Flower, Sun, and Rain asks a question that is very important as we look at video games as an art form: do they have to be fun?
Flower, Sun, and RainPublisher: Grasshopper Manufacture
Platforms: Nintendo DS
ESRB Rating: Teen
Developer: Xseed Games
Release date: 2009-06-12
I am from the school of thought (not a very uncommon one) that Suda51 is a genius. In a medium which grows more and more formulaic by the year, Goichi Suda pushes the envelope of player/game interaction, narrative, characters, and gameplay further than anyone else in gaming today. His newer titles, Killer7 and No More Heroes, are cult classics and both examples of his unique appeal.
While not a household name, he is apparently popular enough to warrant a DS remake of one of his earlier games, Flower, Sun, and Rain, which was released originally for the PS2 some eight years ago.
If Killer7 and No More Heroes were too weird or inaccessible for you, stay far, far away from Flower, Sun, and Rain. This is without a doubt, the most maddening, weird, annoying and not particularly fun game I have ever played. And yet, I applaud the effort and many of the ideas present in it.
Flower, Sun, and Rain asks a question that I think is very important as we look at video games as an art form: do they have to be fun? Think back to the last game that you played through that was not fun (game reviewers aside). Can't come up with anything? I don't blame you, neither could I. Most sane people will stop playing a game when it is not fun. But Flower, Sun, and Rain asks the player to slog through awful game mechanics and seemingly endless, pointless dialogues to uncover the details of it's plot -- one that is at least interesting.
Those mechanics work thusly: as a detective, you are hired to uncover a mystery. To do so, you must search for objects to help find clues. You will use your device “Catherine” to “jack into” objects to solve puzzles. But unlike most other puzzle games in which you are presented with one clue at a time and are asked to interpret that clue in order to reach a solution, you are given the solution to every puzzle in the game at the start. The guidebook to the hotel -- which has fifty sections, many of which are very long -- has the numerical codes to every puzzle hidden within its pages.
For example, for one puzzle, you must find a six digit code to create a drink recipe. There is a section in the guidebook about drinks, and it's up to you to find the code. This is not only tedious and obtuse but also unbelievably difficult. Sure, you can sift through the 50+ pages of information -- from info on soccer formations to professional wrestling to camera settings -- but even if you do stumble across something valuable (sometimes highlighted in green but often not), you have to remember which page it was on. It is really a fool's errand.
As a point and click adventure game, the story is the draw. And Flower, Sun, and Rain does have one that I found intriguing. You are essentially stuck in a Groundhog Day time warp, each subsequent day in the game seems to repeat itself. The cast of characters is also wonderfully bizarre, from the stoic and creepy manager Edo to the duo of masked pro wrestlers, there are some generally funny moments of dialogue and interaction between the protagonist, Mondo, and the strange folks that he runs into. The game's world unfolds like a David Lynch film -- quirky, nonsensical, darkly funny, and confusing.
That said, I still found it very difficult to remain interested. I thought it odd that distributor Xseed Games sent me a detailed walkthrough, giving a step-by-step guide to the game. After about 20 minutes, I had to flip to the solution to the first puzzle of the game. Many of the solutions are not at all what you initially think and having to scroll through Mondo's soliloquies before beginning a puzzle becomes the definition of frustration. There is also a lot of backtracking, talking to random guests, and trial-and-error gameplay -- all aspects that go beyond being not too fun to being simply unbearable.
If it sounds like I hated Flower, Sun, and Rain, I think I did. But the idea of giving the player the answers to all the game's questions is a masterstroke -- it's much more realistic and interesting than the trite way that puzzles are dealt with in most games. It's just far too much to ask of the vast majority of players to read and memorize a huge guidebook when they are playing a video game. I don't think games need to be fun to play at least in the future as we ask, “Are games art?” Many great forms of film, music, and literature are not particularly “fun” to absorb. But I don't think that there has been a game yet that is not fun to play and can still be considered “good.” If there is, let me know so I can play it.
I like to think that the decisions made in this game were intentional -- that the repetition and overwhelming puzzles are meant to reflect Mondo's mental state and the effect that the island is having on him. But I also get the feeling that this is an early product of a maverick designer with many more ideas than were possible at the time to put into a coherent game. I think if Suda51 could go back and tweak Flower, Sun, and Rain he would alter a lot of the choices that he made and it would make for a more compelling game. As is, Flower, Sun, and Rain is a jumble of interesting ideas trapped in an awful, repetitive mess that I can't recommend that anyone play. For fun, that is.