Meditations is a collage of everything the independent industry is, and a blueprint of what it can be.
There’s a reason we view many games as time sinks. Start clocking up the hours in your favourite escape and you’ll start feeling guilty about the errands you’ve ignored in the process. That double take of the clock at 1am when you swear you only just got home from work, that’s the feeling of a time sink. Across the spectrum of gaming, each disparate genre and game share one commonality: distraction. As gamers, we tend to play games every day, at similar times. The act of play is, in an abstract kind of way, a meditation. While play can act as a habit to ground ourselves, projects rarely attempt to make us feel present within the game while also present in our own lives. We often treat descriptors like “immersive” as positive signs of an engaging or addictive storyline or gameworld, but can the medium do more than distract us? Can it facilitate change in our real lives in the same way we’re levelling up in our virtual ones?
Meditations, a lightweight game launcher by Rami Ismail that delivers small indie games every day, is a conscious tirade against gaming’s reliance on distraction. By utilising indie gaming’s inherent sense of personal expression, ludologically focused experiences and direct communication of message, Meditations acts as a daily reminder to not only connect to the medium but to check-in with ourselves. To have you reflect, rather than to distract.
This brand of meditation has been successfully popularised by apps such as Headspace. Meditations is different. By incorporating player agency it engages us deeply in the experiences we play and allows us to posit each experience in relation to our own lives as opposed to distracting us from them. The project’s central question – to ask “What if every day, there was a small message from the past with a small game or toy to play with?” – could not be possible without indie gaming’s design philosophy and development process.
Providing small, bitesize chunks of gameplay, Meditations harkens back to the origins of independent development as a grassroots industry movement, focusing on concentrated ideas told in the most efficient way possible. By not having to follow a publisher’s budgetary expectations or limitations, the launcher can offer a full 365 distinct games from Ismail’s selection of developers. Smaller budgets mean focused designs, and while Meditations is only six games deep as of writing, so far each game has squeezed the maximum amount of meaning from these minimal designs. Each game has been deeply indebted to indie development’s unique economic and design expectations, focusing on singular ideas to carry their messages. In 2019, these concentrated messages delivered through interactive means are where the independent industry needs to sow its seeds to finish bringing the medium into the era of respected artistic expression.
The standout game so far is perhaps the simplest: Energy. Inspired by the creator’s life as an “outgoing introvert,” Energy tasks players with enlarging a circle until it covers the screen. The size of the circle is manipulated by clicking down on the mouse, but if players apply too much pressure without adequate rest, the game restarts. By simply offering a circle and one mechanic, Energy presents an engrossing visual manifestation of introversion, and a representation of the tools needed to overcome any anxieties surrounding introversion, free of any triple-A expectations.
At its core, Meditations is not only a love letter to self-care and self-analysis, but also to the merits of indie games. Independent development cannot afford the same luxuries as larger, triple-A titles, but this can be a blessing in disguise. The launcher shows that indie games have a distinct advantage over their bigger budget counterparts: their immediate poignancy and message. Instead of getting bogged down in the superfluous, Meditations is a catalyst to check in on ourselves through directness. While a simple message portrayed through simple means can be extremely powerful, it’s this notion of directness that indie games in 2019 need to achieve. With directness comes clarity, and in an increasingly complex ecosystem of loot boxes, DLC and post-release fixes, the independent industry can draw on this keen sense of lucidity to offer these streamlined messages in a highly engaging manner.
In fact, so far Meditations presents games that rely on gameplay and a short description alone. While these descriptions can amount to what is essentially light stories, such as in the case of the emotionally poignant 5J, Meditations is an attempt to remind us of what originally drew people to games themselves, pushing gameplay to the forefront. Indie games are perfect facilitators for making gameplay their central draw, free from the expectations of narrative or glitzy trimmings.
The simplicity and clarity of indie games can be amplified by the use of ludological expression – using play itself to transform a player’s self-narrative. While indie game storylines are often some of the most nurtured and well-loved in the entire gaming industry, the same attention should be paid to ludological elements of indie games in 2019. Indie developers have the power to push the medium in new and exciting ways, and we’ve seen it in brand new mechanics coming almost exclusively out of the independent arena over the last decade. 2019 should be the year we utilise such creative freedom for ludology as well as story.
The small nature of these games translates to the merits of meditation, in which small steps bring us closer to a bigger goal, larger than the sums of its parts. In utilising independent developers to provide each small step, Meditations ensures there will be enough variety to stretch out over a period of a year. Again, currently we are only a week into the launcher’s offerings, but so far, each game has been wildly different from each other. The reason why: their individual trust in their singular design idea, which is synonymous with independent development. Independent development is built on the foundations of personal expression, and when a developer trusts in their focused design message that personal expression can be distinctly purposeful without eating budget and development time.
Meditations is, in a word, focused. Each game in this launcher can be described as a concerted effort to use the personality of indie games to promote a meditative mindset. These games would not be where they are without meditation in mind and Meditations would not be possible without the clarity of messaging, ludological attention, and personal expression indie games bring. What Ismail has achieved here is a launcher that marries the meditations of play and routine, allowing us to take the year to change the way we interact with our passion. More than that, though, the key concepts being explored in this project can provide a structure for the way our independent industry can evolve and truly incorporate its strengths into its artistic trajectory in 2019.