I was first introduced to the idea of meditation games when I played Journey two years ago. As one of the most successful games made by Thatgamecompany, Journey provided a very calm and meditative game experience where I could take my time appreciating the beauty and the aesthetic of the game. I remember sitting on the couch for 20 minutes after beating the game, letting my feelings and emotion sink in. Impressed by how games could provide such emotional experience as opposed to pure excitement, I went on playing a few other meditation games with this question in mind: how did these games raising emotions in players?
Among the meditation games I have played since Journey, other two of my favorite meditation games are Flower, a game Thatgamecompany was known for before Journey, and Gemini, a mobile game developed by Echostone Games and was mentored by Jenova Chen--The CEO and Creative Director at Thatgamecompany--while it was being incubated at NYU. The three games shared certain similarities in design that I think are what crafted the emotional experience: simple player agency, an ordeal in their level, and procedural music generated by player actions.
Simple Player Agency
In all three games, the player agency is much simpler than games that are highly intense and provide pure excitement. In Journey, though you control a character, your only action is jumping (which can be extended into gliding) and resonating (which is how you interact with the environment and other players). For most part of the gameplay you will just be wandering around, leaving space for appreciating the virtual environment. In Flower, you control a flow of wind that carries flower petals to move around, and in Gemini, you control falling stars to move around while rising up to the sky. In those two games, the player agency is even simpler and as a result the "puzzles" in games are also designed simple enough not to distract players from the meditative experience.
The simple player agency in Journey, Flower, and Gemini ensured a very linear and focused game experience that makes emotions easier to arise, just like how movies can affect their audiences because the audiences don't have to make much effort other than simply perceiving.
The concept of the Ordeal was originally from the Hero's Journey, a commonly used storytelling structure for a lot of Hollywood movies nowadays. The word refers to the biggest challenge a hero usually faces before reaching his end goal. The integration of this concept into levels is what I would argue the most important element that made those three games emotion-provoking. In Journey, while the first two stages are relaxing and easy, the third stage suddenly put the character in a snow storm where he has to struggle a lot to move forward. In Flower, after recovering a lot natural landscape to life, you suddenly arrive in this area full of dark and sharp city ruins. And in Gemini, after rising through the first two level, you arrive this part of the space full of asteroids that eventually "killed" the other tiny star who's been accompanying you throughout the game.
The Ordeal in those level design rose the difficulty of gameplay and contrast against the feeling the game experience has built up. Contradictory as this might sound, this contrast is what makes the feeling coming after more memorable and effective--the feeling of relief and hope towards the ending where players break through the toughness and return to "light".
As tiny as this detail might be, it's interesting to have noticed how all three games had their players generate very subtle music apart from the pre-composed background music. In all three games, this takes form of random music notes triggered my player actions such as interacting with environment or collecting flower petals. This procedural music added an aesthetic layer to the player agency, enhancing the calmness and meditation the game provides.
Although Journey, Flower, and Gemini have shared those similarities that help them raise emotions in player, they cannot speak for all meditation games. But to recognize those design choices will be helpful to creating feelings in games, and even to incorporating meditative experience in a game that also produces excitement.