Flower, anti-game and anti-gaming
Flower is tied for my 2009 GOTY with Demon’s Souls. It might initially seem like an odd pairing, but both games take opposite ends of the spectrum in bringing something new to the increasingly stale and recycled current generation of gaming. In fact, Flower even touches on the current state of gaming and what it means to be a gamer, albeit in a very subtle way. The following critique of Flower should not be read if you have any desire to play this game whatsoever, and have not already done so. It might seem strange to preface an essay about a game with no dialogue and seemingly no plot with major spoiler warnings, but the game is best experienced with as little first-hand knowledge as possible so the experience remain pure. If you somehow happened upon this page and have no clue what this game is, I’ll again link to the Metacritic page. Come back when you’re done, because this essay does not intend to describe the mechanics or the general concept of what the game is, but instead intends to delve deeply into its meanings and interpretations.
An obvious interpretation could be the “nature good, technology evil” one, which I do not believe holds up. The game seems instead to be conveying a message of “technology is not inherently evil, but needs to find a balance with nature.” This is borne out in the sixth (and last) level especially. It takes place in a city, and the goal is to bring the city back to life. The game does not seem to posit that the asphalt and concrete are bad, but instead that sometimes natural beauty is taken for granted.
Moreso than the technology versus nature debate, I wish in this essay to examine some of the more subtle themes that I believe the game attempts (and, in my estimation succeeds) to convey. Mainly, I believe that this is the most subtly subversive game ever made in regards to its attitude towards the state of the gaming industry and gaming in general. In fact, I wish to show that this is probably the most anti-gaming game ever made.
First off is the obvious fact that although there are “levels” and “goals” and “hidden secrets,” the game is not laid out like any traditional game ever made. There is no timer, no death, no continues or checkpoints, and, until the fifth level, in all reality, no real challenge to speak of. The first four levels are pretty much freeform. The game allows you to take as much or as little time as you’d like on any given level, and in fact rewards you for not plowing through the game. There is a trophy for taking a ten minute break between levels, and a trophy for reflecting on a level after its completion. In a similar vein, there is also a trophy for allowing a week to pass between play sessions.
So the game is obviously designed as a sort of “anti-game” to begin with, as it follows none of the traditional markers of what makes a game a game. Which is what people who understand and experience the game tend to enjoy about it. That it tries to do something different. And obviously, different here is again not the same as “different” in the sense that most games are different. Most games that people recognize as being “different” or “innovative” usually refer to a tweaked play mechanic, such as the Gambit system in FFXII or the open world system of GTAIII. Yes, each of these did innovate in their respective genres, but they still used traditional play mechanics. Through the first four levels of Flower, there are no “traditional” play mechanics whatsoever, besides a basic “do X to complete the level.” And again, the people who have an open enough mind to accept the newness of it usually come away from the game entranced.
But some of these same people have one major complaint, which is the entire fifth level. The common complaint is that it breaks the flow of everything that had come before in a few different ways. First, up until this level, everything tended to be colorful, peaceful, and free-form, contemplative, artistic and soothing. Level five destroys that mood by being bleak, dark (in more ways than one), and more goal-driven. This is the level that people take to be the defining, “technology is evil” statement, as, secondly, this is the only level in which your flower petal can be damaged. And it is damaged by a sprawling, crumbling technological nightmare. It uses the typical (for the current gen) brown and grey color pallette in making a level that is the antithesis of everything that had come before. The common complaint is that this level is just not fun, and that it takes what might otherwise have been a perfect game and tarnishes the experience a bit. Many people think it should not have been included in what is already a very short game.
I think that its inclusion is one of the major ways that the game incorporates its anti-gaming theme. It slams it into your head that this IS still a game, and introduces something more challenging, a lot darker, and a bit claustrophobic. Of course, this is also the least enjoyable level of the game. It’s not by coincidence that the least enjoyable level is also the most overtly game-like and also the darkest. I believe the level was specifically designed to not be enjoyable, in order to contrast traditional gameplay mechanics against the mechanics that Flower uses in every other level, and in order to force the player who is willing to look at the game a bit more deeply to come to grips with exactly what it is that makes a game fun.
This theme is furthered by the last level, where you are tasked to bring life back to swingsets, slides, etc (things children played BEFORE the advent of videogames, and more than likely rarely do nowadays). Once the game is “beaten,” the formerly quiet, lifeless, dark apartment that serves as the stage select is now inundated with sunlight, voices of children playing outside, and a jazz musician playing from somewhere outside of the apartment. I believe the message conveyed here is again, everything in balance. There is a time and place for videogames, but there is also a time and place to build community instead of holing oneself into an apartment and participating only in an online community.
And here again is where Flower is the most subversive game ever made, in my estimation. On a console that at the time was struggling under its own weight, and whose manufacturer desperately needed it to be a success, a game is published first party that carries the underlying message, “Turn off your Playstation 3, go outside, meet people, and experience real life instead of a simulated version of it.”
A few personal notes:
I’ve been gaming since the days of Pong (my grandfather had Pong hooked up to his TV), and I can say without a doubt that Flower is one of the two best games I’ve ever played. It has one of the most engaging storylines, the most subtext, and the most emotional impact of any game I’ve ever played, and it does so without a single piece of dialogue and very minimal (to the point of being pretty much non-existent) use of words at all.
The word emotion was thrown around quite a bit pre-release, and I went into it initially being very skeptical that blowing flower petals around could evoke any emotion. I had no doubt that the game was going to be very good, but I had no idea that within the two or so hours of my initial playthrough, I would experience happiness, elation, fear, sadness, and an overwhelming sense of well-being, that just for now, everything was right in the world. I also had no idea that it would be the first and only game to ever make me cry.
There is probably much, much more that can be written (and likely already has been) about the game. I personally feel that not only is this the defining example of “game as art” thus far, but also that the game’s impact and importance will not be fully recognized until at least a half-decade down the line. Funny, because the latter is exactly the way I feel about Demon’s Souls.