The bleeps and flashing visuals of an arcade may not seem like the ideal environment for zen-like experiences, but concentration is key.
Stll from Frequency Domain
I am singing a low note into a headset microphone for what seems like an eternity. On a screen, colorful shapes writhe and shift while computer-generated but vibrant harmonies are piped back at me through headphones. I am transfixed and more than a little tingly from breathlessness. For a few minutes, I am aware of only the exchange between my body and the spiralling shapes and sounds that is the early version of Soundself I am playing.
An explanation of SoundSelf's visualization engine
This is no small feat of concentration inside Brooklyn's 285 Kent, the site of March 31st's one-night Zen Arcade installation. Among the things I am tuning out are the headset I'm wearing to play Soundself, loud music from old games, throngs of strangers (including one seated next to me!), and the lights and sounds of five other games.
Zen Arcade was a celebration of "zenful game experiences" organized and curated by Robin Arnott, the creator of Soundself, which is currently in the last days of its Kickstarter campaign. The six synaesthetic, brightly-colored games on display ran the gamut in terms of ubiquity, interactivity, and design philosophy. Some of the games displayed invited the player to explore a procedurally generated world or soundscape—others required simple, repetitive maneuvers that demanded zen-like concentration.
Anchoring the collection was, of course, SoundSelf. As the games industry continues to explore voice as an input mechanism for games, it is refreshing to see a game that subverts traditional voice input for something a little more literal. The game is simple to interact with but complex in its responses even at this early stage, leading to an experience that is much greater than its parts ought to be able to conjure. SoundSelf's creators have clearly done a huge amount of research about the nature of perception—past Kickstarter updates include a look at how the game overwhelms your senses and an explanation of the voice processing system. It seems to work: despite my lack of experience or interest in meditation, I truly felt transported while playing the game.
An April Fool's collaboration between the creators of SoundSelf and Overgrowth that lampoons voice design in games gone wrong
In Frequency Domain, another game at the event, the player flies over a shifting landscape that represents a song's audio data. Each note and beat creates peaks and valleys on the just-out-of-reach horizon—players can simply watch the landscape roll by or maneuver through its craggy features. The controls are minimal and the player's actions have no effect on the world. This is more an interactive visualization than a game, a fun if heavy-handed way to immerse yourself in music.
Frequency Domain trailer
Just to the right was Proteus, a charming, procedurally-generated 8-bit world where the player is simply a voyeur. The player is invited to walk around the island but cannot interact with anything, and events on the island continue even if the player is too far away to observe it. As a reviewer wrote, "Proteus is a game about being an island instead of a game about being on one." The absence of action in a recognizably game-like setting feels both luxurious and deeply mysterious—without pixelated villains shooting at you, the routines of the island's flora, fauna, and weather become new focal points to guide your explorations.
Panoramical was a special treat at the arcade, as it was the only game that was not widely available in any form. The player flies through a world, every attribute of which is controlled by the player through a Korg Nanokontrol's knobs and sliders. Depending on the settings, the player could be flying through a thick forest, just over some clouds at sunset, or through a darkness illuminated only by dancing stars. Appropriately, every change affected the sound of the game as well.
Super Hexagon was the most widely-available and commercially-successful game at the arcade. The player controls a tiny triangle on a spinning screen, maneuvering through the gaps in the kaleidoscopic patterns spiralling towards the center. I'd failed miserably at this deceptively simple game before, and this time was no different. After I question him about including a game that is capable of inducing so much stress, Arnott assured me that if I spent 20 solid minutes really trying to play the game, I would improve: "It sounds crazy, but the game teaches you all kinds of things that you don't even process consciously."
Super Hexagon Trailer
This was the biggest problem with the event: I could not have reasonably spent 20 minutes with Super Hexagon, nor an hour (the intended playtime) with SoundSelf. It is difficult to display multiple games which depend on sound and isolation in the same warehouse space with dozens of people waiting their turn. It is difficult to experiment with singing into a microphone with strangers clambering onto the stage. With almost all the games, however, a few minutes of play was enough to catch a glimpse of the serenity they promised. The exhibition may not have been the best way to experience each separately, but it was ultimately an effective showcase of a strange, burgeoning genre.
A Zen Arcade is a conflicted concept—the bleeping noises and blinking lights we associate with an arcade is a far cry from a serene rock garden and ill-suited for peaceful meditation. Yet, anyone who's played too much Tetris knows about the hypnotic-yet-focused flow state that games so readily induce. Properly constructed, games like SoundSelf, Proteus, and even Super Hexagon can be a fitting meditative aide for our time, a hack to turn our distractedness into focus. We are accustomed to losing ourselves in games. At their best, these zen games playfully tweak that process to allow us to lose ourselves in ourselves instead.