This is an addendum to something I wrote a while ago about Flower, specifically, but in the wake of Journey being revealed at E3, I felt this is a topic worth adressing once more.
Putting my feelings about Flower into text for a review was an easier process than I expected. What I racked my brain over for almost an hour, though, was deciding on which genre it belongs under.
If I had it my way, I would have simply abstained from listing a genre at all, but much like every other game review outlet out there, we've set a precedent for neatly placing games into categories that everyone understands. I can't call it an "Art" game – no other games exist in such a genre for reference. It's not a "Casual" game – PopCap pretty much defined what that means. And it's not a "Non-game" like those life-coach DS games that Japan is so fond of. So what is it?
I was curious to see what the other outlets came up with. Here's a quick summary:
Giant Bomb: Music/Rhythm, Simulation
Game Chronicles: Zen Gaming
TotalPlayStation: Zen (Note: clicking on Zen here brings up a list of all games in the "Zen" genre, which consists entirely of Flower and… wait for it… flOw.)
PSX Extreme: Action/Puzzle
Gamer 2.0: Adventure
Play UK: Puzzle
I could spend a good while debating with each of these choices and why they're wrong, but that's not the point. With the exception of "Zen" (a term I hadn't heard being referred to as a game genre until now), all of these genres not only don't represent Flower at all, but also seem to be given out for consistency's sake. Why? So you can file it under the right category when you deliberate over your GOTY awards that year? Are game enthusiasts so closed-minded that they can't accept the formation of new genres, especially in a medium starving for innovation?
I'm not here to evangelize Flower or hold it to some higher standard (although I quite enjoyed the ride for what it was). I just want others to recognize that this IS something completely different. Games without peers like Flower end up being breaths of fresh air for reviewers like me, who all too often feel compelled to speak about the games in relative terms (Devil May Cry is like Ninja Gaiden, except…).
Not long after Flower came Noby Noby Boy. Now there's a game that takes some explaining, even on a conceptual "what is the purpose?" level.
Most sites gravitated toward Action and Puzzle for the category here, but again, I just don't see the justification for either. It's not nearly fast paced enough to be likened to the games we've all come to associate as "Action" games, and it never throws anything resembling a puzzle your way. At least not explicitly; part of the joy and stimulation of Noby Noby Boy (some would say ALL of the joy) comes from deciding what your goals will be. "I'm going to thread my BOY through that donut-shaped cloud in the sky." Why? Because it's there. But the game never rewards you with superficial things like points, achievements or unlockables for completing these goals, so it's more of a sandbox than anything else. If we can designate "sandbox" or "open-world" as a primary gaming category, it's probably the most apt description.
I was displeased, however, by how few sites and reviewers committed to labeling Noby Noby Boy with any sort of genre compared to Flower, as if the concept of a "pointless" (a.k.a. non-rewarding) game broke their minds, forcing them to just throw their arms in the air and give up. The term "screen-saver" got jokingly tossed around a lot, especially with thatgamecompany's first PSN effort flOw. They just couldn't accept that the experience of playing was its own reward and instead wrote off all non-rewarding and non-punitive interactive experiences as screen savers.
I can't speak for flOw, specifically, but now I am incredibly curious about the reception to thatgamecompany's newest upcoming PSN game Journey. The critical reception doesn't concern me so much; Flower earned high marks and people have nothing but good things to say about Journey coming out of E3. I just dread a scenario where thousands of people turn up their noses at "yet another $10 screensaver for PSN." Thatgamecompany is practically doomed to making "indie darlings" for the rest of its existence unless it can convince skeptics to give its games a moment of their time.
As they say, however, "someone's gotta do it." We need people like thatgamecompany to push our mental boundaries and dig us out of this rut of pre-established genres built up over thirty years. Call them something – simulations, sandboxes, acid trips -whatever you want. But don't discredit their very nature as video games.