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Interview with Krish Shrikumar, creator of PLAYNE: The Meditation Game

We talked to PLAYNE: The Meditation Game creator, Krish Shrikumar, about the inspiration behind the game, the mental challenges in making it, and why a game provides the perfect platform for mastering meditation…

So what was it that set you on the path towards game development? 

I think it started after I played Quake. I spent a lot of time fiddling with it and creating levels. I mapped my home in the Quake engine, and it freaked out my mom seeing our home in the game with floors made of lava. Then came Half-Life, and that came with even more native tools for mapping.

At the end of school, I heard about SourceForge and got the bright idea of making an open-world, narrative-driven, first-person game using an open-source game engine called Ogre3D. I got a team together in SourceForge, wrote a game design document with loads of awesome, complicated features, but thankfully it didn’t take too long to realise how impossible it was. Although the project didn’t work out, I did meet some incredibly talented folk, some who I still collaborate with today. After this, I stuck to just playing games.

I went onto film school, did a bunch of 3D ArchViz projects and ran a web business with my brother. I was trying a lot of different things and it was a stressful period in my life. There was a severe lack of self-care that left a mark. Five years ago, I reconnected with meditation. It had been a significant part of my life as a kid, with my dad being a meditation/yoga teacher.

As I reconnected with meditation, it somehow pointed me back towards games, and I had the idea for Playne. So, I installed Unreal Engine and started to learn game development to create Playne.

Tell us about the main objectives of Playne and how the game is structured. 

Playne as a game helps players learn and build a habit of meditation & mindfulness so players can better understand and better relate with themselves.

Every day that the player returns to Playne and meditates, the game world grows and transforms. There are guided meditations, breathing exercises and other techniques that I’ve learnt and practised over the years that have helped me to understand myself better. I wanted to create a game that would teach these techniques, that could be taken away by the player and used in their daily lives.

Why did you think meditation would be an effective central theme to a game?

I spent a shameful amount of time playing Guild Wars, so I know games are great at building habits. I also spent a lot of time learning to fly a Learjet from Edinburgh to London using FSX. I realise the power that games have in helping us build habits and how they can help us learn without necessarily studying. Bringing this together, Playne is an attempt at creating a game that helps players learn and build a habit of meditation.

What was the inspiration behind the visuals in Playne?

Around the time I was reading Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, in which Robert Louis Stevenson talks in length about camping outdoors. His writing is very visual, and there was a warmth about how he described those night times, smoking a cigarette out in the wilderness. That contrast of the orange of the fire and the dark blue of the night was what inspired the night scene in Playne. I’m also from Scotland, so all those trips into the wilderness played a part in it as well.

There is a place called Trossachs up in Scotland that is meaningful to me. It was one of the first places  where I experienced the enjoyment of nature. I also ended up shooting my first film, Home, up in the Trossachs and the experience was incredibly meaningful to me.

The fox was inspired by my dog Meg. She’s always around and she’s always keeping me amused, so I wanted something like that for the players as well.

I wasn’t always so appreciative of nature though. I’m a city boy, so nature was a bit too `wild`. I remember going on holidays up Scotland as a kid and I would take my PlayStation with me. I couldn’t bear the thought of being up in Orkney without video games. Later, I slowly started to open up to nature. My wife would always encourage me to go out into it more, and I’m thankful for it.

What mental challenges did you have to tackle whilst developing the game?

Working solo is great because you can go where you want to go, it’s freeing. But it can get a bit tedious at times when there aren’t people to share the celebrations and failures with. I’m finding that the more I work alone, the more I need to make sure that I have a healthy approach to my work.

Building a consistent habit of working alone for 6/8 hours a day takes a lot of work. Keeping the head level, moving on from failures, swimming out of the deep waters calmly and quickly. I get excited very easily as well, so it takes a bit of work to keep things going evenly. Most of the creative projects I’ve taken on in the past have ended up with me overworking and getting burnt out. I’m still learning how to have a healthier approach to my work and what helps are small habits that I try to be consistent with.

I consistently try to meditate, exercise, eat healthy, step into nature and spend time with people who bring joy to my life. I’ve also built strategies around failure as much as I can. It’s crazy how fast I forget good advice, so I’ve got these little cards with strategies to deal with difficulties (thanks Ryan Holiday for introducing me to index cards). Like remembering that life is happening right here and not there. It reminds me to take it slow and experience life as much as I can.

Having said all this, there are days when I go all out and eat a whole pack of doughnuts, without even sharing.

Did making the game have any positive effects on your own mental health? 

It’s fulfilling to give someone an experience that you imagine. It’s like you are transferring a bit of yourself to someone else, and it makes you feel more connected.

There are of course times of stress, especially when sales are slow and you get a bit worried about how long you’ll be able to keep creating and pay the bills. I suppose it’s also a bit like building a sandcastle. It’s fun as long as I remember that I’m at the beach, playing, and not thinking that it’s more than what it is.

Do you plan on developing more mental health-related video games down the line?

That’s the plan! Creating Playne has been so fulfilling, and the community around Playne has been inspiring to be a part of.

Right now I’m developing Playne VR, and then I’m going onto a mobile game that I hope will make the mechanics of Playne more readily available.

What are your overall hopes around Playne when it comes to player experience? 

The hope is to make meditation a bit more approachable and show players the wisdom that helps them to not get lost in suffering.

We end up lost in the dark because we don’t know enough about ourselves, both as individuals and as an animal/organism. My hope is that meditation imparts enough wisdom that in time, the players can shine intelligence and wisdom onto the ground and see their path for themselves.

Playne is designed to be transitory. It should help players learn something that they can take away with them for the rest of their lives. When I hear players on Discord who have stopped playing Playne but have continued meditation, that’s the hope.

Meditation takes discipline! Do you have any tips for those playing the game for the first time? 

Playne makes building a habit of meditation easier. But don’t be too hard on yourself. Give yourself time to learn about discipline.

It’s important to find out what works for you. It’s important to know that if we can’t stick to a habit, it’s not because we are weak. It’s just that we don’t know enough about discipline and habits.

Habits are about getting good at deciding to do something. I think the ability to learn is what’s common between those of us who are not great at building habits and those who are. I think as we get less shameful about failing, the better we get at learning to be more disciplined.

A few quick tips:

  • Aim to meditate twice a day.
  • Set a time and aim to do it at that time every day. If you like taking small steps, then try just 10 minutes a day and build it up.
  • If you like jumping in the deep end, they try sitting for an hour and see what happens.
  • Try to slot a bit of time where you meditate out of session by giving 5 minutes in the middle of the day just to watch your breath.

PLAYNE: The Meditation Game is available now via Steam.