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Slow Play Appreciation

Revisiting Slow video games. A bunch of high quality ones are hitting the app stores, right now. The article discusses their significance and presents one approach to developing them.

This isn't the first article to promote the concept of Slow games. However, regular promotion is vital to this simmering cause. It's especially important to distinguish Slow games from casual games, at least for now. I believe, someday, casual games will BE the title for Slow games. By then, current casual games will have fallen into the bit bucket of insufficiency.

Slow games should be considered part of the Slow Movement which started with Slow food.

"Slow Food is an international movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986. Promoted as an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming of plants, seeds and livestock characteristic of the local ecosystem. It was the first established part of the broader Slow movement."  -Wikipedia

Board Game Geek offers a FAQ. Their definition: 

"Slow games are long, epic games that focus on the experience. Slow games have lots of detailed rules and strong themes...  Slow Games are for connoisseurs who aren't fooled by plastic bits and other trashy stuff that doesn't add anything to the game."

Here's where video games get their own wagon. "...lots of detailed rules..." Certainly that is true of many simulation games, especially wargames, (Civ is the old man of Slow games), but the mainstream video gamer enjoys depth that comes from emergent play driven by sparse and/or obvious rules. Easy entry is important. Handing a rulebook to a Slow video gamer would not be a sign sophistication.

In 2009, Tale of Tales designers declared their game, 'The Path', was a Slow game. The concept didn't go much further. But smatterings can be found in Bioshock (take time to explore the environment/story) and Flower. Looking back, 'Myst' and 'Planescape: Torment' are good, Slow examples.

Except 'The Path' didn't help the concept. Slate's review ended:

"It's a promising path for games to take. If you want to see the seeds of how such a game might work someday, then The Path is for you. It's interesting, head-scratching, exasperating, and occasionally rewarding. Too bad it more often feels like a promising false start rather than a satisfying journey in its own right."

Which leads us to 'Journey'. That Game Company's 'Journey' might elevate Slow games into popular consciousness.

"Journey is an interactive parable, an anonymous online adventure to experience life's passage and their intersections. The goal is to get to the mountaintop, but the experience is discovering who you are, what this place is, and what is your purpose. Travel and explore this ancient, mysterious world alone, or with a stranger you meet along the way. Soar above ruins and glide across sands as you discover the secrets of a forgotten civilization."

Similarly Slow, are 'Dear Esther', 'The Snowfield", and I believe 'Witness' will be a game of careful, perceptual exploration, contemplation, and discovery.

A swell of inventive design has begun to expand Slow video games. The movement will strengthen as a new kind of player clamors for Slow game experiences. These are veteran players (core and casual) who grew out of fast, short, and/or shallow fun. There are many players ready right now. Some are finding classic substitutes: interactive fiction, Telltales's point-and-click adventures, puzzle fiction like Professor Layton and Puzzle Agent, and casual games like Puzzle Quest and Drawn 2. Some players have left games behind. 

Deeper, more insightful, emotionally rewarding, and absorbing gameplay will fully satisfy and re-entice paused gamers. Earlier works will become grandfathers.

I'm taking the Slow path for my next title. Three years in development, '7 Grand Steps' is about family generations surviving through the ages of western civilization. Here are some personal insights about an approach very different from Journey or Witness.

As a designer who loves historical fiction, (particularly Edward Rutherfurd's fiction) my game had to give personality to every generation. The player spends half-hour to an hour of gameplay, developing each family's story. After they pass, you can browse the graveyard and be reminded of what made each special.

The central mechanic had to be rich enough and fun enough to drive such an incredibly Slow experience. We chose one that suggests lives of endeavor. It's based on a board game mechanic that is easy to learn and rich with tactical opportunity. The larger game involves players strategizing how future generations will survive the changing ages.

Music in most games is either intense and short, or unobtrusive and repetitive. Neither is good for a Slow game. Note level, procedural music is one solution, but that requires incredible, specialized skills and time and money to do well. We thought of a trick that works for 7 Grand Steps. It allows us to play period appropriate, complex music in a way that doesn't interrupt contemplation. Like a stupid magic trick, we'll reveal it after the game has been released (and people have experienced the trick before being told the secret).

The only way (on an indie budget) to efficiently tell a 7000 year, historically detailed tale, told one life at a time, is with text. But the majority of gamers don't like to read. So we kept these interactive stories as short as flash fiction. They appear at spaced intervals, and the player isn't forced to read them.

Play-testing has shown that people are reading the stories. They read the situation, act, read the result and continue playing. That's good news, because the goal of 7 Grand Steps is to tell an incredible, personal story that connects billions today. To fully appreciate it, the game must be chewed and digested a little bit at a time.

Would the greatest mini-series of all time, 'Roots', have been popular if they'd shown it all at once? 

To support Slow play, the game is easy to start, quit, and resume. The tutorial holds the player's hands just long enough to learn the basics and then lets go. No loading screens, one-click skippable intro, the game is saved upon quit in less than a second. Even if the game crashes, you never lose more than one turn (about a minute of play).

Slow video games have a bright future. Quality experiences that promote reflection, meditation, and other powers of solitude will be appreciated by people either stressed or bored of meaningless challenges. Their numbers continue to increase.

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