Waiting Games: Slowing Down for Quell Memento, Color Zen, Stickets, and Zen Bound 2

Secret Exit

So many mobile games seem designed around dead time. The commute, the checkout line, the bathroom. The times between, when we’re not sure what to do with ourselves. These games let us get in, get out, get our fix, a temporary MacGuffin to focus our restless minds. Perhaps that’s why waiting for more lives in games like Candy Crush Saga is so infuriating. We don’t play mobile games to wait. We play them to avoid waiting.

But then sometimes mobile games hold us in thrall longer than we intend. We miss our stop; the cart behind nudges us ahead; our legs fall asleep. We feel embarrassed, perhaps nauseated, as if we just accidentally ate a whole box of Cheez-Its. We didn’t intend to get caught in the feedback loop and lose control like that. Time, after all, should be killed in moderation.

Imagine a video game that doesn’t aim to pass the time but instead to slow it down. One that doesn’t encourage binging, but rather asks the player to inhabit time and feel its passing more intensely. There are already movements for slow food, slow travel, even slow parenting. Why not slow games? Games that aren’t merely nonviolent or cerebral but that purposely take their time, that resist players and delay gratification, that reveal themselves only gradually and require more deliberate engagement. Games that emphasize texture, tone, and the very experience of time itself, both in and outside the game.

Actually, there are a surprising number of video games that would already qualify as “slow,” though they appear to have little else in common. The most important game of this generation, Minecraft, clearly knows that it takes time to inhabit a world of blocks and make it your own. Indie games like Proteus and Dear Esther have defined the measured pace of the first-person-walker genre, while Japanese action-RPGs Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls employ suffocating atmosphere and the fear of death to terrorize players into slowness. One of the very best games of 2013, Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero, uses hypnotic sound design, evocative writing, and casually stunning visual transitions to draw out its haunted, contemplative mood. And the newly released Animal Crossing: New Leaf relishes its gentle pastoral consumerism the whole year round, encouraging players to check in every day and experience the real-time micro-changes of small-town life across the virtual seasons.

This is an unlikely group of games, each slow in its own way, and some more purposeful about their engagement with time than others. But each invites deliberate slow play and is prepared to bear the attendant scrutiny. How many other games can really claim this, especially in the mainstream AAA space? If you, say, stop to smell the flora in Far Cry 3’s tropical paradise, you risk exposing the still-repeated lie of all open-world games #8212; that you can do anything. In truth, you can do about five things (variations on shooting and driving and shopping don’t count as separate things). The vistas may be stunning, but the game cannot truly bear your slowness. What else is there to then do but perish the thought and fast-travel across the map? Space is, after all, merely an inconvenience to be overcome in these games. Something in the way. A waste of time.


But which mobile games might be considered slow? You obviously want to avoid the runners and anything with “Dash” or “Blitz” in the title. Anything that leaves you rattled or run ragged. There are plenty of mobile games that aren’t particularly fast, but few that are purposefully slow, that seek a different relationship to time.

Quell Memento calls itself a “zen puzzler,” which sounds slow enough. Though in this case, “zen” seems to mean sad, wistful, delicate (I guess “maudlin puzzlers” just don’t sell). Zen or not, it’s strange window dressing for rather conventional movement puzzles. There’s an abandoned house, dusty photographs, vague suggestions of love and loss, and an elderly narrator given to such profundities as “Our ignorance was bliss.” Your puzzle-solving somehow compels him to confront his painful past and reclaim some “truth.” To which I can only say: How true to gaming culture to think one can engineer an epiphany.

Quell: Memento

Of course, this is all meant to be soothing in practice. The actual puzzles of Quell Memento maintain the autumnal air of the menus and try to incorporate “story” elements (frozen feelings, thorny roses, male and female symbols that annihilate each other on contact), all choreographed to chiming sound effects. I’m usually more than willing to read into the syntax and iconography of games and find some meaning that we intuit but cannot easily express. I’m also willing to call a puzzle a puzzle, especially if it’s been gussied up to appear more meaningful than it is. Such games are skinjobs, with no real connection between their appearance and mechanics. As if slow were merely a style, a pose, easily faked.

Color Zen has less of this disconnect, but it is not a particularly slow game, either. Instead of Quell’s nostalgic haze, it uses simple shapes and bold colors to approximate the art of geometric abstraction. It’s basically what you would get if you tried to make a game out of Photoshop’s paint bucket. You unite colors and watch them fill up the screen’s bounded spaces, with the border indicating the ultimate target color. That’s it. Order is all. And while I don’t think it adds up to much, I will attest that the pleasures of the Photoshop paint bucket are real. Expanding, merging, finding gaps, feeling out boundaries — these are perceptual pleasures in the province of zen.

While these aspects of Color Zen suggest a slower experience, the game shares a similar problem with Quell Memento: They are both essentially limited-solution puzzle games. You solve them mostly through feats of reverse engineering, working backward from the onscreen goal and connecting it to the limited choices of your starting position. I’ve enjoyed many fine puzzle games over the years, but even the very best of them, like Portal, suffer from the limitations of this logic of discrete solutions and steadily progressing difficulty.

I know these are considered basic tenets of good game design by many people. But not by me. I feel myself being trained in such cases, taken down a path carved by countless other games (we call that a rut), and I am rewarded for my obedience. Puzzle games that take this overstructured, unambitious, conservative approach are cut far too much slack, as if puzzles are simply good for you, our video-game vegetables. It all stinks of edutainment to me. Just another game that wants to teach me something.


What really stays with you after all these cerebral calisthenics anyway? Like so many mobile games, with Quell Memento and Color Zen, you get in, you get out. They don’t stick. The individual puzzles are just as disposable, just as forgettable as the rest. They seem slow at the time, but only insofar as you are constantly stopping and staring at the screen, waiting for your hundredth Oprah a-ha! moment. They don’t encourage any deeper relation to time, and they are certainly not zen, as both claim. Zen is not about logical contortions and crunching all the data in your working memory. It’s certainly not about feeling smarter.

This is not to say that puzzle games more generally couldn’t be included among slow games, only that they are not always the obvious candidates they appear to be. Puzzle games that are not structured around a limited set of solutions are likely to resonate more deeply and lead to that communion that marks slow-game experiences. The Tetris effect, in which one begins to organize shapes in the real world like tetrominoes, is already known, but the bleed goes the other way as well. The best puzzle games are the most suggestive, often giving abstract form to some essential human struggle without ever signaling the precise content.

I’ve only been playing Stickets a few weeks, but it’s already begun resonating in this way. The concept is simple: a 5×5 grid, three-unit blocks in four formations, each block with the same three colors, and when three or more of the same color connect on the grid, they disappear. Writing it out needlessly muddles things, but one look at the screen makes it all immediately clear. Actually, the game itself consists of three distinct modes, as if the creators were trying out the possibilities themselves, and only the mode called SPACE is wholly successful (PUZZLE is interesting but, as above, discrete and soon over, while TIME is simply too fast and too difficult to remain interesting for long). In SPACE, you simply place pieces and try to keep the board open as long as possible.

Stickets

What proves so compelling about Stickets is how very limited both the game space and your piece options are at all times. It is one of the most claustrophobic puzzle games I’ve ever played, and there are no board-clearing pieces or hypermodes to reset your chances. Every time you lay a piece down, you will likely be focused on one, maybe two, of its three colors to clear some space, and yet each piece always comes with baggage — the other color. You can think through your immediate options pretty clearly, but the long game is immensely difficult to foresee, both because you aren’t sure which future pieces you’ll receive and because the board proves so dynamic. It is a game without elbow room, in which you find yourself constantly cornered by your previous moves.

You lay down your victories slowly, and each disappearing color releases its own hypnotic ambient drone. You build up your defeats equally slowly, though when those defeats do come, they are swift in their inevitability. In time, the grid begins to feel like the site of some primal psychodrama, one we might call: the snares of the self. You will always get in your own way, trip yourself up. There’s no getting around it.


As gripping as Stickets can be, its difficulty makes for short-lived entanglements and limits just how completely it can cross over into daily life. A fuller, and gentler, example of the slow puzzler can be found in the mobile classic Zen Bound 2. This game is very easy to describe — you have 3-D objects, you have a rope, and you try to wrap the rope around each object until it covers it completely — and very difficult to grasp without playing. It’s almost like a more forgiving 3-D version of that early philosophical game, Snake (its rules for life: Don’t crash into yourself, don’t eat your own tail). I’d been aware of Zen Bound 2 and its exalted reputation for years and yet never felt particularly compelled to try it. Now that I have, I can report it is the most profoundly contemplative, the most perfectly designed for touch, and the most truly slow of any game I’ve played on a mobile device.

If Stickets evokes the snares of the self more directly, Zen Bound 2 takes a more roundabout approach, though with a similar object in mind. Call it the snares of the world. And not the moral snares — though they’re implicated too — as much as the physical ones, of subjects acting on and in turn being acted on by objects. The details of these objects are perfect: the wood grain, the paint splatter, the reflected light, the creak of the rope, the way edges grip, or don’t. In what other game could you play as a rope and have it feel so right? It stretches to the edge of your screen, a lifeline spun by the Fates, a thread to wind you back out of the tangled labyrinth if you get stuck, a tether that binds you to each simple object — an elephant, an arcade machine, the abstract shape of ambition — and serves as the very means by which you will bind them.

The objects themselves prove deceptive. What appears easy to bind at first glance turns out to have too few sharp edges for leverage or a recess that you too hastily threaded over, rendering it inaccessible at the end. Play long enough and the objects in your daily life become more evocative as well. Once you imagine binding the things around you, you realize just how little you know of their most basic physical properties, their shape, curves, volume. Or how much you already knew, implicitly, without even thinking about it. To encounter common objects again, in their very objecthood, begins to feel like a kind of respect.

Zen Bound 2

After each successful binding, the game pauses and allows you to inspect the object you so carefully wrapped yourself around, spider-like, before moving on. You can see right there how your web, the concrete representation of your play, complicates the thing itself. You know that object intimately, every curve and cleft, and yet that knowledge now obscures and alters its shape. It’s a weird sort of indictment. What game could be less violent? And yet it’s your subjectivity, your messy timeline there onscreen, displaced onto this object, bound up in the act.

This is but one of the paradoxes of Zen Bound 2, the way knowing a thing can alternately respect, obscure, and devour its very thingness. Another: the way the iPad, a flat, frictionless object that practically aspires to 2-D, becomes a means to explore and manipulate 3-D virtual objects. Zen Bound 2 foregrounds the very objecthood of the devices on which it is played, as well as of those who play them. It is an uncomfortable reminder, especially when we look around at all the faces and screens staring into each other, bound by invisible tendrils. The game invites players to dwell on this, and if it all sounds a bit much for a video game, then this is all the more reason to take it slow.


Most slow games don’t sound like much fun, and it’s not a cause I imagine many gamers rallying around. Most established “slow” movements are themselves only pockets of resistance in a world that still fetishizes speed and the technological annihilation of space and time. Video games, though, can create their own space and time. They are pocket universes and thus perfect sites to experiment with new modes of being, and so I hold out some hope. This may all sound awfully heady, but in a medium defined by interactivity, avatars, and the coordination of hands and eyes, ontological concerns aren’t exactly optional. Believe me, every longtime player of Candy Crush Saga knows something of existential dread.

Perhaps it’s more useful to focus on slow as a way of playing, rather than as a type of game. Few games respond to this approach, but those that do are not alone in the wider landscape of slow media. Would-be slow gamers have plenty of kin among book lovers, music fans, and TV recappers, and the mindfulness promised, if rarely realized, by zen games resonates broadly.

I know the more I like a piece of writing, the slower I read. I recently came to my slowest crawl halfway through Rachel Kushner’s novel The Flamethrowers in an effort to draw out the experience. And while I read plenty both on and offline, I also know that my Internet habits are like most — promiscuous, addled, restive — and so I’m always looking for ways to nudge myself into slower contexts. I still like to linger over full albums and stretch out my favorite TV shows for weeks on end (though I can’t always resist the binge). Not because that’s how they are “meant” to be enjoyed or anything like that, but because I like to sit with them longer and bring them more fully into my time.

This slowness is about intimacy, about giving our full attention, about taking media with us through our days. It’s about our state of being when we engage them. Sometimes I’m surprised to find a seemingly fast game, like Super Hexagon, actually slowing down my sense of time and asking me to dwell, as long as I can, in its collapsing space (a Hexagon minute is not just any old minute). But in most games, speed is a cover for a lack of interactivity, a lack of a believable world, a lack of meaningful presence. And in mobile culture, the rule of the time-filler, the time-waster, the bite-size and instantly forgettable, makes a slow approach seem rather foolish. Perhaps it is. Still, mobile gaming remains thankfully undefined, a temporary Wild West, and with all its fads and knockoffs and familiar ruts, there’s plenty of room for such foolishness.

Tevis Thompson (@tevisthompson) writes video game essays and fiction. You can read more of his work here.

Filed Under: Mobile Games of the Month