I have been discussing the concept of “ambient gaming” with other developers for a while now, and realised that there is no clear definition of this concept, yet there are quite a few people who use this term. Here is a piece that sets out some of my own thoughts on what “Ambient Gaming” is about. :-)
Let’s go back in time a bit and look at the origins of “ambient music”. Although a very different art form, there are aspects to this that relate to ambient games. Brian Eno’s liner notes for Music for Airports form a very good starting point, as they are the first principles from which the whole ambient music genre took off. There are some particular areas where there is overlap between his ideas on ambient music and my own ideas on ambient games:
"I have become interested in the use of music as ambience, and have come to believe that it is possible to produce material that can be used thus without being in any way compromised"
— Brian Eno in his liner notes
I feel a strong resonance between these comments and some of my own game design musings. While I have no problem whatsoever with creating games that stem from pure ludological principles, that is to say that gameplay is central in their creation, I also feel that this is an approach that can exclude certain other qualities that have their own place within the gaming landscape. A major example of this is, for lack of a better term: engaging gaming “ambiance”. A quality where the gaming environment and the game’s other experiential content like its audio design and its visual design, work together to create an experience that is enjoyable in its own right. Ideally this is done to enhance the core gameplay, for example by making player interaction with the game’s environment part of gameplay mechanics. (Although there are countless ways of achieving this) Crucially, this ambiance can also be enjoyed independently of the game’s play mechanics. Or rather, a core value of the game is the appreciation of its ambiance.
Eno also says:
"Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think."
Again, this is something I feel I can relate to.
So many games offer an experience that is based on challenges, pressure, skill tests and so on, to the point that they can feel antagonistic and stressful. But surely we can also experience games in a way that let us enjoy the experience in our own time or in a way that lets us savour the game environment itself? Or at least let the decision on the optimum level of challenge up to the player?
Luckily there are indeed ways of doing this. Certain forms of systemic game design incorporate mechanics that push challenge towards the player in direct proportion to the player’s actions. In the Grand Theft Auto series for example this happens by giving the player a rating based on the severity of their crimes, where a higher rating will prompt a stronger response from the game’s AI. (At first a lone policeman will chase you but the more notoriety stars you receive the stronger the police will respond, escalating to maximum notoriety where the army will come after you). Ultimately players will decide how hard they push against this system, and as such the game challenge level is largely under player control. Indeed, there are many players who decide to enjoy the scenery and drive around the gameworld listening to the in-game radio stations, for hours on end. At that point the game has become a pure ambient experience.
Designing an activity that offers an optimum balance between challenge and skill is not something that is unique to gaming. Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi for example has explored this concept as part of his overarching academic research into happiness and quality of life. Csikszentmihalyi incorporated many of his findings into a new approach to the subject which he dubbed “Flow theory” which explores activities that bring people to an optimal state of complete focus and engagement, and therefore great enjoyment and happiness. His findings have been greatly influential in various fields, from sports to psychology, but the impact of his work on game design theory is not to be underestimated either. A notable example is found in the work of Jenova Chen, whose thesis “Flow in games” has in turn been very influential on other game developers. Jenova says that the thesis: “uses Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow theory and provides players with subconscious choices to help them actively customize their optimal video game experiences. “ Subsequently realised games like Fl0w and Flower have been massively successful and show that there is a large audience for this kind of experience.
Similarly, in my own work on Eufloria we have tried to incorporate quite a few ambient aspects, both on the ludological level, as well as on a purely experiential one. That is to say that there are gameplay elements where ambient factors are deliberately an important part of the design, while the game can also be enjoyed for its ambient content, for example by the deeply ambient soundtrack and sound effects that are carefully crafted to gel well with such an experience. There are also many moments in the game where the player can choose to engage in a slow non hurried way, or by acting more aggressively if that is the preferred option. The choice is left with the player. Although not a formal attempt at creating an ambient game, it has turned out to feature strong ambient elements. Lessons learned while developing the game have led me to a point where this is something I am very keen on exploring in future game projects as well.
Ultimately, my personal interpretation of ambient games revolves around the notion that pressure free enjoyment, and interaction with a game’s environment, are completely valid design goals. There is a strong element of world building involved in many game development projects, yet rarely is that world given to the player in such a way that they can enjoy and interact with it without harsh punishment. There are so many types of play however that would favour from an ambient gaming approach. In exploration games for example the player gets to experience the joy of discovery, while playful experimentation can find a home in almost all games. Sandbox gaming is still a potent concept. The art and music produced for many games deserve to be fully enjoyed if the player wishes it, rather than always being delegated to a background against which a series of escalating skill tests take place. As I said before I have no problem with games that tread a different path, I will always love and play games where challenge is at the forefront, but I think our field can mature further by continuing to widen its spectrum of experiences, and to me this includes games that make good use of universal ambient principles on a fundamental level.