I’m taking a broad interpretation of the word “zen” here. If you’re intending to actually sever stimuli and focus inward, the best video game-related meditation may follow actually turning off your machine.
But this is a collection of software aimed at eliciting a keen or placid mood, draw an emotional reaction sans narrative, or simply exist in an odd, auxillary spot on the periphery of your awareness. Sit back, find your receptive zen state of mind, and soak up some experientially unique gaming.
8. ’UNIVERSE SANDBOX 2’
Occasionally you come across a piece of media that so fully instills abject awe in the cosmos that you risk chills down the spine. Universe Sandbox 2 fosters this wonder with an intricate simulation of heavenly bodies, from the physical merging of galaxies down to the changing climates of planets akin to our own. The delicate balance of conditions that make life on Earth possible is made immediately clear as structuring your own stable system reveals its perils.
Or you could fling celestial bodies into collision courses at a bajillion meters per second and wreak unfathomably vast havoc. The potential for awe is there. Note: this game is in “early access,” meaning it’s playable but unfinished.
This un-game raised a fair amount of attention upon release—not all of it positive—but the general population seems to have since fallen in line with critical approval. It was called a screensaver, and you can understand where folks were coming from: you don’t actually do anything. You observe a lazily revolving mountain as it develops trees, snow, detritus, self doubt, and oversized objects from the human spheres.
Listen to it express its thoughts and musings about life and the nature of mountainhood. Its promotional material delights in the tasteful absurdity of its own existence, and for only a dollar, your own slice of weird pie is a readily acquired curiosity.
Fancy a stroll? The ephemeral landscapes of Proteus are pixelated impressions of otherwise lush forests replete with enchanting phenomena to discover. You might stumble across a sunny field of gravestones or find your way into a portal that smears time into an instant, advancing the seasons dramatically forward.
After you’re finished exploring, feel free to, well, do it again. A fresh topology is generated each time you play, but you may identify with those disparagingly calling this a “walking simulator.” The aural landscape reforms according to your wandering and portions of the environment respond to your presence, but you are otherwise limited to ambling as a means of play. Perhaps that is plenty.
To sate your lust for violence, here’s a game about animals being devoured alive. This primal contest of survival of the fittest sees the larger creature gobbling up the weaker, albeit on a relatively benign, cellular scale.
On what could be a slide scrutinized under microscope, you’re tasked with carefully maneuvering your resplendent amoeba, or “mote”, toward prospective prey to absorb. Movement requires that you expel some of your mass in exchange for momentum, pitching things into a tranquil, precise exercise in finesse. Shimmering visuals and mellow, ambient music mix into a beautifully calm endeavor.
Sometimes you just want to carry a houseplant with you, you know? Something small and non-judgmental, something whose life you literally and figuratively hold in your hands. Well, that’s silly. You can duck the strange looks and reap a similar experience by playing with Viridi.
This free pot of succulents sits on your desktop and grows at a somewhat realistic pace. Meaning, after you’ve transplanted into a pleasing assembly and spritzed your desert life with a handheld mister, there’s little to do but admire and wait. Serene, fragile music will spread into your work or web browsing if you leave the program open. Otherwise, returning every morning to tend and observe is the sole, if oddly gratifying, involvement to be had.
3. ‘SUPERBROTHERS: SWORD AND SWORCERY’
Reverent subversion of beloved emblems and structures recalls the medium’s history while establishing a contemporary style of pixel art that has come to be broadly imitated. Aloof, “prog rock concept record” tunes help the visual flair create a feeling of casual potency in this densely stylish adventure. It’s as if the effects had on your mind are truly an insignificant feat of effort, despite how painstaking their construction must have been. It feels allegorical, but I have no idea of what.
Think of Superbrothers as that unexpectedly cool piece you might discover in the corner of a modern art gallery. You’re here to witness the visual and aural craft, providing clicks and rhythmic input only in deliberate moments of observer interaction.
If animals can engage in low-key violence, it’s only fair that plants be afforded the same opportunity. This one plays as a sort of base-building, enemy conquering competition rendered as airy clusters of translucent biomass drifting through the ether and the parasitic flora burrowing their way inside.
Root tendrils stretch and curl toward luminescent centers, the flowering trees they support sprouting combat-ready seed-birds. They’ll migrate and colonize as you will, stopping only when life of another color bars their way. At that point new territory will need to be seized by force of arms in perhaps the most subdued and tempered wargame I’ve ever come across. You’ll need to manage resources and make tactical decisions, but conquest is cast as a rather peaceful enterprise by mellow melodical accompaniment and feathery, organic art.
The Long Mover is a soothing presence. It wants nothing but your relaxation. There exist things for him to accomplish, but they do not represent express goals. Quite the opposite: you’re meant to enjoy your time with Hohokum independent of the pursuit of completion.
Treat it as a delightful toy. Glide your way through kindly bizarre and whimsical places full of arbitrarily colored people and things. Progress comes from the discovery of objects’ function, but it’s best not to think about that too hard. If those creatures want to ride the waterslide, why not help them play?
Kris Goorhuis is a freelance writer, nerd, and pathologically shy fish in a sea of eyes. Leer at him on Twitter @krisgoorhuis.
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