Last year we ran an analysis, showing just how many of the PS Vita's remaining releases were cheap games with easy trophies. But that article focused on games of questionable quality, games that were only really there to serve trophy hunters who weren't concerned with playing games of skill or endurance. There is another audience surviving on the barren wasteland of the Vita's graveyard — the puzzlers.
I'm not talking about your puzzle platformers or your mind-blowing, heart pounding Tetris Effects here; I'm talking about the far more traditional puzzles offered by the team at Lightwood Games — responsible for bringing the works of Conceptis and POWGI to handhelds such as the Vita. These are the puzzle games your grandparents could wrap their head around — word and picture logic conundrums you might find in the newspaper, albeit with considerably less paper waste. I find myself compelled to pick up every new release from either the wordy POWGI series or the bright and cheerful "Pic-A" series, and I'm just now understanding why — in combination with the wonderfully ergonomically satisfying Vita, these simple little gems have become part of my mindfulness routine.
Mindfulness: "A kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is." Bishop et al, Clinical Psychology: Science and PracticeLet me explain. Mindfulness is basically a practical interpretation of some classic Buddhist meditation principles. Mindfulness is the state of being totally present in the moment; specifically, it's used to help those with mental health obstacles to stay centred, to not chase or run away from thoughts but to allow them to pass by with nothing more than an acknowledgement. It's a rewarding and provably effective defence against anxiety and depression. It's also very, very tough to pull off, especially without practice.
When I first tried to bring mindfulness into my life, I found it extremely difficult to follow any programs. It was too alien, to pressured; I would try and follow audio lessons or podcasts, but be too worried about doing it wrong to do it right. Traditionally mindfulness is practised with no immediate external stimuli, no action going on in the body or mind except to be "aware". I found this impossible because my brain was simply too busy. I needed something to lull me into the right mind state, and naturally my thoughts turned to gaming. But even puzzle games like Tetris Effect pushed me too far in the other direction — I became so focused on the task that I fell into a thought coma, which isn't the idea at all as those thoughts would all be there waiting at the other side. Phone games wouldn't cut it either; they are so vapid, so filled with ads and microtransactions — micro-frustrations — that it's impossible to feel at peace. More importantly, the device itself was a problem; like many young folks, a mobile phone is the source, the root of certain anxieties and stresses thanks to constant notifications and distractions. Mobile phones can be a Dark Playground — a place where you convince yourself you are relaxing, "at play", when you are actually just building up tiny little tensions, or numbing yourself with a flood of meaningless trivial information. Even the Switch wouldn't cut it — frankly, it's just a little too big to feel comfortable in my hands.
Enter the Vita, in my opinion still the most ergonomically satisfying gaming device ever created, despite some of its more curious design decisions. And enter, too, the POWGI and Conceptis games that would balance concentration and relaxation at a perfect mid-point; where once I was in the flow of the thing, the logical part of my brain would tick like a metronome through the paces. That tick would become my base point for mindfulness practice, as the rest of my brain remains just free enough to let in a trickle of the day's thoughts for me to observe and, hopefully, let pass without intense interrogation.
What is it about these games that provides such a wonderful balance for mindfulness? As I was playing the latest release Pic-A-Pix Color 2 this week, I thought carefully about the effect it had on me. The truth is that despite the fact that these games fall into the "easy trophies" category, there's still an elegance to them; just because a game is easy doesn't mean it isn't well designed. It's hard to go too wrong with Picross puzzles on an electronic device — unlike on paper, where one mistake can screw up the whole page and end in frustration. The basic premise is to use basic counting principles to decide where to colour a square on a numbered grid, and what colour it should be. Eventually, you end up with a picture. Here's the crucial bit that stops me getting too involved in the game to allow for my mindfulness experiments; you don't guess what the picture is before hand. If you just follow the logical motions described by the grid itself, you can reach the end of the picture just by counting squares. The reward is in some ways the surprise of the final picture; it's only at that point that I "wake up" to the image I have been working on.
In some ways it's the modern equivalent of counting sheep to fall asleep — a moderately challenging counting process that lulls the body and mind into a more malleable state, ready for sleep and dreaming. What the Conceptis and POWGI puzzles achieve is just above the crest of sleepiness, compartmentalising my active brain so that the more reflective side has room to stretch into my memories and into the rest of my body.
I'm not going to claim that playing a video game is a perfect treatment for mental health. The boring answers are indeed true — rest, diet and exercise are going to be much more effective. But the Vita and the puzzle games releasing in its twilight years are a great bridge to those activities; a great balm for those of us unable to access a good diet or exercise for a variety of reasons. And the Vita itself is a strangely comforting device to hold; like a great piece of architecture, it can be calming to just observe something well-built. If it wasn't for the aggressive blue light and the lack of a filter to counter-act it, I'd say the Vita's late-life puzzle collections are a great way to centre oneself before bed.
So what do I recommend? Personally the recently released Pic-a-Pix Colour 2 is as great a place to start as any. It has enough complexity to be engaging compared to some of the other releases, such as Pic-a-Pix Classic and Phil's Fill-A-Pix adventure, but it's also well-rounded with some simple tutorial levels gradually building up to more of a challenge. It's a little fiddly to play with the touch-screen still, especially as the grids get bigger and thus, the squares get smaller to compensate. But in other respects it's a highly enjoyable casual puzzle game that, through its strange magic, might help you out more than you think.
If you want an even more abstract experience, you can try Pic-A-Pix Pieces; it's the same concept, but even completing one grid won't reveal the whole picture — you will have to complete several rounds before you have any idea what picture you are creating. It's the gaming equivalent of watching Bob Ross paint, and in that sense it's perfect for giving your logical brain an almost Pavlovian counting task while the rest of your consciousness works on more important tasks.
As for the POWGI word games, probably the best of them is the slightly trickier than average Mixups, in which you have to find specific themed words from a jumble of letters.
It's a shame to hear renewed rumours this weekend that PlayStation may finally remove the ability to release new games into the Vita's store, probably in direct response to some of those more cynical easy-trophy games mentioned above. I can imagine that it's a drain on resources to certify games of such low quality and relatively low income. But it also means that we don't get more of these quietly elegant logic puzzles on the system. All hope is not lost — most of Lightwood's POWGI and Conceptis releases are Cross-Buy, so you can still play them on the PS4. Sadly it's just not the same effect on the big screen with a chunky controller; it's too big, there's too much visual input and space between you and the puzzle to be an effective meditative space.
So the onus falls to the recently revealed Nintendo Switch Lite, described by some as a Vita 2.0 thanks to its reduced size and integrated controller buttons. Happily if this does become my new mindfulness machine, most of the Lightwood catalogue is already available on Nintendo's platform. I won't be able to earn trophies any more, but I will continue to receive a much more important reward for my efforts — peace of mind.