title: "Ambient Games" date: 2020-04-05T11:28:09+10:00
In these trying times, when we're all stuck at home I have turned towards an old habit -- Gaming. I like to consider myself an ex-gamer, but it seems I have a predisposition for addiction. The games I tend to be most fond of are games designed to be 'run'. You get more or less one life, in a brutal generally randomly generated world and the only way you're gonna win is by dying a lot and eventually getting better. These games are generally classified into the roguelike genre, but there's an argument to be made that games like Dark Souls or Dustforce also fit the bill. I grew up playing free-as-in-beer flash games, many of which also fit this theme. These games are very game-y. They tend to follow the rules of games: There are goals which you must complete using only tools provided by the game, death is possible, progression is based on completing the goals, there's always an Amulet of Yendor, etc...
They're nearly endlessly replayable because the skill cap is quite high, the variations are engaging, and the satisfaction of accomplishment, but what if we got rid of goals and accomplishments? In fact I do play these games for a challenge but challenge isn't what I'm after right now.
Lately I've become far more interested in what I've termed ambient games or not-games. Games like Bernband, Library of Babble, Mountain and Kind Words. Conway's Game of Life is not a game. These are decidedly not-games -- they don't have goals, you can't fail, there's no real progression, and tools and interaction tend to be limited to only exploration. In some sense they're modern-day interactive demoes. But ambient games needn't always lack "gameplay". Ritual of the Moon features progression through time and introspection as a gameplay mechanic, but I still think it's a not-game. A Short Hike is almost a game, and you could consider it a walking simulator but the story isn't the focus. Digital Bird Playground has heaps of gameplay, it just doesn't have goals. They all question what we consider games. Ambient games are the spiritual opposite of the 'run'-like game, but they're tied together by their infinite replayability. They all also share a lovely comfy aesthetic, that I first noticed in Proteus which is also a not-game. Real life is hardcore enough right now, I want my games to be soft and cuddly. itch.io has a lot of games in this vein generally featuring gardening or pet keeping (think Neko Atsume) as a mechanic. Sokpop make heaps of these playground games and their games are beautiful, and damn does it make me sad that they don't release Linux builds. An interesting mix of these two games does actually exist. It's called Lonespelunker. It classifies itself as a roguelike, afterall it does follow all the traditonal rules of what it means to be a roguelike (permadeath, random generation, ascii), but it doesn't have any goals other than exploration, and you can't win. I'll hold off on giving it the not-game label even though I think it does apply.
I'm interested in these sorts of experiments. It reminds me of playing made up games with my friends in the playground. More sandbox simulation worlds to explore in totally trivial ways. Less goals, less completion, more exploration of ideas. Interactive Art as a video game.
Of course, the ultimate ambient game is just a pixelart fire place.