INTERVIEW: Rami Ismail Discusses Meditations (Part Three)

Friday, January 18th, 2019

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Meditations | Logo


This is Part Three of a Three Part Interview.

If you missed either prior part, you can check out Part One here and Part Two here

Rami Ismail is the co-founder (along with Jan Willem “JW” Nijman) of Vlambeer, a Dutch indie studio that erupted onto the indie development scene in 2010. Since that time, he has not only helped create games such as Super Crate BoxRidiculous Fishing, and (most recently) Nuclear Throne, but he won the GDC 2018 Ambassador Award for his work in supporting independent game development.

On New Year’s Day 2019, he announced on Twitter a new video game project called Meditations. He explained that every day for a year, a new game would appear in the Meditations launcher that would take just a few minutes to complete and would only be available for that day. Once that day passed, a new game by a different creator would take its place in the Meditations launcher.

I reached out to Rami just after the project went live to set up an interview with him, and he agreed to delay the interview for a few days so I could experience several of the different Meditations games available. This interview occurred on January 10, 2019 – or, in other words, after the first ten Meditations games were made available to play. During our time together, we spoke about the origins of Meditations and how he envisioned it to be, the controversy that arose about how the developers were being credited and his reactions to it, if there will be a February 29th game for when Meditations repeats over again next year, and more.

In Part Three, we talk about whether he prefers developing games or managing game development, what lessons he’s learned so far from Meditations, and what his plans are for when Meditations loops over in 2020 and runs into February 29th.

You can check out Rami Ismail at both his and Vlambeer‘s official websites. You can tweet him on Twitter, follow him on Facebook, and subscribe to him on Twitch.

You can download the Meditations launcher for Windows and OSX platforms for free on Meditations’ official website. The official Twitter hashtag for Meditations is #meditationgames.

This interview has been edited for clarity and content.

OR: You developed games in the past such as Nuclear Throne and Ridiculous Fishing, and now you’ve managed a development project called Meditations. Do you prefer developing or managing after having experienced both?

RI: Gosh, wow. I think they are very different. They’ve both been very interesting. Like, I said before, I think my life is very evenly split between making games and helping others make games. And we’re now at the point where my ability to facilitate things might exceed my ability to make games. But then, at the same time, its hard.

I’m still the six-year-old boy who just figured out that if you change letters in QBasic, this game about gorillas throwing bananas changes. I’m a programmer at heart. I love writing code and I love seeing code mess up, I love the challenge of figuring out how to write a piece of code, how to break a piece of code, how to fix a piece of code. I love the creative process of making a thing, extracting my thoughts, turning feelings into ideas, turning ideas into code, turning code into programs. All of that remains – it’s a huge part of who I am and how I look at the world. I want to see the systems behind things. I want to know how it works and why it works. Creating something of my own is sort of like the ultimate expression of that. I know exactly how this works, because I made it.

I think if I had to pick between one or the other, I would make games. I would go and make my own video games, if I had to give up one.

Not because I don’t love all the other work I do, but because I generally don’t think I could do the work I do without the excitement of knowing what it feels like to make these games. I want everybody that wants that feeling to have that feeling. That pride of having made a fully functional thing. But I can only share that because I know the excitement for that. And if I lost that, I would not be able to do anything for anybody, so yeah. I would be useless as an advocate if I didn’t have the ability to make games. So I would keep my game making.

“I would hate for you to think that Meditations is prescriptive. I would invite you to see it as something that is yours. That you choose to do this, you choose to participate in this ritual. And if you choose to do this once a week, that is fine too. If you decide to do it once a month, play one game a month, that’s fine too. If you just really want to play this one game for today, then that’s fine too.

But don’t see Meditations as a structure that is solid.”

OR: Do you have a particular Meditation game that is your favorite?

RI: I have some favorites. I actually have to admit that the January 10th one with the Ghost Dog, which I call ‘Ghost Dog’- it doesn’t actually have a title- by Cullen [Dwyer].

It was one of the first ones that was finished. Very early on in January 2018, I got that one. And in many ways, it was the reassurance that this project was going to work out. If only a tenth of games had that impact as this one, and again remember, this is way before I got most of the other games- if only a tenth of the games had this impact, this was going to be incredible. And it ended up way more.

The overwhelming majority of Meditations games, personally, did something. Had like, an effect on my day, gave me a feeling. Some of the games that didn’t have an effect on me, would have an effect on others. So I’m just very excited to see how this goes and what the community ends up thinking of a lot of things, instead of what I think of a lot of things. But, I think that today’s game, Cullen’s game, is just really a reminder that a lot of very complex feelings might be better expressed through a video game than through other ways of communicating. That games also don’t need to necessarily stand on their own. That games can have context and that they should have context. A game like today’s, with the description in front of it, is so much more of a gut punch than it would be as a game on it’s own, or as a text on its own.

And I think that that in many ways is kind of beautiful.

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The Meditations game for January 3rd was by Lisa Brown (with assets from Jandre160108 and Jonathan Shaw). The player has to click the various limbs, body, or head of the person and drag them by the faerie-like icon as there is a bubbling of indistinct conversation just off screen. As the red line connecting the person and the faerie gets weaker, the red line will break, and you’ll have to draw another line. As the person moves across the ground, the person is faced with either falling down into a deep gap, or entering into the light where the conversations are coming from and that get louder as you get closer to it.

OR: It’s a bit early to do a GDC-style postmortem, but I am going to ask this anyway: What lessons have you learned so far from doing Meditations? What surprised you about it? What unexpected challenges or surprises did you experience? Is there anything you would change, besides the credits issue, if you were to go back to the beginning of the project to do it all over again?

RI: So the main takeaway from Meditations, for me at least, is that anything of scale is always more complicated than you think. Like, I’ve done a lot of projects with ten people. And I’m like ‘well, what is three-hundred-and-fifty people besides thirty-five times that?’ But it turns out that when you double the amount of people, you kind of triple the amount of work. In many ways, logically, that is the biggest lesson. Beyond that, I think that in terms of presentation, in terms of how the project works now in terms of launch and in terms of philosophy behind it, I’m actually very happy with how it turned out and I’m very proud of how it turned out. Obviously, the most obvious thing that I would go back and tell myself is ‘Hey, communicate clearly as to expectations for how people are credited, for what is going to come out at the other end.’

The thing that surprised me, honestly, again, is the shape that the structure of the project gives it. The fact that everyday is a game that will be gone for a year is fascinating but also the space it creates mentally for you, to think about each game on its own, surprised me. I think one of the things that surprised me -and I don’t want to say in a negative way- [that] I didn’t expect, and I should have probably expected a bit better, although I don’t know if I would have changed it- is that this project is meant to be almost like a sort of meditative ritual. It’s based around the idea of rituals, It’s based around Michael Brough’s VESPER.5, which was a game where you can take one move a day. It’s based around GLITCHHIKER, which is a project that ended in 2011 with a number of incredible people – that was a game which permanently deleted itself eventually [and] entirely from the internet as well. It’s around ideas of ritual, ephemeral media, but also, at the same time, of archiving, which is why it loops. For me, it was all these things, like, if I wake up and I decide to do a meditation’, I do a Meditation. If I wake up and I don’t want to do a ‘meditation’, I don’t do the Meditation. If I wake up and it fits in my day, I’ll do it. But if I wake up and it doesn’t fit in my day, then I won’t do it.

And one of the things that in hindsight should be obvious, is that there are people who want to hundred-percent Meditations. They want to play every single game in there. That’s not quite what I expected. Because it also creates a pretty serious fear of ‘missing out’ in people. In a way, for some people, Meditations ends up being kind of stressful, which is the opposite goal. I want people to like have something chill to play when they are capable of playing it.

So that was a surprise. I don’t know how I would really fix it. I don’t think I would fix it. It’s just- the scale of the year changes things for people. I think that if Meditations had been like, a three-day project and credits were at the end, I think most people wouldn’t have had a problem with that. If Meditations was three days, and you missed a game, people would not have had a problem with that. But the fact that this is on the scale of a year- an eightieth of our life for a lot of people- I think that changes way more than you can abstractly imagine.

In hindsight, all of this is super obvious. When you’re thinking of it, you’re not thinking of it on the scale of a year- while I was collecting games for the span of a year, I never thought I was working for a year. When these two years are over, when the year of production and then the year of execution [is over]- I’ve spent a fortieth of my life on this, if I turn eighty.

Of my life as it is, it is one-fifteenth of my life, because I’m thirty now. Those are incredible, staggering numbers. I think that’s another thing that is interesting about this. There just isn’t much art on the scale of a year. It’s not a common thing, especially in games. There’s nothing- I don’t think there’s anything on this scale as an art project. There’s games as a service, a lot of indie games get made over a span of years- but its not often that we have to think about the experience of time as a continuous artistic expression. And I think that was one of things that was also very clear in the discussion about credits. And in the discussion of the project so far is just- the year is a surprisingly solid number of time in people’s life. So I don’t exactly know yet what that means, because we’re on day [ten]. And I don’t know exactly what it’ll do, because we’re on day [ten]. I don’t really have any ways or insight into how the project is doing. It’s not pinging for statistics, [because] we aren’t not keeping track of player counts.

But based on my server logs, a lot of people seem to be playing this. A lot of people seem to be still interacting with it, day-in-and-day-out. The hope is that instead of shrinking over the year, it grows over the year. We [hope to] find more people that will be interested in playing a game for a year, and [that] people will stop seeing it as something that goes from January 1st to January 1st. Eventually people will start seeing it as ‘Oh, I dropped in on May 22nd, and I’m just going to play until I hit May 22nd.’ It’s not about our year, it’s about your year. And I think a lot of people see Meditations as a thing that is very defined. And I think, I hope, that throughout the year, people will see it more as a thing of their own, like they do the meditation, not [that] Meditations tells you to meditate.

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Day 4’s Meditations game was by Egor Dorichev, who developed a game in PICO-8. In this game, the player directs a red arrow across sixteen stages to navigate mazes and obstacles in order to hit the green box to move onto the next level. In the later stages, multiple arrows appear that are moved all at once, but only one has to get through to the end green box. There are also obstacle boxes that will appear only as you pass through their dash dotted outline, and solid white boxes that will disappear when you run into them. You cannot go back the way that you just went with the red arrow, but you can move diagonally.

See if/how Rami Ismail anticipated February 29 for when Meditations repeats itself in 2020, and what he has to say on Page 2 —->

About Quentin H.

I have been a journalist for oprainfall since 2015, and I have loved every moment of it. Do you want to do an interview? You can reach me at

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