The amount of people who tuned into the 24/7 Bob Ross marathon on Twitch was fascinating, but perhaps not quite as much as the realisation that soon followed. Bob Ross, as it turns out, is wonderfully compatible with the intense, volatile world of gaming, as Twitch Creative quickly gathered a legion of followers tuning in for a meditative session with some Prussian Blue and Sap Green.
But the spirit of Bob Ross has been living in video games for a long time. And it's perhaps best illustrated in Heaven & Earth, a puzzle game released in 1992 that's since been released as freeware.
Heaven & Earth was a project from Publishing International, the studio responsible for Ishido: The Way of Stones in 1990. Back then, the team was largely driven by the combination of coder Ian Gilman, designer Michael Feinberg and Michael Sandige.
They were buoyed by the success of Ishido after they were forced to self-publish following the sudden bankruptcy of Epyx. "Undaunted, we took the game and published it ourselves, going all out, with a signed limited edition in a Japanese-style handmade walnut slip box. This unusual move caused quite a stir, and these original editions are still collector's items," Gilman wrote on his website, where Ishido and Heaven & Earth are still available to download today.
The episode led them to think bigger for Heaven & Earth, which was essentially a game with over 600 puzzles that were broken up into three categories. The first was a pendulum, where the player had to control the movement of a pendulum with the arrow keys or mouse; the second was a card game, where you had to manage the combinations of weather effects, months, seasons and other modifiers to get the highest score; and finally a series of traditional puzzles, ranging from cursor manipulation, mazes, mosaics, and more.
There are 576 puzzles in the "illusions" segment of Heaven & Earth alone, according to the game's puzzlemaster Scott Kim. Most of them are fairly simple to understand on the surface, although additional layers of difficulty are added across four levels.
Some of them could become truly diabolical in the Sky levels, although the one that always remained the most pleasant was the charms of the Antimaze. There's something about that colour scheme that worked for me, too.
I initially played the game with a keyboard — mice were a bit of a luxury back then, and largely useless when you were navigating the text prompts of DOS folders anyway — so the pendulum challenges were my least favourite as a kid. Growing up, however, and having access to mice with DPI counts in the thousands has made the pendulum levels an infinitely simpler process.
Mind you, if you're not careful and you just try to capture every star — instead of just the blue ones — you'll find yourself restarting the puzzle fairly frequently. Still, it's a relaxing, simple process. Meditative, almost.
The card game resonated with me the most though, which probably explains my affinity for Magic: The Gathering and that Star Wars CCG that I really liked but never got to own/play much of myself.
"The object of the Card Game is to choose cards from the current deal, and then arrange them into tricks that produce the highest score," the manual says (which I still own). You work through a deck of 48 cards until the entire deck is exhausted. You play through four hands of 12 cards, and you get those 12 cards one at a time by picking from a selection of four.
The idea is to get the highest possible score by making tricks, which is done by arranging cards on top of one another. You're not locked into a trick until you choose to end the hand, so there's a lot of shuffling around, looking for opposite months, tricky combinations of weather effects, and making sure the mountains, skies, deserts and oceans are all aligned the way they should be.
But the real coup de grace is the 100 step Pilgrimage, a mode that combines the most difficult puzzles from all three modes while adding some contemplative poems and texts. The card game in particular was redesigned to be a single-stage puzzle, where the player has to get a target score from a board of 12 cards (instead of going through an entire game).
Some of the puzzles are truly nightmarish, although Heaven & Earth throws you a bone by giving you six different save slots. The order of puzzles is randomised, although you will eventually cycle through the entire list.
Slide puzzles can be the devil, although fortunately this one isn't too awful. And as you complete each step of the pilgrimage, the image slowly fills in.
Some of the puzzles will make you pull your hair out, but for the most part Heaven & Earth almost seems primed for an internet that has accepted the charms of a smooth talking American painter and his gargantuan afro. It's free to download on Ian Gilman's website (DOSBox may be required) and you can also try out the Figure Ground puzzles separately, although I always preferred the full experience.
What's your favourite meditative gaming experience — and what's your favourite puzzler from back in the day?