Quiet Time

I think one of the great successes for videogames is the diverse range of experiences they can provide. In a way unlike any other major entertainment medium, gaming can challenge your wits, your wisdom, your intellect, your endurance, your patience, your dexterity and your social skills, often all within the span of a single game.

Often what I look for from a game has to do with rushes of adrenaline and constant engagement. Other times, however, I look for the exact opposite from my gaming. Rather than something stimulating, I simply want an environment that quiets my mind, eases my nerves and calms the senses. These are my Zen Garden games, my digital equivalents to tending a Bonsai tree, and I love them in ways that I love no other games.

Lately Tropico 3 has been filling this role for me. When I fire a title like this up, I usually do so expecting long stretches of downtime where I am as much enjoying the aesthetics of my tiny creations as I am plotting global or regional expansion. I zoom in tight on my tiny Caribbean populace as they tend tobacco fields, entertain lazy American tourists or, inevitably, rise up in arms against my sometimes less than benevolent rule. Even then, though, at what should be the most tense and engaging part of this game, I am a only marginally interested observer.

As I consider these kinds of games, I realize that sometimes what I really want is a game that plays itself.

It’s always been a little difficult to explain why I liked The Sims and its host of sequels. To call The Sims a game is deeply flawed. I wouldn’t even necessarily call it a toy. It is a kind of thought experiment factory, a conduit for dreaming up alternative lives. What I inevitably find, however, is that the longer I play the more I ultimately force my Sim to make the same choices I have, good and bad.

I may go into a session planning to create a rock star, but what I usually end up with is a guy with a family, a job and an elegantly simple life that seems to meet most, though not all, of his needs. Here is a portrait of a digital man who is satisfied of simply dreaming of bigger things. Even my Sims are kind of happy underachievers.

I’ve always wondered if there’s a story in The Sims about how simulated lives sometimes mirror real ones, and if that isn’t some kind of validation that who I am is who I should be. But, the truth is probably something much less complex.

It’s just easier to go with what I know. As I play a game like The Sims, I usually find that it just suits my play style more to take a convenient pathway. After all a Zen Garden isn’t much fun if you over-obsess about every tiny detail. At least not to me.

Maybe that’s why I don’t think games like SimCity fit quite into this play style. I have found that every time I play SimCity while I want to just dig down and watch my city alive and kicking, inevitably the needs of my plebians demand my omnipotent but short-sighted attention.

We want an airport. We want the airport to have water. We want lower corporate tax rates to encourage business growth. We want electricity and a police force.

Yeah, well what you're going to get is an alien attack in the middle of super-tornado season.

Somehow SimCity just asks too much of me, particularly when I’m in the voyeuristic mood.

Tropico 3, enjoys a lot more downtime. It constantly begs you to press the fast forward button as your workers, who have been raised on a slow lifestyle, mosey about the idyllic manifestations of my socialist agenda, building tenements and docks at the leisurely pace of those who live in poverty in paradise. But, I rarely usher time forward, enjoying instead to just sit and watch as cargo ships and party barges slink lazily toward my island.

Games like this make me quiet, and time just washes away. It’s not necessarily that I’m passing any kind of judgment here. I wouldn’t dare compare Tropico to Alan Wake or Red Dead Redemption. There’s no meaningful comparison to be made. I’m just glad that I enjoy an entertainment medium that can so fulfill both sides of my life.


Well said, sir.

I like the idea of a relaxing game, one that isn't always making my heart pound or pulling me to the edge of my seat. I like being able to sit back and just push buttons while my mind sort of dozes off.

This is where Harvest Moon and 2008 Prince of Persia typically reside. The former is...I don't know. Despite the repetition I'm never bored. Possibly because there are always so many ways to earn money and thus expand your abilities. At the start of the game you grow your one or two plots of veggies, but in the mean time you also collect random crap items scattering the wilderness, tossing them in the bin to earn an easy buck-fifty. Later on those items may as well be in the background as you are too busy tending the chickens, the crops, the fields of grass, cows, sheep and so on. Hell, if I don't find Knights in the Nightmare at the store today I may well purchase a Harvest Moon game on the DS.

Prince of Persia, though, is a bit different. It's got the story and item collection, but there's no need for super-fast-lightning reflexes or the risk of doing something over and over. You sit back, press buttons and the Prince navigates a beautiful canyon like a crayola colored ninja.

Unfortunately it seems a lot of people hate the concept of relaxation in a game, but must always be wide eyed and hunched forward, eyes darting the screen as they may during REM sleep. But if the relaxing games really were all that common, would they be special?

This is the problem I had with Viva Pinata: It portrays itself as a nice, quiet little garden sim but you have to furiously micro-manage while you play, smashing open evil bats with shovels, making sure that stupid fat woman doesn't pick up the apples you need to attract your next species, etc etc etc. I found Viva Pinata more harrowing than most straightforward FPS games.

Contrastingly, Tropico 3 is nice and chilled. Even being ousted by a violent uprising is a surprisingly relaxing experience. Probably because, at that point, the only thing you have left to do is face inevitability.

Good sir you just moved Tropico 3 to the top of my pile. I've also learned the autospellcheck in my smartphone changes "tropico" to "frolicking", which seems somewhat appropriate...

Excellent, I'm glad to see others feel the way I do. I too like to watch, at times. Although, saying that aloud makes me feel like Chance from Being There.

Thank you for saying that about Tropico 3, that's going in my 'to buy' list as well. I've always been leery about those games because while they seem extremely interesting the reality tends to wind up like a SimCity game on a tropical paradise.

I felt the same way about SimCity, but I also feel that way about The Sims too. I watch my kids play it for hours and hours; they have their 'Sim Nights' but when I install it and start to play the energy gets sucked right out of me and I no longer have interest. To me, that is a game much better watched.

Nice thoughts. This is definitely how I feel about RPGs, particularly turn-based RPGs: I call them gaming comfort food.


I was excited for Majesty 2, but they left off the skirmish mode that let you set up the scenario with lots of sliders and then guide your heroes through it with reward flags for different activities. It's a criminal oversight.

I bought Sealife Safari from XBLA for the kids, and wound up playing it for hours. You float underwater in a sub, and have to take pictures of different fish. That's it. All you control is which way the camera points, and you can throw out a little object to surprise the fish to get better facial expressions. I'd play something like Left 4 Dead for a few hours, and wind up sitting in front of my TV for 20 minutes at the end of every night taking pictures of virtual clownfish.

I tend to play Civ and other such games on reasonably easy levels, just because I wind up associating them with low-stress gaming. Sure, I'm not getting the "full" experience by challenging myself, but I'd rather just leisurely allow my cavalry to roll over the other nations without worrying whether I'm going to get stabbed in the back.

I tend to play Civ and other such games on reasonably easy levels, just because I wind up associating them with low-stress gaming. Sure, I'm not getting the "full" experience by challenging myself, but I'd rather just leisurely allow my cavalry to roll over the other nations without worrying whether I'm going to get stabbed in the back.

I second this. For relaxed gaming, not only the type of game is important but also the difficulty and experience with the game. I've played enough Civ IV to cruise through the turns, every action and reaction going automagically.

Last decade, Duke3D was my relax game. I had played the first four levels so many times I knew the location and AI routine of every possible enemy. I cruised through the levels on autopilot, blasting away at poor helpless aliens, gathering all the uber weapons and items on the way. It was the perfect combination of adrenaline and zen. I call it zendraneline.

edit: you sold another copy of Tropico 3 btw. They should buy you a small tropical island by now.

Farmville. There's your quiet game right there.

Last night I was bone tired at 11 PM. The kids (2 and 3 y.o.) and the lawn tired me out. Wife comes home after a work outing, looked at me and said I looked completely wiped out.

I kissed her goodnight and went downstairs to fire up Super Street Fighter IV and later try the Green Day Rock Band demo. This was my "quiet time". My chance to unwind and achieve an inner peace before sleep.

Other nights, it's been games like Lumines. Once upon a time it was World of Warcraft.

For me, "quiet time" is a chance to unwind without consequence. An RPG requires paying attention, be it dialog or inventory management or deciding on a moral decision. (Thanks, Dragon Age.) The violence of an FPS combined with the continued duration yields a tension that could hardly ever be quiet.

But beating up the CPU, matching blocks, or playing along with songs... Yeah, that's mellow for me.

Somewhat paradoxically, the most calming game I've ever played is on Warioware: Smooth Moves. In the midst of a slew of insanely frenetic mini-games is that one where you balance the Wiimote on your palm and use it to control, of all things, a platform resting on a flower, with which you catch and arrange papery shapes. The design and music work together to create a soothing, Zenlike experience. And if you play it with your palm outstretched and heavenward, it is almost meditative.

I really wish there were more games like that.

I rarely post, but I actually use Left 4 Dead as a way to relax some times. My crew and I have run through it a ton that it's become almost second nature to play that game. And because it's less complex than L4D2, it's manageable with AI as well.

But otherwise, Lumines (like someone mentioned! Yes!), Audiosurf and, hell, the Zen Garden from PvZ. That's what it's there for.

beeporama wrote:

Nice thoughts. This is definitely how I feel about RPGs, particularly turn-based RPGs: I call them gaming comfort food.

You're spot on. I think that's also the reason I like to grind for the experience in RPGs. It's engaging, but not to the point where you need to unwind from your unwinding.

Spot on Sean with the rest of the sentiment in the article too. No other medium satisfies across soooo many emotions. I can find in my library a game that pretty much answers whatever need I have when I sit down to play. Be it a fighter to take out the day's frustration, or something completely different to distract me from my surrounds.

One of the reasons I miss turn based gaming. I don't need every game to be about a rush, achievements or challenge. Sometimes it's just good to relax, ponder and plot each move - sometimes accompanied by a sinister chuckle.

Steam should send you a kickback, Elysium. **watches Tropico 3 download progress**

I don't do much of this anymore. I can only rarely justify to myself investing that much time for relaxation. I need power relaxation, so I can get relaxed in a few minutes and get back to my coffee.

Doh! I had my hand hovering over the buy button on tropico when it was on sale on steam this last week.

If I'm looking for low-pressure, I usually go grind an RPG - one that I've already finished so there's no stress. It's sort of the like Battle Chess, only with math problems instead of pawns at that point.

If I'm really in need of a time-out, the best thing is to plug in Coltrane and play Bejeweled 2 on Endless Mode on the Xbox until the world gets it's ducks back in a row. In fact, that might be on the agenda this evening.

Distant Worlds is a great game for this sort of thing. You can set everything to AI control, and the AI will just ask you to do stuff. I imagine myself sitting at the top of my galactic emperor's tower, surrounded by pandering underlings, waving them off or scrawling approval on their petitions, watching the trade routes grow and scouring the galaxy for more sources of luxury items.

My 'quiet time' gaming, when I want busy thumbs and an empty mind, usually involves some kind of gentle grinding. It doesn't actually matter what that grinding entails though, so it can just as easily be Borderlands, which can actually be kind of high-stress at times, as Fallout 3, Sacred 2 or a JRPG.

Tried Sims 3 yesterday, with this article in mind. It was fun, but awful hard to stay patient and not wander off to do something across the room from the computer (followed inevitably by my sim complaining loudly about needing to poop).

I play Test Drive Unlimited mostly for this sort of experience. I also enjoy hopping around in Quakelive and Warsow by myself too, just while chilling out and listening to music.

I used to chug a six-pack while playing capcom vs snk 2 on the PS2 a few years back as my gaming downtime. Nowadays it's more about PES or a shmup like Gradius.

For a while there Animal Crossing on both the Cube and the DS were a relaxing exercise for me, but I haven't touched either iteration in many, many moons.

I'm in a passenger car as we speak, riding the #11 around Red Dead's New Austin. Watching out the window, the terrain bleeds from highland desert to lowland delta. The conductor shovels coal into the belly of the beast, and I glimpse wild horses running slaloms through the cactus, mad-dash riders beating the train to the next crossing, and coyotes barking on hillsides spotted with Feverfew flowers.

I've accumulated nearly 48 hours of game time, and I'm at less than 25% complete. And to me? That's sounds juuust right.

I echo the sentiments of the piece. I had exactly the kind of quiet gaming described here while playing Tropico 3. At a certain point it can run on autopilot if you aren't too ambitious (much like I imagine a benevolent tropical island dictatorship might run in real life). At that point, the game is great about zooming right down to ground level.

I'm also one who generally doesn't put a game on fast-forward, but that has as much to do with my self-imposed rules of the game as the "zen garden" effect.