When I look across the videogame landscape, I see some of the most intense games ever created. Titanfall, Dark Souls 2, and Towerfall all came out just in one week. But then I look at little Tengami, sitting quietly in the corner as calm as can be. It’s content to focus on walking and quietly collecting cherry blossom flowers while folding paper. When I look back at the stress-addled games of today, I can’t help but wonder if Tengami is just what we need: a game about rest.
Rest is kind of the nemesis for a lot of gamers. With all the excitement and tension of our hardcore offerings, anything that lowers the heart rate usually puts us to sleep. Or at least it does, me. So as much as I anticipated and looked forward to Tengami, I couldn’t help but struggle with the slow plodding nature of a peaceful game.
Tengami’s narrative never gets explained. But I imagine it would read something like this:
A long time ago in feudal Japan, war-weary samurai would long to observe “Tengami” – the Sabbath-like rest where they lay down their swords. They would seek to reconcile their hearts with heaven by walking slowly as Koto players musically intercede with the calm plucking of strings. During Tengami, the disarmed samurai would pause at each intersection in his or her path to fold origami in quiet reflection.
Tengami developer, Jennifer Schneidereit, told Gamestar said that Tengami is a made-up word that she and Phil Tossel created by combining the words “heavenly” and “paper” specifically for the game. This complimented their choice for Japanese Buddhist paper drama as the game’s art style. All that to say that Tengami’s developers probably didn’t have the Judeo-Christian practice of Sabbath in mind when they designed the game. But that concept seems to transcend cultural divides and get to core of restful reflection.
In the middle of Tengami, I found a pagoda with rings dangling from each terrace. Without any instruction on what to do, I just tapped each bell hoping to magically enter the correct combination. But as with many other aspects of Tengami, shortcuts and guesswork didn’t get around a slower and simpler solution. I had to walk around and explore the area at a snail’s pace, patiently folding each scene into place in pop-up-book fashion. After taking the time to patiently look around, I discovered a piece of the puzzle that I had been missing. To be completely honest, I didn’t solve this problem over a day. The game just sat for a bit because I didn’t want to slow down and patiently work my way through this puzzle. I went and found my “tension games” to keep my BPMs high enough that I didn’t fall asleep. And yes, Tengami put me to sleep more than once or twice.
“Putting me to sleep” may sound like the harshest indictment on a game. But I think that’s exactly the thing Tengami is after: to be a place of rest in the middle of an over-intense videogame meltdown. Where red-blooded stealth, action, and tension rule, Tengami goes for the blue ocean of Sabbath rest. I found it hard to pick up and finish Tengami because I recognize that I want stress in my games. I’m addicted to it. And rest seems to be the enemy of my gaming. Tengami seems to be the enemy of my game-playing.
Tengami’s pace invites us to slow down. And to enter into it without that consideration is to ignore the value that rest adds. When all you do is invite stress into you being, an invitation to fold “heavenly paper” is an odd proposition.
I had an instructor in art school who said, “Sometimes it’s nice to just cut and fold paper.” I didn’t know what he meant at the time. But as I fold my way through Tengami’s Japanese pop-up book world, I get what my old instructor was talking about. Rest is where we can slow down and see clearly, not so consumed with the cares of this world or the cares of the digital ones.