“I wanna be the wind, Masa!”
“Oh, you will some day.”
Flower is a video game that’s not a video game and it defies categorization. There’s no dialogue, no menus cluttering the screen, no stats to balance, no clearly defined goals. Is it an adventure game? Is it a wind simulator? Is it an emotional generator? Is it a work of art?
There are few answers to these questions since the developers at thatgamecompany (you know the one) worked on this “spiritual successor” to flOw by trying not to produce a game, insofar as most video games generally turn out. By stripping away common gaming mechanics like timers, health bars, and over-complicated controls and then putting back in only those elements which were deemed absolutely essential they created something utterly genuine.Beginning with an organic “nature” concept, Flower puts players in the position of the wind blowing a single flower petal. Pushing a button will blow the wind harder and tilting will direct the airborne petals to turn and dive and soar. The controls philosophy makes it seem much more fluid and unrestricted than other games, though there are times when the lack of precision can lead to a bit of backtracking for gamers who are innate completionists. Flower doesn’t necessarily encourage or discourage that.
Their design concept focusing on minimalism led to the basic progression of Flower: passing over meadows, fields, and hills, the wind causes flowers to bloom and picks up other multicolored petals in order to trigger new events and create changes in the environment. Changes occur such as turning dead grass green again or causing trees to burst forth in leaves. The game isn’t actually open world though the areas are large enough to feel like it is. Once a new event occurs, generally the area opens up and expands, and more flowers peep up out of the earth for you to breeze over. These new flowers often form trails toward different regions that require your special touch, resulting in even more flowers. This reveals that the overall goal of Flower seems to be improving and restoring the beauty of nature.
Creative director Jenova Chen described Flower as “an interactive poem exploring the tension between urban and nature”. The game follows a kind of wordless narrative arc through the visions of six flowers in six flowerpots sitting on a table in a house. I like to think of game’s areas as memories of each flower describing where they came from before they were tended by a human. Beginning in distant grassy fields under a bright blue sky, the wind carries its magic closer and closer to civilization. Between each “vision”, a brief cinematic of city life plays itself out.
The last few areas in Flower will have you crossing windmills and powerlines, old and broken-down farm tools, streetlights and eventually scaffolding and hulks of metal. These are actually the only “harmful” objects encountered.
Of course, nothing can actually kill the wind or the spirit of life or whatever it is that you’re in charge of in Flower. Brushing against a polluted wreck will however dissolve some of the petals you’ve caught up in your little gust. But the final area (spoilers: highlight to reveal) finds you catching your second wind (heh) and becoming so powerful you can blast away any industrial horrors, which have become almost primal and organic themselves, on your way to cleansing the cityscape and leaving it awash with life and color. The final scene (spoilers: highlight to reveal) sees the central tower of pollution purified and a window appears in the heaven with a chair in front of it and a flower in a pot on the windowsill. I think this is a visual that shows us that all of this was a visual metaphor for the simple act of growing something green, encouraging a mere plant to flourish, and the quasi-spiritual sense of humanity’s relation to nature.
Flower is probably the least ham-fisted environmentalist story, because it isn’t this:
Most presentations with an environmental message want to knock you on your butt with their bluster. Without words, Flower is never preachy. It never seems like it’s trying to push an agenda or prove an argument. It isn’t concerned with that. It’s imagery speaks for itself. And evidently the most important thing to the design team was that Flower trigger an emotional response in the player, as opposed to an intellectual or objective response. Most of the emotion engendered by Flower is positive, the unfettered happiness of just helping and restoring and making things beautiful. There are few games that can appreciate feelings like that. But because of this, Flower doesn’t pollution-shame you even though polluting is clearly bad.
In a world where the mainstream aesthetic of video games is the battle-hardened, chiseled jaw, gun-toting, headshooting, bloody, dismal, dystopian, rated-M, action-oriented, explosive, grungy, realistic noise, Flower is out of place and refreshing. It is freedom from Clockwork Orange-esque ultra-violence.
Don’t play it if you’re in a rush. Don’t play it if you’ve just got to check it off your list so you can get to something else. Odds are you won’t complete it at all, then.
Play Flower for the beauty of it, for the same reason you’d take a walk outside. Not a run for exercise. Not a sprint for a race. Not a speedwalk to reach your destination faster. Just a leisurely walk, an amble, meandering through a meadow or a forest. Truth is, in our society, we don’t do much of that any more. As goal-oriented as we are, getting outside mostly means getting exercise or participating in a group activity like a sport or hiking. But we hardly go outside simply for the transcendent repose, and just have a walk.
That’s what Flower represents. Play it and experience the emotional impact of it with ease and with care and with patience. And just stop to smell the Flower.
The 8-Bit Review
What’s most impressive about Flower’s graphics aren’t it’s level of detail but its warmth and use of perspective, the subtlety of its use of lighting and color to evoke responses from its players, and something even as small as the blades of grass waving in the breeze. Really, this is a moving painting. At some moments there are a thousand moving things shifting across the screen from hundreds of different flower petals like shards of a stained glass window to tiny tufts of light like hosts of fireflies that lift into the air as you pass. Flower is a triumph of humility, and that reflects upon its visuals. It’s a different approach to graphics that can’t be compared to all the other realistic and highly detailed, more complex games out there.
Flower has an unusual soundtrack. It isn’t melodic nor is it dissonant. In amateur hands, we might expect Flower to be full of purely ambient, natural sounds like wind hissing through leaves or whistling across rocks, but that isn’t the case. Composer Vincent Diamante decided to use instruments like the piano and woodwinds and acoustic guitar sparingly. At first, the music is light and bare, but as the wind begins to pick up more and more petals, the instruments build upon each other, describing their surroundings.
Every time you cause a bud to blossom, the new flower lets out a musical chime that harmonizes with the developing score, giving the music a kind of organic and constantly evolving sensation. The faster the wind blows, the more strings are plucked as the flowers bloom, and the slower the breeze goes by, the drifting music plays with elegant patience. It’s a unique cooperation in presentating the game’s score between composer and player, and while it isn’t impressive in terms of how innovative it is, the austere result is something absolutely gorgeous. I wasn’t expecting to be moved as much as I was when playing the climax of Journey, but the climax of Flower made me suddenly aware of the emotions I was feeling. My wife sitting across the room doing something else looked up and said “It’s so strange how it can give you an almost religious sensation”. Hard to describe.
Even though the story couldn’t be more familiar and more simplistic, it still resounds. Maybe that’s because it doesn’t put you in the shoes of an environmental warrior and attempts to bridge you to an experience that places you in the middle of nature, just to appreciate it without provocation. I’ll never forget one moment in the third to the last area when the wind triggered a cluster of flowers and lights across telephone poles which lead off into the distance. When the camera panned back around to the mass of floating petals, I could’ve sworn it seemed like the face of something alive, looking toward the gloomy horizon with something like courage and determination. Making a bunch of airborne petals seem even for a moment like a human being with personality is no small feat.
My only gameplay complaint is that the game’s flow is hindered too often by too many little changes in the environment. When you pick up enough petals, bloom enough flowers, generally something will happen like rocks shifting, grass changing color, windmills turning, or what have you. It always takes a half second afterward to get my orientation right and figure out what direction my train of petals is facing, and at times this made it more difficult to aim for a group of flowers I was shooting for. The constant pausing of the present movement got a little frustrating toward the end of the game, in the nighttime area specifically. Maybe they could’ve figured out a way for the environmental changes to be less invasive upon the momentum, but considering what they did figure out to minimize confusion and heighten impact, there’s really little to complain about. I’m not the best at racing/flying games, so that could’ve played into my personal experience with Flower. I’m not a bad driver in real life, but it was hard for me to keep my bearings here. At least the game doesn’t punish you for it. Nothing to sweat over.
To prove how accessible this game is, I handed the PS3 controller over to my 8-month-old son. He grabbed it on both sides, with a little help from daddy, and I helped him hold down a button to move and he turned around the controller to direct the wind. Even picked up some extra flower petals and looked up at the TV. I guess that makes this the first time he’s played a video game. If an 8-month-old can interact (for a few moments) with Flower, anyone can. There are no complicated button combinations to remember and the game’s intent couldn’t be clearer once that first flower blossoms.
The not unfounded complaint I hear most about Journey and Flower and games of this sort are that they’re too brief. I think I’m at a point in my life where I can certainly understand that complaint but where I’ve found that this kind of game appeals to me. It isn’t baggage. Some games are just baggage and they’re full of baggage. Flower can be picked up and put down whenever you like, to be returned to tomorrow or next year. Even though it’s short, it’s best that it is. Given its simplistic controls, the game ends before they become unspeakably boring, because there’s little room for this concept to go with too many levels to complete. Even its brevity serves the impact of this game. So while it is indeed short, that helps to lend it some replay value, but without many secrets or things to do beyond a few trophies, it isn’t exactly addicting.
Honestly I love this kind of game that takes the time to think beyond the stereotypical boundaries of most games: jump over the gaps and reach the end, or kill all the enemies to win, or get a high score. None of that in Flower. This game is an appreciation for the little things, the subtle joys of life and the innocence of happiness. I can’t think of another game I’ve played where I get to play as the wind itself. I felt rewarded by the experience.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
Flower is a critically lauded but difficult game to put down to words. It is successful at what it’s designers wanted it to be in every way. It’s not something that I think everyone can get into, though the game does everything it can to be open to everyone. Some may complain that it’s boring or sleep-inducing or lazy in its development. Clearly that isn’t the case with all of the precise decisions that the design team made. But it’s Flower’s pace that may be a bit too laid back for some. If you’re familiar (and you should be) with thatgamecompany’s other works, flOw and Journey, then Flower shouldn’t throw you for too much of a loop. It reaches beyond all of the peripheral attachments of entertainment and attempts to get at the naked emotion underneath it all. If you give it a chance, you’ll see that for yourself. Or if you refuse, then go and take a walk outside, just for the fun of it and nothing else.
Aggregated Score: 8.0