Video games are inarguably art. Now, thanks to an ambitious, free experiment by a collective of creators, they are also live performance art.
“Meditations” delivers 365 games to anyone willing to download the app. The games, each playable only on the one day of the year for which they were created, are short bursts of play, tiny evocative interactions that deal with death, joy, depression, life, birth, anxiety, sexuality, and addiction. Each are like a digital version of the delicate night-blooming cereus, blossom only once a year, delivering their message and then becoming unplayable.
As the year winds on the individual messages of these games, each so personal to its creator, gives way to a broader conceit, or at least that’s the hope of the person who came up with the idea for “Meditations” and helped facilitate its creation alongside game developers, curators, and programmers.
“Games and game developers can be anything.” That, Rami Ismail says, is the message he hopes everyone takes away from the experience come Dec. 31, 2019. “That’s the hope. For 365 days you have seen 365 completely different things made by 365 different people. The thing they have in common is that they are all game developers and made a game.”
The idea for Meditations came to Ismail, co-founder of developer Vlambeer and influential creator and speaker in the game industry, in late 2017, in the winter of that year.
“I like to spend time playing games and finding games,” he said. “I have the good fortune of being well known in the industry, so a lot of games come back to me, but that’s still filtered.”
So along with playing all of the games people suggest to him, Ismail also visits Itch.Io — an online marketplace of sorts for creative works — every couple of weeks. He uses the site’s randomizer feature to click through creations a couple of hours each month, playing through what he finds there. He says he finds interesting ideas, small little experiments, and lots of inspiration there.
On that particular day in December 2017, Ismail came across a game called “Tempres.”
“I was mesmerized by how such a simple game had such a big impact on my day,” he said. “It really got to me.”
The game was designed to get players to deliberately slow down their actions, and by the end of the short game, a single click can take half a minute to commit to.
“You realize it kind of slows you down with the game,” he said. “I thought it had such a profound impact on my day, giving me a feeling of calm all day. I wished I had a game like that every day to play.”
That thought brought with it the central idea of “Meditations.”
“I know games can invoke a lot of different feelings in players,” he said. “What if every day of the year had we had one developer make a game specifically for that day? Not just a game for a day, but a game specifically for that day. Whether it was their understanding of Jan. 1 or a global understanding of Jan. 1 or a holiday, death, birth, birthday, the start of a relationship or a break-up? I was kind of curious what would happen.”
So Ismail began to gather like-minded creators, looking to well-known curators to help him pull together 365 different developers, all willing to create a single short game for free based on their own take on one day of the year. The process ending up taking almost exactly one year.
“Trying to organize anything with developers is hard,” Ismail said. “Creative people have lots of things going on. Trying to organize 365 of them is close to impossible. Personally, I had a pretty rough year last year, so there were stretches of the year where I feel behind.”
“Without them I wouldn’t have gotten the list full,” he said. “There was also a team of developers who finished the launcher for me.
“I think that’s one of the themes of the project: None of this was possible if not for a lot of people coming together. I really just kind of kicked a little ball and it kind of started rolling and growing on its own.”
In some ways, the project was like a prolonged game jam, with a curated selection of secret creators. Once a creator was selected, they were asked to select their day of the year from those that remained available.They were then given the rules.
The games had to be created in six hours or less. They had to be inspired by the day, use a keyboard and mouse to play, include only 30 seconds of interaction spread across no more than five minutes. The had to have no text or minimal text, start immediately with the first input and preferably shut itself down once the game was played.
The lack of text was an important element of the game design driven by Ismail’s own view of video games.
“I believe games are this global language,” he said. “They supersede language as a written or spoken thing.”
As the year pressed on, the games started to slowly come in. At one point, the team asked every developer to nominate another to participate, helping to push toward the end goal of wrapping up the experience of creating this work by the end of 2018, for preparation of its launch this year. Soon the struggle became finding people who were good matches for those remaining few days.
“Every developer was asked for a day that meant something to them,” Ismail said. “So it was meant to be personal.”
The project wrapped in the final minutes of the year.
“I sent the first email about this on Jan. 6, 2018,” Ismail said. “We finished on Dec. 31, two minutes before midnight. It was close, very close.”
“How do we get this impossible task done: a game for a day for a year? Everything about it sounds impossible. I still think it’s impossible.”
Ismail was home in the Netherlands — something very unusual for the globe-trotting game developer — when “Meditations” went live.
As he talks with Variety, he goes to check out his personal server, which hosts both the launcher for “Meditations” and all of the games that will be delivered through it. It’s a lot of data that could find a massive audience, so he’s not really sure what to expect on the second day of the project. There’s a moment of silence as he looks and then, “Ooof, I just looked,” he said. “Several thousand people have downloaded ‘Meditations’ for sure. Maybe 5,000 to 10,000.”
“The response,” he says of those who have already played the first two games and been vocal about the experience, “has been lovely. People seem really excited to have something to play. That was always the hope.”
The idea is that each morning — though “Meditation’s” clock is set to GMT so maybe evening for some — a new game will pop up for everyone to play within the same 24 hours. Each game includes the developer’s name, which will be a surprise and a short note on the game’s inspiration. The hope, Ismail said, is that people will stumble upon these creations and their creators in the same way he found “Tempres” and that the global playthroughs will lead to online conversation each day centered around that singular game.
“It allows people to have a conversation about one day,” he said.
Three days in, and “Meditations” is already showing the breadth of its topics. The first dealt with obtaining a level of calm through meditative play. The second was about testing boundaries. The third is about social anxiety and depression.
Launching “Meditations” on Jan. 3 delivers a note from the creator of the day’s game, “Destiny 2” developer Lisa Brown: “When you suffer from depressive disorder, sometimes an intense, joyous occasion can crash down into despair with no negative stimuli or logical cause. Such is the case with my annual tradition of ringing in the New Year surrounded by happy friends. It happens every time 0 a few days of intense high and fun and playfulness, and then the depression strikes without warning. You know, logically, that you are surrounded by loved ones, they’re just in the other room. If you could get yourself to stand up and walk 10 feet into the next room, the depression would vanish. You know this. You could ask for a hug. You would feel warm and loved and validated just being among your friends. It’s just in the next room. It’s not so easy and sometimes you fail.”
The first three days of the experience, Ismail said, are a good example of what’s to come.
“The games go in all sorts of directions, more personal, less personal, more playful, sad, happy, bigger topics,” he said. “Every day gives you a different experience, that is the strength of it.”
There is the daily payoff for playing the games, the experience of the game and its impact, and the conversations that discovery spurs, but there is also a larger, overarching experience at play with “Meditations.”
“For this year, ‘Meditations’ is like a live performance that takes a year to happen,” Ismail said. “Every day you don’t commit to the performance, you choose to partake in this ritual of playing this game. You start the launcher, play the game. That’s what it is for 2018. Then in 2020, the game switches to become an archive of ‘Meditations.’ It stops being a live performance and becomes a recording.
“In a way, ‘Meditations’ will end on Dec. 31, 2019.”