benefits coming to the dedicated players that decide to run through them again, once or twice more in order to experience new things that the beautiful environments can offer. These sorts of experiences are meant to be played almost like meditative explorations, being revisited every couple of days for as little as 5 minutes with each playthrough. The end goal is a sudden boost in mood and a positive change in perception. These are perfect experiences to be had in the early times of the morning, right before going to work in order to have a positive outlook on your day, or at the end of a hard day at work in order to let go of the stresses of the working day, and transition gently into a restful good night’s sleep.
Another staple of importance in the genre of Zen Games is the interconnected nature of player and environment. In many cases, the player acts as a conduit of growth and expansion to the often dead and broken environment in which they inhabit. Always bringing with them positive changes to the spaces by the employment of non-action or simply by existing inside of these broken environments are they bringing positive change into these worlds.
You can play the original flash flow game here:
If you’ve ever wanted to explore the vast oceans whilst relaxing and enjoying the beauty that underwater nature can offer then ABZÛ is the game for you. Led by creative director Matt Nava who previously worked as the artistic director of thatgamecompany, ABZÛ is a game about taking a spiritual pilgrimage through deep underwater ruins whilst revitalizing your surroundings by giving them a bit of the light energy carried inside you.
Swim with whales, discover beautiful species of fish and enjoy the tranquil environments of deep sea diving without leaving your couch. Color in this game is used to such a beautiful degree, with so much blue one would think that the game would turn nostalgic, sad, or boring at times but then you throw beautiful flora and wonderfully colorful sea life in the mix and you have a truly majestic experience to look at.
ABZÛ to me feels like if you took the feeding of animals in the Okami game, put it underwater, and made a whole game around it, and I’m 100% here for it! It is truly an experience to dive into (pun intended.) You can even meditate underwater and just enjoy the beautiful sea life swimming all around you. It is truly relaxing.
ABZÛ is definitely a chill nonviolent underwater exploration game.
If ABZÛ can teach anything new about making Zen Games it is in how the player is controlled. Being a scuba diving underwater game all the player movements have to be entirely smooth, there is no lag, no clunkiness. This type of smooth-like butter control allows the players to just zen out because they know that wherever they move they won’t have to think about it, they simply move and the character will respond accordingly. Compare this type of movement with something like Super Mario’s run from one direction to another, the way he slides and compensates in order to turn in the other direction is the sort of smoothness you’ll be aiming for when creating Zen Games. The experience of handling the player will lend itself to the high immersion required to reach the Nirvanic stage that Zen Games can offer, mess up player controls and you’ll have an anxiety-inducing game in your hands.
It is important to note that not only will you be handling player controls to the extent that they feel fun and smooth to play with but you will also have to keep in mind the different npcs that your game will handle. Zen Games tend to rely heavily on a nature-friendly environment and in the case of ABZÛ we see how important it was to get the sea life to move in a realistic manner. If the fishes felt clunky to look at you would have been instantly taken out of the experience, so studying real-world animal movement and how everything behaves in their natural environment will be key to delivering a Zen experience like none other. Doesn’t matter if your Zen Game is set on an alien world, having a good grasp of real-world animation motion will go a long way to deliver the desired experience.
If the idea behind Zen Games can be summarized into one statement it would perhaps be in this quote by Jenova Chen, co-founder and creator of ThatGameCompany “If games could be compared to movies, television…theater, and a combination of other media – then [all components of the game] should work together like an orchestra and play in harmony to make the story stronger.”
Games explore the different emotions in the human psyche and through the Zen games genre, we are able to explore parts previously unexplored in gaming. Things like fear, violence, and anger have been explored ad infinitum yet quietness, stillness, hope, curiosity, and peace have been put on the back burner. It is important as game designers to explore the whole spectrum of human emotions because through this we learn how to better deal with problems, and we learn to co-exist with each other and our environments and finally with ourselves.
Zen Games relate to a vast majority of people because they touch upon themes that resonate with a lot of people. Themes like nature, themes like life, death, being alone, and exploration. Themes that every human being has felt or considered at one point in their lives.
Zen Games are also known as walking simulators or exploration games, however, it is my opinion that both these genres are different from the Zen Game, as a walking simulator does not necessarily bring relaxation like a Zen game world, nor does it display the sort of musical/player control that is inherent in Zen Games. The Exploration game could also be considered an open-world sort of game with puzzles like Jonathan Blow’s The Witness, which although quite relaxing and introspective is much more about the puzzles and discovering the secrets hidden in the game instead of inside one’s self.
Zen Games allow you to project your thoughts, feelings, and ideas into the narrative of the story. The fewer things set in stone the easier it is for the player to project their own emotions into it, this allows the developers to gently guide the player towards new emotions and new ideas by nudging slightly with music, environmental design, and story to the direction of peaceful enjoyment.
I myself as a game developer and artist, am doing my part to add to this new genre of games with my title Moai.
Moai aims to bring players to stillness and introspection with a 2d platforming experience that relies heavily on the mechanic of meditation and rewarding patience with melodic music and in-game environmental rewards. Meditate under a tree and perhaps an apple might fall on you or meditate near a deer and perhaps the deer will come closer to you and allow you to pet him. Little things like this will no doubt increase replayability but actually letting the player meditate and wait, will give a whole new aspect to the Zen games genre. In Moai, you are living an interactive meditation.
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References/Other Articles to read on this subject:
ThatGameCompany released the fourth game in their Zen Games title run called Sky and whilst I have not had the chance to play it, it definitely looks like a great title to pick up if you’re into these sorts of games.
ThatGameCompany’s first game was actually a student game called Cloud it can be found and played online and seems to involve similar mechanics to Sky.
Giant Skid, the studio that brought you Abzu released a new title called The Pathless, which seems to be a cross between Journey and Shadow of the Colossus. I’ve yet to play this game but will be adding it to my list for sure.
Shadow of the Colossus is semi-Zen with its really long and contemplative horse rides between Colossus and its wonderful sound design. Those really long rides really make you wonder whether what you’re doing is a good thing or a bad thing.