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Flower

May 18th, 2009 | Posted by David Carlton in Critical Compilation:

Flower was released three months ago, and has spawned an amount of discussion that is quite disproportionate to the game’s brief length. Given all this, we thought that it was time for a Critical Compilation on the subject. If you’re aware of pieces that I missed, please link to them in the comments.

One of my favorite early reports on the game was Michael Abbott’s shout on The Brainy Gamer that “I LOVE THIS GAME. IT MAKES ME VERY HAPPY.”  He followed up with a somewhat longer musing on “[h]ow a video game can convey such emotions without words or a formal story”, and then dug into the details of how it works – the controls, the wind, the choice between structure and play, the pathfinding, its narrative, and its music – but his original unmediated response is one that many others share, and shows one of the defining characteristics of the game.

Another early experience report is Chris Suellentrop’s description of it in Slate as “the only video game I’ve played that made me feel relaxed, peaceful, and happy”, as the reason why he “decided to spend more than $400 for the privilege of playing a $10 game”.  We also get reports of gamer’s parents’ experiences with the game: Eric Swain of The Game Critique and Scott Juster of Experience Points both tell us of their fathers’ enjoyment of the game; the latter story ends on a sadder note, as Scott’s father can’t download it for his Wii. Both authors also return with more analytical takes: Eric Swain writes on Flower‘s User Experience design in Creative Fluff, while Scott Juster together with Jorge Albor in an Experience Points review of the game addressing its “comfortable, almost confident feeling”, its “sense of purpose”, its “exploratory learning”, wondering if “In the quest to find the Citizen Kane of video games, are we not in danger of ignoring the Fantasia of video games?”

Much of the discussion of Flower centered on what traditional game elements it omits.  Stephen Totilo reports in MTV Multiplayer on revelations by Jenova Chen at GDC that the team considered and discarded using timers, desert terrain, spells, and orbs; interestingly, they discarded these features not because players didn’t like them but because players reacted in a way that the team wasn’t looking for. Matthew of Magical Wasteland goes further in this direction, talking about what traditional game elements remain in Flower as well as its reception on both sides of the gamer/non-gamer divide.  Steven O’Dell of Raptured Reality probes our expectations more broadly, even considering our expectations of the objects we encounter in our everyday life.

Dan Kline of Game of Design discusses the fact that, in Flower, “[t]here is no way to say ‘I die’.”; Shane Hinton of First Wall Rebate also explores this theme, discussing the lack of failure as a mechanic in both Flower and in thatgamecompany’s previous title, flOw, while also pointing out the difference in accessibility between those two games and between Flower and Braid.  The First Wall Rebate team also produced a podcast episode devoted to Flower, with Shane being joined by Trevor Dodge and Shawn Rider.

Jebus of Noise Tanks also contrasts flOw with Flower; he takes particular note that narrative and a sense of accomplishment play more prominent roles in the later title.  Steve Gaynor of Fullbright digs into Flower’s mechanics, focusing on its “transmitting a concrete, sensational aesthetic”, on its “discoverable progression elements and intuitive controls”, and its “small scope, high fidelity”.  In a Gamasutra blog, Joseph Cassano also contemplates Flower’s successful use of the SIXAXIS motion controls, speculating on how it could be used in other games.

Many commenters were particularly moved to comment on the fifth and sixth levels of Flower, usually rendering a less-than-positive verdict. Bill Harris of Dubious Quality goes so far as to describe the fifth level as “a heaping bowl of I Don’t Give A Shit”; Randy Ma of GraduateSchoolGamer pens a “diatribe” where, among other things, he describes its ending as “a counter-thematic tone that completely subverts everything I have done before”.  And in Destructoid, Topher Cantler isn’t pleased by the bait-and-switch that “After spending several levels with a game that’s done everything in its power to lull me into a state of carefree relaxation, I’m now meant to wiggle between these hulking masses of twisted steel and cable to chase my flowers, and I can’t touch the sides?”

Justin Keverne of Groping the Elephant also “nearly stopped playing” upon reaching the fifth level; the game redeemed itself for him with its sixth level, leading him to conclude that playing Flower is “exactly what you want to do, even if maybe you don’t know it yet.”  I had my own say on those two levels at Malvasia Bianca; I began by finding them problematic, but ultimately ended up with a reading of the game in general and those levels in particular that I was much happier with.

Steve Amodio of 8-Bit Hacks wasn’t impressed by the “Operation-style penalties” of Flower‘s fifth level, either, but most of his post focuses on the game’s “sublime” music; he contrasts it to the music in 2001: A Space Odyssey, saying that “Where the majesty of space demands a Strauss waltz, the wind requires a Paganini caprice, and that’s what we get.”  Those with an interest in game music may also wish to read Jeriaska’s GameSetWatch interview with Vincent Diamante, the game’s composer; Diamante goes into details on the game’s instrumentation and layering.  The Flower team as a whole was quite generous with their availability and I particularly enjoyed Michael Abbott’s interview with Kellee Santiago and Jenova Chen on the Brainy Gamer Podcast and Gieson Cacho’s Mercury News interview with Jenova Chen.

In (mashedmarket), Matt Vernon classifies Flower as “‘lucid gaming’ – interactive experiences so unpolluted by reality they recall nothing save for the joys of tinkering and discovery.”  Daniel Johnson of Daniel Primed tells us “the part that everyone missed”, saying that it’s “this constant reliance on landscape (the game’s sole protagonist) that allows Flower to suck you into the narrative and atmosphere.” And Clive Thompson of Collision Detection classifies Flower as “the first game about global warming”, at times finding the game’s messaging a bit heavy-handed but on the whole feeling that “what’s most remarkable is that Flower manages to do this without being cloying and preachy.”

Simon Parkin of Chewing Pixels is impressed by its “vibrant cause and effect”, and by its successful contradictions: “It’s wonderfully abstract and yet wholly tactile at the same time. The strength of the game is in its wholesale embrace of its fragility: the confidence to be an art game without apology, the courage to be textless, the strength in focusing on a subject matter with such feminine overtones and association on a platform that has neither.”  He also notes that its divisiveness is assured, evidence of which we can see even within the writings of (what we assume to be a single voice) the pseudonymous Rachael Webster of PixelVixen707. Rachael begins by being rather surprised that Flower isn’t “corny as all damn”, that “it doesn’t seem that way in a game. The only way I can explain it is that the interactivity brings it closer to real life. After all, a flower isn’t corny until somebody takes a tacky photo of it. The flower itself did nothing wrong.”  On second thought, however, she turns to describing it as “hope in a pill”, saying that by the end, “Flower didn’t remind me of a ‘haiku’ or a dream so much as a commercial.”

On a meta-analytic level, Leigh Alexander lets it be known via a trio of  SexyVideogameLand posts that she’s less than impressed by the discussion of the game.  In her first post she says that “[Flower] does not create belief; instead, it asks us to suspend disbelief. It works not because it defies the traditional bounds of video games. It works because of how well it adheres to them.”  Her second post turns to the designers’ intension, claiming that “the deliberate intention of creating emotion is manipulative.”  And she ends with a lament on “Poor Flower, unpermitted to simply be a good, thoughtful video game.”  Not everybody agreed with her criticism: Iroquois Pliskin of Versus CluClu Land doesn’t appreciate her “accusation of bad faith”, and also disagrees with the above quote on the manipulative nature of creating emotion.  Schlaghund of Schlaghund’s Playground also disagrees with that quote, and with Alexander’s claim that what Flower does has been “done to death”

To close, I leave you with a Mister Raroo Moment from Bill Sannwald to encapsulate one of the defining aspects of this brief but remarkable game:

The noise and congestion are stifling. Even in the sanctity of my own home, the grimy outside world creeps in. Suddenly, I’m away from it all. Not a soul is  in sight. A lone flower sits before me and soon a single petal flutters free. The petal and I fly forward through the valley, skimming across the blades of grass, grazing their tips as we wake up the rest of the flowers. More and more petals join the parade. In a cornucopia of colors, we zoom across the landscape and breathe new life into the world.

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