The best thing about gaming is the variety of different experiences available. No other form of entertainment takes us to as many worlds or allows us to live as many lives. I’ve been a soldier, and an inter-planetary guardian of Earth. I’ve killed Kings, assassinated politicians, saved lives and taken them. I’ve walked the forests of Wisconsin and driven the roads of Edinburgh. I’ve visited the stars, and the world beneath the waves.
Whenever I hear people talking about the games that they enjoy and they rattle off a long list of AAA games, I can’t help but feel that they’re missing out on something. AAA games are all well and good, don’t get me wrong, but they’re the stadium rock of gaming. They’re the U2 at the Enormodome of digital experiences. They’re big, they’re fun, they’re bombastic and loud, but they aren’t the be-all and end-all of games. I enjoy them as much as the next game player – but I like to offset them with smaller, more intimate experiences. Games that are the equivalent of a tiny little club gig; the ones where you can smell the sweat, and the singer talks to the audience between songs.
I think of these smaller games like palette cleansers. Looking back over the posts in this blog, I’ve dedicated a lot of time to commenting on these big games and made precious little mention of the smaller ones that I enjoy – and that critically I think more people should play. It’s time to rectify that, I think.
These are my favourite zen games. I don’t know if the phrase ‘zen games’ is a thing or not, but it’s the term I use to collect this little bunch together – they’re mostly calm, and when played in a darkened room with headphones on can bring me into an almost trance-like state, where nothing exists other than the lights on the screen and the pad in my hand and the music in my headset. Few AAA games ever really manage to achieve this in the way these four do. They calm me down and inspire me, and can change the gear my brain is cruising in. They help me to reset - and sometimes I need that more than I need the frustration-venting chaos of a first-person shooter.
I first played Aaero at a stand at Insomnia back in late 2016. I think. Maybe it was early 2017. At any rate, I'd never played anything quite like it before - and it stuck with me more than anything else I played that day. Fast forward to its release in April 2017, and I'd been looking forward to it for several months. The premise of the game is simple - keep the ship on the rails, and shoot the enemies that intermittently appear. Keeping time to the music (which is an awesome set of licensed dub-step tracks) will help enormously. Dance music isn't really my go-to type of music, but it's hard to imagine Aaero using anything else - the mesh between music and visuals and gameplay is just perfect.
Looking at the game's scoreboard, in comparison to the top players, I absolutely suck at Aaero - but it never feels like it when I'm playing it. That's not to say it's easy or forgiving as it absolutely isn't, but the difficulty ramps up at a near perfect rate. Once of the things I love about it the most though is just how different it is. I've never played anything else like it. Oh, and it's developed by a tiny little team called Mad Fellows who are just up the road from me. If there's one thing I love more than a cool indie game, it's a locally developed cool indie game. These days, it's a game I still head back to regularly. I find it's a good frustration breaker. If I'm stuck on another game, or just need to clear my head, Aaero gets reached for.
Race The Sun
The premise of Race The Sun is simple. The sun is going down, and you need to travel as far as you can before it does, without crashing. Your craft is solar powered so you need to avoid shadows, and you need to pick up as many collectibles as you can. You get rewarded for pickups, for entering hidden zones, and for surviving further and further. The best thing about Race The Sun though is how the world works - it's procedurally generated, and resets periodically. This means that each session with the game presents you with a new world to learn an optimal route through, rewarding both memory and exploration. As soon as you crash, you're thrown back to the start in a heartbeat and the game re-starts - meaning that a 'quick 5 minute go' will often last a lot longer as 'one more try-itis' kicks in.
Of all the games I play to induce that zen like state, this is probably the one that does it fastest. In a dark room with headphones on, you can find a serious groove with this game. It was free on Xbox Live a month or two ago, and I don't think I've gone more than a couple of days without playing it since I downloaded it. It becomes fiendishly difficult after a fairly short period of time, but the feeling of satisfaction when you clear an area you haven't managed before, or when you sail past the name of someone on your friends list is pretty sublime.
Spectra's biggest selling point is probably its chiptune soundtrack, put together by British artist Chipzel (you can find her here) by manipulating a soundchip from an old Nintendo Gameboy. The premise is simple - the game produces a track that will take you as long to finish as the piece of music that accompanies it. Your job is to stay on the track, first and foremost. If you can pick up the glowing squares too for extra points and boost, so much the better. It sounds like an old game, looks like an old game dragged kicking and screaming into the HD era, and plays with a level of precision that the old games that inspired it could only fantasise about.
Spectra is the odd game on this list in some ways, because it's really hard. Pretty much right from the start, it's a difficult game to win at. Later, once you've played on the Hard difficulty setting, going back and playing on Normal will feel like playing in slow motion. But if you stick with it, it gets there - into that zone where the music and the screen respond flawlessly to your thumbs on the stick, and all that exists is you and the pixels and the music. It's been out for a while now, but it's still worth checking out.
I can't remember how I discovered Abzu. It may have been a trailer, it may have just been a thumbnail in an online store, but either way I found it and it blew me away - and continues to do so on every subsequent replay. There have been several now. I first played this on my PS4, then bought it again for my Xbox when it came out, and these days I tend to visit it every couple of months. I can get through it in a single sitting, and it's simply the most relaxing game I own.
It was made by Giant Squid - a dev team consisting of some of the devs responsible for Journey on PS3, and features a stunning underwater world and a beautiful Austin Wintory soundtrack. It's other-worldly in so many ways, from the music to the art style - and it's one of those games that I just wish all the toxic game players would fire up and experience. One day, when games are revered as art, this one will be a part of that display.
Don't believe me? Watch this and tell me it doesn't make you feel.
So, the next time you want to experience something that doesn't involve shooting and loud noise and chaos, reach for one of these. You won't regret it. Promise.