US: 12 Feb 2009
Before I begin my examination of thatgamecompany’s PlayStation Network game Flower, I must make it clear that I do believe it is a special game. I encourage everyone that has a PlayStation 3 to download it and play through what is one of the most unique experiences you can have on a console this generation. Flower wonderfully utilizes the Sixaxis controller, and its implementation single-handedly reverses the cumbersome reputation of the PlayStation 3’s motion controls. Unfortunately, Flower is also one of the most disappointing, frustrating, and infuriating games I have had the privilege of playing.
I had to give myself multiple playthroughs in order to wrap my head around this game and be certain that my criticism and opinions of Flower were valid and that I was not merely attempting to subconsciously form an opinion against the crowd. Never mind the collectathon of green pedals in the game or the encouragement PlayStation trophies thrust upon the experience. There are more pressing matters and concerns I have that individually come out through the game’s experience.
When I first picked up Flower, I was ready to be open to any experience the game gave me. Immediately after playing through the first few levels, though, my heart sank and I grew more concerned with the disconnect I was feeling while playing the game.
To break down Flower, each level introduces a new mechanic or power to your pedals. There’s the intro/tutorial, followed tby color, wind, and light. These first four levels follow the designers’ code of introducing new mechanics and utilizing them in each stage. It can provide a sense as if this is just demo upon demo upon demo because these mechanics remain isolated within each stage. Unlike fl0w, where there is a feel of progression and the cyclical nature of evolution, the world of Flower becomes extremely closed off from one stage to another, because each level is merely a showcase for a new single mechanic without any regard to the previous level.
Many of my cohorts have touched upon the sense of flight in the game. There is an attraction to the lucid nature of videogames that Flower invokes, allowing the separation between dream and realty to blur. From its sound design through its wind and ambient music to the visuals, as grass begins to part as your fly your petals at extremely low altitude. It has quickly become a game focused upon sensation and experience, an easy target for many gamers to propose another evolution in the continuing argument that videogames can become an art form if they are not already considered as such. And Flower does successfully achieve the simulation of first-person flight better than any game in recent memory, becoming a quick recipient of hyperbolic acclaim.
But aside from the mechanics of Flower, it falls short on the themes the game attempts to convey. Flower is undoubtedly a game concerned with growth, life, and nurturing. But as the game progresses into its final stages, the player encounters the danger of being shocked by electrified pylons, and pillars oddly take damage. Luckily, the “death” mechanic is not present in Flower. This is a surprising development that seems more of an anomaly hindering and disrupting the player experience, an aspect that is absent from the rest of the game. The game’s use of water is also criminally reserved for atmosphere, such as using rain to invoke an element of dread. For an element that is so essential to the possibility of life, water is underutilized and becomes reduced to a piece of set design.
There is also a loose narrative happening in Flower. I am certain the themes of life and environmentalism in the game are clear as the player is led to believe that these actions are bringing life back into the fields as well as the city. Many have compared the final, sixth stage of Flower to the final stage of Rez‘s Area 5, a culmination of the game’s mechanics. I could not disagree with this ascription more. Instead, I believe that the final stage of Flower is a complete betrayal of the game, and it doesn’t even take advantage of any of the mechanics in previous stages. In the final stage, the player gains the ability to destroy pylons, pillars, and rusted metal for the purpose of recreating buildings and urbanization. I am baffled that while I was previously neutralizing these electrified pillars, summoning wind-gusts, and growing floral landscapes, I end the game by urbanizing these very same areas through destructive means.
Flower does not provide any previous indication that it is an aggressive game; it is nourishing and creative. When the player has the ability to use his petals to destroy structures it becomes violent and completely counter to everything that was previously established in the actions of the game. When the petals finally reach the city, the player, through those petals, continues to destroy structures in order to paint existing urban bulidings—and for what? There is no advantage in utilizing the paint mechanic to color the city, no light mechanic to illuminate the city, and wind is reserved to turn on fans in vents. What was once a peaceful, transcendent game ends on some of the most violent ecological imagery I’ve seen in gaming.
thatgamecompany has described Flower as a visual poem. Its verses unfortunately undermine each other, causing the work to be in violation of itself. What Flower provides is an argument between experience and message in place of style and substance. The implication is that if we are to merely value the experience of a game but disregard any exploration of themes gamers ignore a major element of artistic value. I have not experienced a game that revealed such a breach between its thematic and aesthetic elements.
Flower is an extremely easy game to like, and I can see why so many gamers have grafted onto the ideology, philosophy, and experience I believe thatgamecompany was initially trying to convey. It is a unique little game that does take advantage of the hardware, doing something completely different in the mainstream, blockbuster game space. I do not want to marginalize thatgamecompany’s efforts in taking a chance to do something different for the PlayStation Network. Still, though it is a breath of fresh air, its faults cannot be overlooked if we are to truly view games with a critical eye.