The Garden of Unearthly Delights: Reactions to Flower

Okay, let’s get the most obvious puns over with: This is definitely one title to pick. Take a break from impregnating adventurers and stop to smell the roses! This game is as fre$h as a fucking daisy. So good, you’re going to want to make sure to deflower all of the trophies. Waiter, a blooming onion for the lady! It’s Gro Time©, try Miracle-Gro today!

There. I won’t dwell on the basic mechanics and premise of the game too much. If you want an overview of the game, check out the Frankenreview. Now, I ask you, does GLaDOS dream of electric sheep? Does Ico dream of a comfier couch to sleep on? These are some pressing questions I’ve asked myself. But what do flowers dream of? Another question I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves and one Jenova Chen has just answered. And the survey says, [ATOMIC SPOILER AMBER ALERT AHEAD! PROCEED WITH EXTREME CAUTION!!] they dream of… more flowers. Narcissistic weeds. Yet, I’m glad that they do because it makes for a rich and inventive experience. 

* * * *

I sit there in my shoebox of a room, staring at its download percentages, watching it grow. Outside of my window is the vibrant, pulsating compost heap of NYC’s Bowery. Sounds of car alarms, unintelligible disputes, and drunken vagabonds wailing over Bruce Lee’s death, glancing off of concrete and arcing through my window. I shut the window and turn the lights off. The download blossoms and almost immediately I enter a jet stream of consciousness.

Flower is a remarkable meditative and lyrical journey. The absence of dialogue and text is refreshing. The usual pollutants of most games–strict gameplay mandates, HUD, and tutorials–are nowhere in sight. Even when a flower’s dream turns to a nightmare (one that’s reminiscent of the game Operation) and earthly dangers and peril are introduced, it’s justified and adds a new, arresting dimension to the gameplay.

Visually, the game is quite stunning. It’s a good argument for the sake of more sophisticated graphics. It's a work where even the most staunch and ardent purists in the indie game art community, whose exalting, easily-earned praise of stick figures being endearingly “minimalistic”, just cannot deny the importance of visuals in the success of this concept. You get absorbed in the fidelity of your little Zen sandbox, parting waves of grass and passing through beads of twinkling, multichromatic dew. Sailing your pedal-fused kite on celestial vents, you’ll often pause to climb up into the air, dance, and swing around to marvel at your flower trail, which can grow to enormous lengths. Immersed in this transcendent sea of meadows, wind, and delicate beauty, you’ll think of tracing patterns in the clouds as a kid. You’ll think of shaking that cherry blossom tree’s trunk and standing underneath its showers of pedals. You’ll think of that game you played while looking out of the car window, negotiating your imaginary avatar over passing obstacles.

The ruminant exercises this game presents do not stay constant. Right when the gameplay approaches brief monotony at the end of the second dream, you drift on to new greener pastures. The third dream complicates the gameplay a bit, introducing new dynamics to the wind and more complex topography where flowers reside. The fourth dream introduces light to the equation. Drinking in radiant energy from specific flowers, the player temporarily gives off light that can be used to draw patterns and illuminate objects in the dark. This is a great addition to the gameplay, it’s just a shame that it’s fleeting.

Thatgamecompany has certainly grown. Yet, Flower retains many qualities reminiscent of their first game, flOw. It is evident after playing both that they share a common heritage. The way your avatar grows larger when awaking dormant flowers (in the case of flOw, when consuming energy), the controls (or lack thereof), absence of strictly-defined telegraphed objectives, and the end zones separating levels are just some noticeable parallels between the two. Despite those similarities, the two games are quite different in spirit and gameplay. Flower is more of a mantra while flOw is a dirge. I wouldn’t be so bold and say Flower is better than flOw, but I will say that I think it’s more of an achievement in form. However, this garden of unearthly delights is not without its weeds.

For the most part, the central mechanic of flying through flowers takes place along pretty straight fairways of manicured terrain. Obviously the flowers were deliberately placed in this way to create a smooth, fluid flight path for the player. The path gets a little more intriguing as the game goes on, but I felt that there were more times when the flowers could have been uprooted from the ground and placed on more unique geometry. For instance, the first dream ends after giving life to a tree. Breaking the pattern of taking the path of least resistance would have been welcome here by having the tree’s limbs bloom, then fit for gathering.

Also, there are far too many times that you canvas an area, prompting the camera to detach from you and perform a context-sensitive movement, giving you a wider view of the changing landscape. Unless telegraphing to the player a new area or item that is accessible, the movement and angle is almost always the same. Mostly these moments simply distract from continuous play and organic discovery.

Another element of the game that becomes tired are the tones that flowers emit after being awakened. Switching to notes from wind instruments on the turbine level would have been interesting, or more electronic noises for the night level, but these opportunities to vary the musical responses of the flowers are sorely missed. The nightmare is the only portion of the game that dramatically alters these responses, and rather intelligently, replacing bright chimes with tuneless plucking of strings, almost as if you are hearing the flower wilt away.

Perhaps the most distracting aspect of the game, however, is how heavy-handed it can be with its eco initiative overtones. Jenova Chen has repeatedly stressed that the game is supposed to represent a flower’s dream. Saying it’s Al Gore’s wet dream is also accurate. Without ruining too much, I’ll just say that in the latter stages of the game the “green” themes become so pervasive that I was half expecting to visit George Bush’s Texas ranch and watch it dematerialize with just the gentlest graze of one of my pedals against the siding. When this didn’t occur, I convinced myself that there were at the very least going to be oil-covered baby seals that needed some scrubbing from my vortex of flowers.

The social and political values can be forceful, but it doesn’t significantly detract from the game when considering the whole. If anything, it’s a breath of fresh air to be killing industrial regimes and infrastructure instead of nameless soldiers operating on behalf of one-dimensional dictatorships that are unmotivated in their malevolence, created by writers that are unconcerned with their shallowness. In this respect, I’m more than glad that the only killing being done in Flower is killing Mother Nature with kindness. At least the threat presented in the game is founded on something more factual, more at hand than unremitted terror and echoes of WWII panic that have been reverberating off of the industry gamescape for too long, the message getting more faint and prosaic with each trip. At least it stands for something and argues for it through grassroots game design. It's a small miracle that this developer has been allowed to take root and spring up from the erroded soil of the American commercial gamescape, a devastated place where most abstract innovation is greeted with commercial payloads of Agent Orange.

There is a bed of themes in the game that stand on their own if you let them, if you choose to dissasociate them from going green. The idea of renewal and the virtue of restoration are prevalent, communicated through reversing environmental degradation. Unity of purpose is also a common theme, which can be witnessed every time a flower is added to your stream, increasing your overall speed. Something must be said for a game that not only contains thought-provoking ideas, but also cultivates them through gameplay. It’s pretty amazing that just a couple days prior to the release of Flower, it was ranked the #1 most popular game on 1Up, sitting atop a game titled Killzone 2. Proof positive the industry is very rigidly polarized no doubt, but it’s still inspiring to see a game of so much courage and creativity garnering that much attention.

The car alarm sounds off again. The bum starts hollering about being a man of power and something about a jacket with a dragon on it. How am I supposed to find my chi when all of this is going on? I walk away from my potted plants and now sparkling apartment, and into my current one, surrounded by decomposing burrito remains and germ cultures, my roommates. The room is the same and the street is the same but not every street should be or can be clean. Flower isn’t a game that completely changes how you view the world. I don’t want to rush out and plant a tree, install solar panels, or grow a pot plant, but I wake from my reverie refreshed, rejuvenated, and not cursing the sky over an untimely incident of friendly fire, even though it’s seldom surprising anymore.

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