Over the last month, new video games have tackled unexpected subjects in unpredictable ways. One release was designed to capture the sensation of seeing a newborn smile for the first time. Another sought to illustrate how an entire family could drift apart after the death of a beloved grandfather.
The former was over in about 30 seconds. The latter took a couple of minutes. Both have since disappeared.
The games are part of the online project Meditations, which officially launched Jan 1. The free, web-based platform, led by independent developer Rami Ismail, delivers a new game each day of the year — yes, all 365 of them.
The games are bite-size and can be completed in less than five minutes, but there’s a catch: Each is available for only 24 hours, at which point it gets archived until it appears again on the same day in 2020.
So far, there has been a wide swath of games; some are puzzles, others are relatively abstract and most are lightly interactive experiences designed to provoke an emotion. There have been games, for instance, about family, pets, anger, anxiety and pure effervescent joy.
More than 350 developers created games for Meditations; many are professionals, some are students, and they come from all over the globe. If there’s any sort of connective thread among the works, it’s that they all feel deeply personal and embody a belief that games are as intimate as they are playful. The games are also text-free; that’s one of Ismail’s requirements.
“What I want to prove with this is that games are a more global language than any written or spoken language we have,” says Ismail, co-founder of Dutch studio Vlambeer (“Ridiculous Fishing”).
“English is a lovely lingua franca for our planet, but if you put a soccer ball on the ground and kick it toward someone, they understand they need to kick it back,” he continues. “There's no discussion needed beyond a signal of me being playful. So play with me.”
Think of each new game in the Meditations series as akin to discovering a song; after all, they’re about the same length. Most, when finished, simply close, a digital representation of self-destructing. And while it’s likely that many people will hear about a Meditations game after the 24-hour window has passed, for some of the participating designers, that was the draw.
“I think the fact that you can only play each game on a certain day gives them additional value,” says Spanish developer Luis Díaz Peralta, who releases many of his games for free and often wonders if they’ll find an audience.
“There is something beautiful about fleeting things,” says Southern California developer John Vanderhoef, “like shooting stars or a momentary field full of fireflies.”
Ismail was inspired in part to start the project after discovering and playing the short puzzle game “Tempres,” a work that asks the player to slow down in order to solve it.
“After completing it,” he says, “I felt calmer. I thought that was fascinating. It was a little five-minute thing I played, and my day had a color to it. It had a tone to it.”
He began to want a daily game-based ritual. “I wanted 365 days to have a color from a game — an inspiration, a thought, a moment of empathy, a challenge, a consideration or thoughtfulness.”
Each Meditation is preceded with a brief mission statement from the designer.
For Jan. 2, Adriel Wallick wrote of the struggles of an introvert. Wallick’s game required players to carefully manage the growth of a circle to conserve and expend its energy, serving as a metaphor for time alone versus time spent socially.
The following day, Lisa Brown went deep on depression. Brown’s stark game put players in control of a tiny purple fairy who struggled to get a human-like figure to leave the room. Make it out and you are enveloped by beaming light. But doing so was a challenge and required flopping up and over a pit of a despair; succumbing to its bleakness was far easier.
“I think a lot of games, especially larger games, are forced to take a more literal approach,” says Ismail. “When you make a game that is more akin in length to a song, you get more abstract modes of interaction and abstract modes of communication.
“That means they map better to the human experience,” he continues, adding, “ It's like, 'Here is a feeling.' It's a single statement and action.”
Adds Jupiter Hadley, who helped curate the project, “These are like concentrated versions of the feelings and emotions the developers wanted to bring out.”
Peralta’s black-and-white game focused on his family’s celebrations on Three Kings Day and how they were forever changed when a grandfather passed away. In one scene, we see the family gathering to sing. In another, years later, the family members are isolated and drift off on their own.
“My mother saw people on Twitter talking about the game and asked me to show it to her,” Peralta says. “That caught me off guard. I started the game and sat behind her silently, not knowing what to expect. I was quite nervous. When she was finished, she told me it was beautiful and she sent it over to a few more relatives, who also wrote me back to say they loved it.”
Love and loss also figured into the game of Finland’s Kimmo Lahtinen, who used an innocent and inviting drawing to show a young child sitting at a table with a grandparent. As the game unfolds, the player tries to stop everything on the screen from disappearing — an ultimately fruitless act.
“The sadness and overwhelming futility of fighting against time was definitely intentional — make people remember their loved ones and think about things they remember and haven't thought about in a long time,” Lahtinen says. “Sadness in itself isn't necessary the feeling I have about my memories of my grandmother — they are more happy and hopeful — but you have to let the project be what it wants to be instead of forcing it into some specific direction.”
Not all the games, of course, have such a diary-like tone. Vanderhoef, a gamemaker and assistant professor of film, television and media at Cal State Dominguez Hills, was approached late in the project, and Jan. 19 was simply one of the remaining dates. So he found a true-life event — a helicopter carrying workers to an oil rig that was struck by lightening.
A docu-game, Vanderhoef’s entry used old-school pixels to illustrate the rescue mission. Players had little control, as the game shifted from day to night in silence. “Ocean storms, though terrible to be in, have a natural and horrific beauty to them,” Vanderhoef says. “The game wants to capture a sense of adventure, dread — existential dread — and ultimately salvation. I wanted the audience to feel the beats of that journey, short as it may be.”
The hoped-for audience, says Ismail, is those who don’t consider themselves game players — the people, perhaps, who participated in Netflix’s choose-your-own adventure “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” and discovered that games not only surround us but can tackle any subject.
“Being playful would once save your life,” Ismail says. “If you climbed a tree for fun, and a tiger came, you'd be in that tree a lot faster than someone who didn't. We want to be playful. It gets beaten out of us by society, but we want to play. It's a powerful part of being a human.
“It's not a wonder,” he concludes, “that this is the defining medium of our century.”