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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9 Responses

  • I have always had trouble with Leigh Alexander’s comment “Poor Flower, unpermitted to simply be a good, thoughtful video game.” Why settle?

    I argued that an unexamined game is not worth playing and the response I received was that by investigating and addressing the game we have ultimately destroy some value of its message or existence in the realm of the medium by making it too daunting and controversial for easy entry.

    I don’t believe this is true nor do I believe games deserve this benefit of a doubt. Alexander mentions directly afterward “we did this to Braid too.” And eventually I saw this happen to “The Path.” It seems this is a no win situation where reviewing a game solely in the tradition of style/gameplay/graphics is clearly insufficient and yet even when we attempt to interrogate a game on a more experiential or scholarly level the backlash is just as rife.

    As indicated in this compilation, I was unimpressed by Flower and at times angry. This is a good thing, especially for what many have referred to as a touch-stone game. Criticism isn’t meant to destroy but address and reveal. Everyone has a different experience but the narrative I am getting is that while the community encourages this interrogation for mainstream games, it is often discounted for these smaller games that strive for an artistic pursuit. The same goes for puzzle, sport, and arcade games as well.

    These games need more criticism that addresses the different facets of it. A game can’t just “be good.” Why would we want to talk about it then? By asking “Why can’t a game just be good” it both ends an argument and raises one. By settling that a game is good stops the discourse around it. There is no discussion. It is similar to saying that an art piece just is. We can’t nor shouldn’t fall to the trappings of this conclusion. Games like Flower are wonderful in that is challenges what a game is, but it should not be excluded from the possibility that it may be a failure or a success.

    Why can’t Flower just be good? Because games deserve more than that.

    • Once again I find myself arguing details with you. I think that Flower and the other games should be argued and critiqued as they have been. Critiquing them does not dimish their effect on you. It does indeed reveal what they have to offer much more sucinctly than a simple yay or nay to the whether it was good question. On principal I am with you.

      I liked the game all the way through. I had my ups and downs with Flower, but upon reading the expiriences of others and see my Dad play it I find myself appreciating it even more. Even in my own critical refelction which I have yet to organize and post, I find Flower to be even MORE thoughtful and good. To me there is more in the game than the simple. I think an error in our critique has arisen and we have limited ourselves to simple critiquing eyes because it is a simple game. We have not tried to view it with more complex thoughts and that has limited ourselves to the basic ideas that this is about nature vs. manmade and the other iterations of that argument.

      That is where I believe the disconnect is comming from.

  • Such compilations as this are explicitly not reviews or consumer advice, they are criticism and shouldn’t the mantra of the critic be to “never settle”. To do so is a huge disservice not just to that game but to all games.

    If I have two concerns with these critical compilations; firstly that so far they have been the games that I am the least surprised to see criticism about. They are the “emperor’s new clothes” of games, ones that if people don’t view are intelligent or worthy of criticism, then they are consider ill informed individuals. I’d personally be much more interested in a critical compilation of Gears of War or some similarly “mainstream” title.

  • I need to think a bit more about most of these comments, but to Justin’s last suggestion: I think that’s a great idea, and I’d love it if Justin or anybody else were motivated to create a Critical Compilation on a more mainstream title. (We’d be happy to host it here on Critical Distance, we’re always looking for more contributors.)

  • I’m just curious about the material used in the compliation. I don’t think it can be comprehensive, but the thing is many people are still talking about the games. Justin you gave the example of Gears of War. I think if someone searched around you could get a large number of critiques on both one and two. The thing is there is still material being written about these games.

    With the site name being Critical Distance, how much time is the distance to gather enough material for the compilations. Braid came out about a year ago, but only on the 360, and Steam only a few weeks before the compliation came out. I don’t own a 360 and had to wait for it on PC. Bioshock as well, I had to wait for the PS3 version and thee are other bloggers just getting to it now. Then we have Flower. It came out a few months ago. The conversation has died down a little, but it surely will pick up again. I’m wondering with the compilation out, will it be updated in some manner like an addendum or added to the actual text.

    I know Critical Distance has a number of other questions it has to answer and we are still only in the beginning phases, but I think the questions concerning the compliations is sort of central to where CD came from.

    • Yes, I believe the plan is to update them as more stuff is written. It’s a bit unrealistic, I think, to keep it updated in real-time, but I expect every few months we will revisit the compilations with substantial updates.

      If you just want the latest links, click the Delicious link at the top of this website and sort by game tag.

      @Justin I have to disagree. I have very little interest in reading anything on Gears of War or what I think of as “Top 40 games”. But that’s why we have multiple editors with different points of view and tastes and accept contributions from anyone. Such a compilation would certainly not be rejected.

  • In regards to the issue of settling: part of me agrees, but for me personally writing about video games right now, the issue of settling is somewhat tangential to what I’m interested in. Right now, I’m trying to listen to what a game tells me that I find most interesting to think about, and I’m trying to shut my ears to what my past experience with online video game coverage tells me I should be talking about. And sometimes what I end up caring about turns out to be something that a game does, in my opinion, quite well, while at other times it’s something that a game shows promise in but could be doing much more. (It’s rarely something that a game does really badly in, because I usually find that to be banal rather than interesting.)

    In the former case, it probably looks like I’m “settling”, while in the latter case, it probably doesn’t, but from my point of view that’s not really accurate; it just means that, for whatever reason, the good parts of the game caught me more than the bad parts, and that my brain was working hard enough to process what was interesting/novel about the good parts that it didn’t see fit to spend more time right then thinking about how the game should be better. It’s certainly not a sign (and, to be sure, nobody here is claiming that it is) that I think that a game to which I react that way couldn’t be improved.

    Of course, I could be deluding myself – maybe I really am settling inappropriately, maybe I really should be working harder to think about further evolution even as I try to process the game in front of me. Though, to be sure, I don’t claim to understand what criticism is/should be, or to be a critic, so I’m perfectly fine if it turns out that I’m behaving inappropriately for one.

    I do think the phrase “emperor’s new clothes” in regards to the games that have received Critical Compilations so far is unfair, though: that suggests both that the games are objectively bad and that those of us who feel otherwise are deluding ourselves, and I don’t think either of those is true.

  • My choice of phrase was poor, and I don’t mean to say either Flower or Braid are objectively bad. However I think they are critical darlings and talking about them in a critical fashion is almost expected.

    Is such discussion important and interesting? Of course, but I personally more interested in seeing what kind of intelligent criticism can be made of the games that aren’t so obvious critical fodder.

    If we want to understand what games are and what they are doing now, or capable of in the future I think examining the “pop” titles is important. If only so we can identify the roads better left untraveled.

  • Yup, totally – no argument from me there, and I’m definitely looking forward to your Gears compilation.