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On the advent of "slow games"
by Jake Shapiro on 11/07/12 03:24:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

My former professor at George Mason University, the venerable Mark Sample, gave a talk at the University of Kansas yesterday entitled "Playing without Power in Videogames." He focused on the pervasive trope of games as power fantasies, making the player-character more powerful as a game progresses. Professor Sample showcased a few games that reverse this paradigm by stripping power away or least twisting it in some way--JFK: ReloadedCalabouço Tétrico, and Italian studio Molleindustria's new title, Unmanned.


Unmanned

Unmanned is about a U.S. military drone operator working at a remote base in the (American) desert. Instead of blowing up terrorists, the player spends most of their time controlling the man's daily routine. Waking up, shaving, driving to work, flirting with the coworker, playing videogames with the son at home, trying to fall asleep. It's a commentary on the United States' drone strikes as well as on games as a medium. You can play it here.

It reminded me of another game by Molleindustria I played in Prof. Sample's "Videogames in Critical Contexts" class a few years ago: Every Day the Same Dream. Another quiet, pensive game about playing the routine of a middle-aged man's daily schedule to and from work. You can play it here.

Why this focus on slow-paced routines? Along with the stripping of power comes with the stripping of speed and action. We bemoan today's ADHD game culture; big-budget titles are about quick sensory overloads of gratuitous violence, and successful casual games are about playing in two-minute Angry Birds intervals. But beneath the surface, game design has seen a huge shift in the other direction. Maybe it's a reaction to the chaotic post-9/11 world or simply a product of better technology, but the past few years have been a boon for slow games. There have always been hints of slowness in games, from Cyan's Myst to Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda. But we're starting to see works where the slowness is the entire conceit of the game.

Shenmue

One of the first prominent examples of slow gaming was Sega's Shenmue, ahead of its time in 1999. Alexander Galloway calls this "pure process" in the first chapter of his book Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture.
"One plays Shenmue by participating in its process. Remove everything and there is still action, a gently stirring rhythm of life. There is a privileging of the quotidian, the simple. As in the films of Yasujiro Ozu, the experience of time is important. There is a repitition of movement and dialogue ('On that day the snow changed to rain,' the characters repeat). One step leads slowly and deliberately to the next. There is a slow, purposeful accumulation of experiences."
The game took an unprecedented $70 million to create, and was a relative commercial flop upon its release--it didn't help that it was on Sega's doomed Dreamcast console. The sequel Shenmue II was released a few years later on the Dreamcast (and strangely, the Microsoft Xbox as well), but it too failed to become a hit. Speculation about a third game in the series has amounted to nothing in the years since.

So are big-budget slow games doomed? Not quite. While fast-paced multiplayer shooters dominate the Western gaming landscape, open-world series like Grand Theft Auto and The Elder Scrolls continue to sell millions. And as Professor Sample pointed out, there are even a few big-budget games like Heavy Rain that share Unmanned's morning-routine gameplay. Then there's Access Games' Deadly Premonition, with zero fast-traveling in its open world and an in-game clock that makes a full day take eight real-world hours. It forces you to focus on the game's slowness, and throughout the game you're told by NPCs to "slow down." While these games still give in to the need for player empowerment and action-packed setpieces, much of the essence of Shenmue's pure process is retained. Players of these AAA titles still relish exploring game worlds and becoming a part of the "slow, purposeful accumulation of experiences."

But it's the increasingly-powerful independent game scene where slow-gaming has begun to thrive in its most distilled form. Molleindustria's games, along with other cult hits like thechineseroom's Dear Esther, Ed Key's Proteus, and anything by Belgian arthouse studio Tale of Tales, strip away any semblance of "fast gaming." Many people question whether these games are "games" at all, since they often feature limited player interaction other than walking around the gameworld pondering its themes.

WinterA Slow Year

Ian Bogost took slow-gaming to its logical conclusion with his "game poems" collection A Slow Year. It is (in part) an Atari 2600 cartridge made in 2010, decades after the console lost relevance. There's a game for each of the four seasons, and they're all about... slowness. There's a game about leaves falling from a tree in autumn, a game about drinking coffee in winter, a game about rain in spring, and a game about floating logs in summer. All rendered in rudimentary Atari VCS pixels. This slow gaming is ingrained in A Slow Year's programming. Bogost writes:
"For me, the Atari is a slow machine. The rush of setting up scan lines before the electron gun reaches a particular part of the screen, of 'racing the beam' as we call it--that part is fast. But the experience of programming it is slow. Every cycle counts. Nothing is wasted. It's computational Jainism. 
Morevover, there's no rush to finish. More than thirty years hence, there will be no more upgrades, no more gimmicks, no more killer apps. For once, it's possible to plumb the depths of a game console without worrying about competition, accessories, upgrades, expectations, shelf space. As I reflected on the concept of A Slow Year, I realized that I wanted to let this slowness become the game. It would be a game about sedate observation, but one that would embrace gameplay more earnestly than did Guru Meditation [one of Bogost's other games]. The slowness would be somehow intrinsic to the goals and action of the game, rather than exerting the force of a pun upon it. And it would become a game whose development time and release date I wouldn't let worry me."
Finally, the games industry has become old enough that we can reflect on our past to meditate on our present. This falls in line with William Shakespeare's sonnets, reflections on a poem structure dating back centuries before his birth, or cinema's recent reflection on silent film in a modern context with Michel Hazanavicius' The Artist. It's no coincidence many of today's other pensive independent games, fromProteus to Terry Cavanagh's Don't Look Back to Jason Rohrer's Passage, borrow art styles and structures from the medium's past.

Clearly these slow games tap into some sort of unfulfilled need for players to become part of Alexander Galloway's "pure process." The industry's roots in arcades have been holding it back--people still think games should be goal-oriented adrenaline-pushers. But the medium and its audience have matured, and digital distribution makes it easier than ever for independent game designers with "slow" ideas to have their voices heard. We've reached the point where slow games are commercially viable. And it's only going to get slower.


[Also posted on my personal blog, A Capital Wasteland]


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Comments


Roger Tober
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I think part of it comes from aging gamers who still enjoy computer games but not necessarily the twitch type games anymore. Games were originally strategic and turn based and became real time and more hand/eye coordination based. I've always preferred point and click adventures, myself. I really don't enjoy the non-goal oriented games like Dear Esther that are coming out recently, though.

Jake Shapiro
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It'll be interesting to see how the gaming landscape evolves as the first generation of gamers grow into senior citizens.

Keith Nemitz
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The first generation of game developers are now senior citizens.

Jesse Tucker
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Wonderful that you've brought this topic up. I've currently had a lot to think about in terms of what games I want to make, and what aspects of other games I would want to recreate. Your concept of "slowness" is something that's been bubbling up in my mind quite a bit. To me, it's taken the shape of pensiveness, melancholy, or thoughtfulness. I've noticed it in a wide number of games such as the Metroid series, Portal, Minecraft, Terraria, Final Fantasy, and Bethesda games. That's a wide range of games for sure, but I think I've found a common thread between them: they all require you to stop what you're doing and simply think about what you should do next. There's a ton of "playing" that occurs without any controller input - you have to take a step back and hold the game's inner workings in your mind as you figure out the best way to proceed.
I feel that this "slowness" occurs at the point where you voluntarily reassess the game world without being rushed by game systems or being short-circuited by an on-rails experience.

Jake Shapiro
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One of my favorite touches of Proteus is that it even includes a "sit" button that does just that: it makes you sit down. For no reason other than to sit and think.

And while we all love the giant human-made Minecraft creations, my most immersive moments with the game happen when I'm simply exploring the quiet procedurally-generated world.

Bart Stewart
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Keith Nemitz had an interesting blog entry on "slow play" here a few months back: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/KeithNemitz/20120220/91113/Slow_Pl
ay_Appreciation.php .

On this one, I'll start by saying that I also appreciate the opportunity to play slowly in a game. Those are also valid play experiences, and it's good that games are made that explore this form of play.

That said... ;)

1. Although you begin by linking slowness to powerlessness, I'd suggest that the two don't need each other. In your example of Skyrim as an open-world somewhat-slow game, for example, while it's possible to stop frequently and enjoy the scenery I don't think it's quite accurate to call Skyrim's protagonist powerless! The same is true for some of the other games mentioned.

2. The three Shenmue examples -- underperform, underperform, unmade -- would seem to support the counter-argument that there is *not* a large audience, then or now, for slow games. If there's evidence that the public's taste for such games is changing, this would not seem to be it.

3. It's possible that there may be more slow games getting made by indies in the past 3-5 years or so than before as an absolute number. But a lot of indie games are being made these days -- is there evidence that the number of slow games is increasing, stable, or declining as a *percentage* of the total number of games available to play in any recent period? That would seem to be a better (if still indirect) indicator of whether the public demand for slow games really is growing as suggested here.

4. If one of the defining characteristics of slow games is that they encourage thoughtful and/or introspective play, then a kind of slow game not mentioned so far might be turn-based strategy. Asking players to refrain temporarily from acting in order to think carefully about the big picture... that's nearly a definition of turn-based strategy games. They reward logical thinking rather than personal feeling, but that doesn't seem to me to make TBS games less "slow" as a style of play.

Overall, it's great to see slow play getting more discussion time. Diversity in the kinds of games available is a healthy thing.

Jake Shapiro
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Great points!

1. You're totally right. And as I point out in that paragraph, although games like Skyrim and GTA feature a degree of "slowness," they all inevitably give in to the power fantasy trope of gaming. But it's a step in the right direction for the mainstream industry.

2. As I pointed out, Shenmue was a bit ahead of its time. And perhaps the struggling Dreamcast was also to blame. But it's not a coincidence that today it's seen as a classic.

3. Very true. While I wrote about a few slow indie games, there are plenty of super-fast indie titles being made, like the big buzzgames of the moment Hotline Miami and Super Hexagon.

4. I can spend eight hours on one match of Civilization. There's no question there's an appeal to the slowness of many strategy games. But the games I chose to focus on here are ones that are slow play distilled--games totally focused on the slowness.

Bart Stewart
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All completely fair, Jake. Thanks for the comments, and for a really interesting starter post.

Keith Nemitz
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Is there a way to make that link clickable? I'd almost forgotten about it. 7 Grand Steps is available to IGF judges. And we still think it'll ship in Jan.

Bart Stewart
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I wish there were, Keith, but comments here don't have the same editing/display features as articles and initial blog entries.

That's excellent news about 7 Grand Steps -- good luck!

David Richardson
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It seems like we're moving a bit prematurely in to a postmodern era.

Should we really be working towards the medium's Koyaanisqatsi before we manage a Citizen Kane or Seventh Seal?

Jake Shapiro
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Why can't we work towards both?!

Toby Grierson
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We should be working towards some new examples so we can stop mentioning Citizen Kane once a week.

Jake Shapiro
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Also, both Citizen Kane and The Seventh Seal were pretty experimental for their time. The Seventh Seal is about a metaphysical game of chess with Death, after all.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Luke Meeken
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And seeing as games came into being once post-modernism was already underway in the worlds of philosophy and art, it would make sense for them to work in that milieu. New media don't gestate through some weird neoteny where they have to go through all the evolutionary stages of art that preceded them before catching up with the current state of art and thought.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Manuel Guerra
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I have handcrafted a few slow games of no commercial value whatsoever on topics like the inner workings of the pharmaceutical industry (Better Living Through Chemistry), the pangs of lust (Fidelio's Night Out) or the quest of an AI to avert a Malthusian catastrophe (The Killing Machine).
You can download them for free here: http://handcraftedgames.tumblr.com/
They are all very short affairs.

I hope you enjoy them.
M.G.

Jake Shapiro
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Thanks for the link! I'll definitely try them out.


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