a review of Flower
a videogame developed by that game company
and published by sony
for the sony playstation 3 computer entertainment system
text by Hamish Todd
I don’t think people need power fantasy; I’m not even sure if they want it. Marketing can ensure that escapism sells well, but it seems to me that “escapism” is just a simple way of phrasing something much deeper, something that is not always directly appreciated.
Look at Indiana Jones. “Butch guy with whip bangs women and gets valuable treasure” is the obvious way of summarizing the appeal. But any storyteller, and any game designer, any philosopher, knows that it may well not be about that. Indy has to learn something. He has to appear in beautiful environments (by which I mean, his own beauty cannot carry it alone). And that treasure can’t just be monetarily valuable — it has to be valuable to him (he has a personal reverence for ancient artifacts) and to us (the artifact has to be intriguing, or at least very old). And so, in looking at Indiana Jones — an object which seems to be engineered to flatter us — we find something like conscience, something like intellectual stimulation, something like higher pleasures.
This is me intellectualizing a problem in order to get over it. The thing I am trying to get over is my disdain for the conventional themes of video games. This review originally opened with an outstandingly arrogant rant about how our games, our best games, are almost all unambitious. It was disgusting to behold. I’d have kept it, or edited it a little and then kept it, if it weren’t for the fact that I’m going through a slight crisis right now regarding my pretentions.
It’s just . . . pathetic, you know? There’s this experience called “the sublime”, and if I’m honest, it’s what I personally live for. For a couple of moments, something will trigger in me a state of great humility, or something. The enormity of the universe, or the vibrance of nature, or the complexity within my fellow man. It’s indescribable, of course, what is evoked. One feeling I can take away from it is of having no feelings, because a part of it is the realization that to have any feeling (including the one I am currently feeling) is arrogant. It makes me less afraid of death, or less absorbed by my fear of death.
And, later on, I’ll play a video game — a good one. And while I chow down on those beautiful parts I can get out of it (the crunch, the intellectual stimulation, maybe the aesthetics), I’ll feel a little sick that it’s wrapped around the concept of about killing people.
Killing is a pretty integral part of our language, as CliffyB tells us, and I say all this as a man who is actually making a game about killing people. My excuse is the same as Tim’s, I think: he and I are just starting out, and we must examine the language that our medium has already created before we start trying to expand it, because it really does need expansion.
Yeah, this is pretty much the least pretentious way I can open this review.
There is a craft to eating a bowl of Coco Pops. If you’re doing it properly, it’s like most crafts: a balancing act, between avoiding the airy, dusty ‘pops and the mushy, crumbly ones. Achieving this balance is dextrous and beautiful. Pouring the milk such that every surface coco-pop is touched; turning the ‘pops over with measured awareness of the dimensions of the implements involved; scooping a spoonful such that there is a good number of non-mushy pops, but absolutely no black ones. Originally I went into how to do these in great detail; but suffice to say that each one takes a level of intensity that is perfect for waking us up.
I do not have OCD. For one thing, the above is a moderately messy process. For another, I have a good friend who has OCD, and I know I’m not that. Self-diagnosing psychological disorders is going to reach an event horizon one of these days. This friend of mine has a stand-up routine about his OCD and how annoyed he gets from seeing other people self-diagnose it because they caught themselves washing their hands twice in one hour. This friend is also my partner for Sleep is Death (game of the year 2010, when you play it with him. And you’re me).
Try again: I do not have OCD, but I take every opportunity to challenge myself, and in this I have found a challenge that I can indulge in several times a week thanks to variables in milk rations, coco pop pile surface topology, and spoon and bowl shapes.
Flower is a game inspired by the vibrance of nature. It is also a game that trusts you to look for challenges in the world around you. To approach that topic, we’ll talk about one of its more basic themes.
Flower is about that most action packed of action buttons: the run button. We here at actionbutton.net will let go of the run button when you pry it from our cold, dead thumbs. You ought to know that Flower is designed to be played with the run button constantly held down. It does not tell you to play with the run button held down, and it does not reward you for doing so, but it does paint its system so as to yield pretty much maximal joy from the walk-run dichotomy (now that games are art, it has become a dichotomy).
This ethic is a big part of the reason why we say Flower is the best game of 2009. It’s not just the run button. Flower is also, in an unsophisticated yet elegant way, about chaining. It will show you a little procession of collectibles — who could see those things and not want to get them all in one swoop? It’s just beautiful, just fun, to do so. Again, the game never tells you to do it and does not reward you for doing it. It knows the desires exist in us: move quickly, in even, continuous curves — just like the wind. There are explicit rewards for other things — uncomfortable rewards, even. We’ll get to that later. Right now, though, let’s let that masterstroke stew: this game has enflamed our desire to behave, and feel, like wind.
There’s a trend in “artgames” for the creator to express themselves entirely through the environment — Fatale, Every Day The Same Dream, Dear Esther. These games are lovely, but they are also unavoidably inelegant and very noticeably incomplete. Environments are important and are a good avenue for expression, but feelings are more important. You’re showing me this beautiful, fascinating object — it could be a person, could be a jewel, could be a cliff that someone has thrown themselves off. But it won’t be the thing that it looks like until it feels like the thing you want it to be.
To take an extreme example, consider a little girl who, when you approach her, starts flying around breathing fire. When we see something behave this way, it greatly informs the thing which we think it is; thus we know that this thing which we approached, which looked like a little girl, is not in fact a little girl. Systems and behaviour are part of the definition of the thing we call “software” – we must realize that they are an important part of our language. Because they are necessarily present, we can never eliminate them. If the little girl does nothing at all when we approach her, then she will feel like nothing. A “game” that tries to eliminate them may well be very beautiful and thoughtful — but it will be infested by this shallow, badly-thought-out thing called interaction.
The reason it is worth talking about this in a review of Flower isn’t to do with a lumbering pigeonholing of “games wot try to be art” — it’s about navigation.
Moving around is, itself, a system. It’s one of the potentially more beautiful ones! Our proof, of course, is Super Mario Bros. We won’t bother repeating the details. Despite this wonderful heritage, games have such a horrible complex regarding navigation.
Look at the ending of Final Fantasy X-2 (I just happened to watch it last night). This is the point in the game where the creators are ostensibly trying with all their to make you feel as much as they can — a climax needs to be tense, epic, beautiful. So you’ve got this gigantic beetle-robot, all your characters and all the interesting NPCs talking as intensely as they can, and there’s an epic score. Yet the way you experience this is by holding forward on the analogue stick — because there’s only one path, which your character moves down while you look at the last boss, which is meant to be intimidating. There are random battles, so your location holds no significance beyond getting somewhere — the people who made this seemed to think that so long as we are controlling a person who is in an interesting place, we will be interested.
Daft, I say! Adventure games have it even worse — or maybe it just stands out more, as it’s almost all they’ve got. Consider the car in Grim Fandango, which I want to say is theoretically one of the most awesome objects in the history of video games. A souped up funeral car, made for the grim reaper, driven by a demon! The vision is amazing, and the pride is evident. Look at the thing as it appears in the FMVs and during the loading screen, what a piece of work. And yet, such nonexistant friction, such horrible controls — they’re not even different to those of the main character.
And this is without talking about the games where you click to walk. One more: remember the part in Final Fantasy VII where that girl gets stabbed or some stuff? There’s a pair of jumps just before the cutscene. They were obliged to put these jumps in, because in order to have any sense of occasion, the environment needed that bare minimum of specialness, that bare minimum of interaction.
The people who envision these things are not being spiteful, or even unimaginative. They just don’t speak the language of video games. They cook up wonderful environments, fascinating narrative contexts for your interaction. They just don’t think about the interaction itself, they don’t realize that it is not enough to hold a controller while imbibing interesting stuff. Thus they end up with a thing that is, in part, dull and thus really quite conscienceless on their hands.
It’s also not as simple as trying to get some brilliant game designer into the room with some brilliant environmental storyteller; I fear that these games downplay friction by necessity. When our reason to be someplace is in order to examine what we find, our movement will become a means of transportation to that place, rather than a way of examining the beauty of the movement itself. I think that might say something about the meaning of life, but I’m not sure what.
Fatale may be more clever than I am giving it credit for, as the movement system is technically quite detailed; same goes for The Path. But Dear Esther makes it pretty clear that video game designers who believe that expression can be adequately made purely through an environment are missing something. In my opinion, it would take a real delusional to get through that game without once bunny-hopping (and a real twat to continue bunny-hopping after finding out that it screws up the delivery of the audio cues). Dear Esther showed so little understanding of something Flower understands so well: that we human beings look for challenges as soon as we are presented with spaces.
A great example of a frictitiously navigable game is Metroid Prime. It might be the existence of competitive play that takes away a lot of the friction of moving in most FPSs. The fact that you can adjust input sensetivity to your own liking suggests that the people who designed them, well, didn’t care much about the system themselves. Not that we shouldn’t be allowed to adjust sensetivity! And not that FPSs can’t have wonderful behaviour in other respects. Metroid Prime is different though. I can’t remember if you can adjust sensetivity, but movement in that game was put together with great care. It is this, indirectly, that makes the platforming enjoyable.
Flower has some pretty powerful crunch in it. Despite the incorporeal avatar, despite taking place in the air, the game is frictitious and in no way floaty. It’s a game that understands friction. Using a wall to spin yourself around recalls swinging a bat as hard as you can, except that this time you hit something. Getting a full chain of flowers is like pulling the red strip out of a kitkat with one perfectly straight, perfectly clean tear.
Sometimes it involves literal friction! There are parts where you have to rub yourself against the ground, or wrap yourself around haystacks. Actually those parts are kinda troublesome. The game shows you what to do, then you do it, and once you have done it, progress happens.
We don’t see “doing as you’re told” as a legitimate way of having fun — remember Super Mario Galaxy. It seems forgivable here, though. It’s an understandable compromise, and it is beautiful and short enough that it feels more like the game is telling us “hey, try this out.” It is the case that moving is more fun when you are closer to the ground, or closer to something, because it gives you a better feeling for how fast you’re going – the game might just be drawing your attention to this. What may be crucial is that the game has quite a low standard for the completion of these mini-tasks. This makes me think that it is just a cute suggestion of a way to explore the space of the game, rather than a creepy effort to make us feel accomplishment (the haystacks light up once you have done a simple whirl). And, clearly, we can’t accuse this game of being slutty with its rewards.
That justified, Flower has quite a few other problematic bites of structure. In short, it manipulates. There’s micro-manipulation, like when it briefly takes control away from you in order to pretend that you’re doing something awesome, and then macro-manipulation: there is an architected tension running through the whole thing.
Usually in games, “tension” means “will I succeed?”. Usually in stories, “tension” means “will the author have decided that this person will succeed?”. Flower contains both. Architected tension does sometimes leak in to games. In Shadow of the Colossus, you’ll frequently find yourself in a situation where you’re holding on while the colossus tries to shake you off. There is nothing you can do in this situation except hold R1. Whether or not you succeed will boil down to the game’s own number-crunching — in other words, a decision that comes from the author.
Holding on to a rearing colossus is genuinely tense. It’s worth wondering what it is that is at the heart of that tension though. It’s not a film. Wander won’t fail if you fall off. What will happen is that you will have to try again, which will be annoying and take up a lot of time — so much time, in fact, that it feels like a film.
When a game changes in a big way in a manner that you absolutely could not predict and yet expects you to perform as if you could, we call it unfair (or “cheap”). It feels fair in Shadow of the Colossus, though, because every single colossi is intimidatingly different, and you know there are things to learn about it. That’s part of the terror of seeing them, which is the core of the game. Like absolutely any other game, if you fall off, you can get straight back on, and be the wiser because you know a bit more about the thing’s behaviour or the extent of your grip. Thus does an authored tension turn back in to a personal tension.
Most games have both authored and personal tension though, because most games have a “story.” The separation between the two is much maligned of course; we probably don’t have to talk about it, but here’s a classic example that’ll help illustrate what I just said:
You know when you play an RPG, and a character dies in a cutscene after a boss, and your eyes widen and as soon as you regain control you go to the menu and quickly check to see if you’ve retained the armour and items the character was carrying? You know how the game is now philosophically hecked, because if you have retained the items then the character’s death hasn’t meant anything, and if you haven’t retained the items it feels unfair (like what we described above; it feels as though the boss stole all your items without you seeing, especially because you now have to fight the boss over again: authored tension -> personal tension)?
At least RPGs actually have that possibility for a relationship between “story” and “gameplay.” But we’re not here to talk about that. What goes on with Flower is the same thing that goes on with Another World. There is “story” there is “gameplay”, but they are presented, as it were, without changing cameras. Which is to say, the “story” just means “the stuff that they wanted to put into the gameplay that they couldn’t work out how to do interactively.” This is different to how it normally is, because generally videogame writers don’t even begin with the idea that their story would be a part of the gameplay.
I won’t be satisfied until they don’t think about “stuff that cannot be done interactively” at all. But again, we’re not here to talk about that. Flower is sneakier than Another World. Perhaps because it is short, it thinks it can get away with having an entire storyline of authored successes and failures.
The fifth level is the only part of the game where you are in danger, or rather, where you’re given to think that you’re in danger. It’s like a normal video game level, with threats and failures, except that the way the game responds to the failures is, well, melodramatic. By the end of the level, it’s trying to make you think you may not pull through. Then it has the sixth level, where everything is fine and you are strong again. Because this authored tension unfolds over the whole game, the only way for it to be factored into your understanding of the game (and thus turned into a personal tension) is to play the whole thing again.
Sneaky! This thing is still game of the year though, because:
1) This story arc was treated as a way of structuring and seeding varied challenges and environments
2) It lines up with, and does not intrude upon, your own interactions and personal tension
3) It’s still not actually any more dishonest than a cutscene
Back to the micro-manipulation, though. So you have these parts where hitting a certain place will cause something awesome to happen that you didn’t expect, something that will disguise itself as something you have control over. They’ll last about two seconds, which is all the sneakier. We want to be charitable, so we’ll say that the decision was that lying to you about how good you were was a worthy tradeoff for making you feel a specific kind of friction that they had worked on. A friend of ours had one of those things happen, and did a fist-pump. We don’t let this bother us; we think that deep down he knew he was being lied to.
Again, it’s bad, but again, it’s no worse than a cutscene, and right now it serves to throw the awkward nature of cutscenes in general into sharp relief. Who are these voice-acted asshats, who saunter around pretending that my killing aliens was motivated by a desire to save the world, rather than an interest in mechanical exploration and a half-bored hunger for violence? At least Flower has some humility in its cutscenes, and really it’s just so damn spirited there’s not much you want to hold against it.
There is another way in which Flower might be mistaken for an unconscientious game: it is structured around picking things up. We will begin the justification of this by pointing out that picking things up is actually the entire goal of the game. Collectibles since time immemorial have been afterthoughts or crutches in action-adventure games. In Flower they are placed with care.
To prove this, first I’ll point out that you don’t have to pick up all the petals. I am not telling you this out of apologetics. I am pointing it out as a meaningful aesthetic judgement. Remember, Flower is about chaining, even though it does not flash “10x” “40x” “100X!!” up on the screen. You are presented with processions of flowers at various angles and orientations (don’t miss the spiral) — you attempt to swoop through and pick them all up in one curve. If you manage to, great, if you don’t — I guess I have to go back and pick some up?
No. Provided that you got the majority, you can just move on to the next procession. The ones that you missed will sit back there, glowing, but not to annoy you — only because they have to. You will still make your quota even if you don’t double back and get them. Doubling back to get them takes an agonizing amount of time and some horrible movements. If we accept that the designers were interested in swooping, not collecting, then this becomes a very common-sensical design decision, and also a righteously cruel trial for the part of our brain that wants to go back and get them.
A word on collectibles: collectibles are pretty dumb and they have been pretty abused. Look at your average platformer, and there’ll be massive piles of collectible things for you to dispassionately smash or pick up. There will be cannons that’ll launch you into a long line of collectibles — collectibles that you cannot avoid collecting, which you’ll probably get an Achievement for later on. They’re a ghost of fun that we had in super mario bros, when collectibles could be pretty intimidating to go for (or you had a time limit, so there was a risk in getting them). When I say ghost, I mean that we can now have all the collectibles we longed for – we remember that longing, we remember that utility, and games to this day capitalize on it by showering us with the things.
Right now, I am going to hold them up as evidence to the effect that games designers have to dissect their own experiences. There are modern games that have sensible collectibles – Braid and Blueberry Garden to be sure, and if you think about it, Guitar Hero and Audiosurf are about collection. But the hedonistic game designer uses collectibles as a person stuck for a conversation topic would use the weather. On your way across a room, there might be that little bit of silence, that developers feel the understandable urge to fill with the tinkling of half a dozen “picking something up” sounds. It is understandable, I say. The tinkling can be part of the soundtrack. The way they zoom into the corner or whatever can be part of the friction of moving forwards. We here at action button dot net ought not to pretend that there’s an easily-drawn line between banal reliance on accidental collectible absorption and the sweeping inhalations of Ikaruga.
Again, this sounds like apologetics, and Flower does not need it. It’s a wonderful game — all the aesthetic dedication and dignity of Soul Bubbles, with more grace, intensity, and thoughtfulness in its core mechanics. I’m not satisfied with the philosophy of it, but there is not yet any game in the world for which I am, and I had to bang on about something within my lifted word limit, so. Game of the Year guys. Honorable mention to Osmos, Igneous, Gridrunner: Revolution, and The Void.