For decades, the majority of video games have been about non-stop action, encouraging players to stop on innocent turtles, shoot terrorists and generally go nuts. Sure, there's the odd strategy or puzzle game, but even those have an element of tension and urgency - it's part of what makes them fun. Game developers know how to push our mental buttons of risk and reward.
But in the last few years, we've seen a genre of games that stress just the opposite, relying on slow, measured gameplay that's relaxing rather than exciting, soothing rather than stressful. They rely on simple, colorful visuals and gameplay that bucks the trend of traditional game theory. While this new crop of ambient or "chill" games had its start on the PC with indie developers, mobile has proven to be an excellent platform for the emerging genre.
As many of our readers travel hundreds of miles to meet with
those strangers they can't stand even once a year cherished friends and family, we humbly suggest some games that will keep your blood pressure in check. Not to mention lower the volume while all those kids are playing Angry Birds Star Wars. Here, in no particular order, are our picks for the best ambient games on Android.
Osmos isn't the first ambient game, but it's certainly the most recognized entry in the genre on Android. You play as a "galactic mote", a free-floating organism that eats smaller motes and is preyed upon by larger ones. Motion is achieved with physics-based propulsion - think Asteroids. The game costs three bucks, and there's also a free demo.
Lemmings was popular back in its heyday, but it never looked like this. Spirits tasks you with guiding animate leaves to their destination, by placing wind and other modifiers throughout their environment. (If you weren't around for the Lemmings era, think of Sega's Chu Chu Rocket.) If the leaves are moving a little slow for you, there's a "fast forward" button to speed them up. Spirits has a free demo available here. Also be sure to check out Eric's review, complete with haikus.
Eufloria might be the strangest title in our list. You control a species of space-faring plants, which float through the void and germinate on asteroids. Let a plant grow and it will make its own seeds, ten of which can colonize another planet, or fight off other species. Eufloria has been a favorite on PC, and according to comments left on our previous story, a demo for the $5 game will be available soon.
This one's a lot like Osmos, with some interesting variations. Instead of space motes, you control tiny microbes (get it?) in Petri. The difference is that in this game, you split into multiple organisms after hitting a vertical limit, controlling only one after the mitosis. There's no demo for Petri, but since it costs just a buck, it's well worth the entry fee.
EDGE and EDGE Extended
If Minecraft's just got too much character development for you, try EDGE - it's hard to feel too much sympathy for a featureless cube. In EDGE, you navigate an extremely angular 3D environment one edge at a time, and the shifting, sliding panels make this one fit squarely (ba-dum TISH) into the platforming genre. EDGE Extended ha more challenging levels, and there's a demo available for those who aren't ready to buy.
This is probably the simplest strategy game in the world: Auralux features just one type of structure (planets) and one unit/resource combination (um... floating balls of Gaia-energy, I guess). Manage your energy to capture more planets and engage your enemies. Auralux is free, but you'll need to shell out for extra levels. It's currently for Tegra-based devices only, though the developer says it will be expanding soon.
Yes, yes, another microbial game, but this one is decidedly different. Splice requires the player to create structures from microbes. You get a limited amount of moves in which to move pieces around, with the maximum amount of points awarded for getting the shape in fewer moves. Splice is three dollars with no demo, but take a look at those visuals - it might be worth it just for the eye candy. While you're at it, check out Matt's review.
Zen Bound 2
Zen Bound 2 is easily the strangest game in our list today. The screenshots look kind of like Baby's First Bondage, but there's a method to the madness: wrapping these polygonal objects in twine paints them with the selected color. It's a big download made bigger thanks to including levels from the original PC game, so connect to WiFi or LTE before you lay down your three bucks.
The simplest game featured here is LightUp, an evolution of the old paper puzzles. It's an older title (I played it on ye olde Nexus One) but that means that even the cheapest of Android hardware should be able to handle it. All you've got to do is light up all the squares on the board without crossing your own path - simple right? Wait until you get to the upper levels. LightUp is just a dollar, with a free demo to boot.
In Pixel Twist, you're given an overly pixelated target image, and your job is to rotate a three-dimensional field of pixels to match it. It sounds simple, but getting everything right in all three planes is tough. There is a time limit on multiple "runs" of pules, but if you're having trouble, the game is happy to hand out a few hints. Pixel Twist is free and ad-supported. Check out Matt's review while you're waiting for the download.
If you've participated in any of the Humble Bundles for Android, there's a good chance you already have access to the DRM-free versions of Osmos or EDGE (bundle 1), Zen Bound 2 (bundle 2), or Eufloria (bundle 4). If you've got a favorite ambient game that you'd like to share, drop us a line in the comments. Speaking of which, thanks to commenter gautch for the idea for this article!