I wasn't sure what to expect from Flower. At last year's E3 I was foaming at the mouth for Killzone 2, LittleBigPlanet, Resistance 2, and PixelJunk Eden. I stumbled into SCEA's suite expecting to go right for those titles, but Sony PR had other plans. Instead, I was ushered to an unfamiliar game and left in the presence of its enthusiastic auteur. I figured that, given our relatively unknown presence as a new(er) gaming site, I was being dumped on a second tier title unworthy immediate attention by the majority if the gaming press. The game, of course, was Flower, and the eager gentleman ready to tell me all about it was its creator, thatgamecompany co-founder, Jenova Chen.
I listened to Chen describe his game as if it were piece of interactive poetry. Flowers, I was told, dream of nothing but restoring serenity to barren, lifeless landscapes. As the player, we were to help flowers to fulfill these dreams by simply blossoming other flowers. I was skeptical, but Flower's visual presentation matched his excitement, and it seemed to work in tandem with the budding, orchestrated soundtrack. The whole package conveyed a sense of beauty not often seen gaming. In fact, Chen couldn't escape a sentence without mentioning the word "beauty" at least once, and it was around that point where I began to sense a difference between Chen's fervent passion for his art and the lifeless PR-refuse I had previously been subjected to all day. Chen wasn't speaking in platitudes; I bought in to what he was saying, and, after actually playing the game, was totally on board with the love fest bestowed upon Flower by other members of the gaming press. And now, six months later, surprisingly little has changed...
Grow Up and Blow Away
From a pure gameplay standpoint, Flower might seem unbearably minimalist. Like flOw (thatgamecompanies previous effort), the only methods of input are SIXAXIS motion control along with the use of just one (any) button. Sixaxis points your direction, and the button is used for acceleration. For the first couple levels, you do little more than guide your petals over an open field and blossom other flowers as you sweep past. 360 degrees are at your disposal, and you're free to browse the landscape at your leisure. There is no time limit, no instructive text, and no underlying weight on your shoulders; you cannot lose in any way, shape, or form. The objective is simply to complete the flower's dream and beautify the landscape, which can easily be accomplished by simply gracing over a few more prominent flowers. For all intents and purposes, Flower has very little overt and objective gameplay to speak of.
While a lack of a pure objective or identifiable consequence could (and will) easily be misunderstood as poor game design, it's actually quite brilliant. Flower isn't intended to be played like a typical task-based game; rather, it breaks protocol and focuses solely on providing an experience. There is no carrot for you to chase, hell, you don't even have to "beat" anything in the traditional sense. The sense of satisfaction gained from playing Flower is achieved by simply playing Flower. Flower exists to challenge your senses, not to test your will to overcome odds.
For Your Pleasure, At Your Leisure
The experience of Flower all comes together through its luminous presentation. First and foremast, thatgamecompany unquestionably nailed the sensation of flight. Not since NiGHTS, some twelve years ago, has a game come so close to producing a genuine feeling of soaring through the air. The wind is the primary catalyst for this effect; it rips at your ears when you dive through the grass and crescendos into aural perfection when you return to the sky. With the sun painting the colors of light in every direction, the game almost smells like summer. And, surprisingly, this is all made possible through the previously-thought-to-be-inept sixaxis motion control. flOw, in my opinion, faltered by trying to map motion controls to a 2D plane, but Flower, while occasionally cumbersome, fares far better with the full spectrum of movement at its disposal.
While you can almost feel the wind blowing in your face, Flower's accompanying soundtrack is equally important to its immersive quality. The orchestrated soundtrack is complimented by small musical notes whenever a flower is blossomed, adding a bit of satisfying interactivity to the score at every instance. The change in harmony isn't as symbiotic to the experience as something like Rez, but it plays a huge role in supporting the narrative.
Wait, what? Narrative? Yes, a complete theme is encountered over the course of the game, but, much like everything else here, it eschews conventional plot design in favor of a far more profound and respectful delivery. Rather than rely on blocks of text, dialogue, or long winded cut scenes, the story is delivered solely through the visual presentation and the accompanying audio cues. This is most evident when (SPOILER) abundance of music in the opening levels is left behind in favor ominous strings and haunting melodies; the purveying cheer quickly shifts to a feeling of absolute isolation.(END SPOILER) And the conveyance of this twist is phenomenal; I can't properly articulate how good it feels for a game to not spell everything out and actually trust the mind of its audience to fill in the blanks. Flower is visual story telling at its finest.
While my adoration of this Flower obviously knows no bounds, I suspected perhaps I was just infatuated with avant-garde design and that Flower, while a dream come true for my tastes, would be a little too unfriendly for mainstream audiences. Basically, I didn't know if other people would, so to speak, "get it." Thus, I recruited my roommate, who plays maybe two videogames a year, to spend some time with the game. I held back my expectations and told her nothing about the design (not even what to do with the controller), and then watched with the upmost fulfillment as she discovered the beauty of the game on her own. She was blown away, which canceled out my wariness over Flower's potential inaccessibility. Once it's in your hands, regardless of your familiarity with games, Flower is completely intuitive.
And for those looking for something more (I can sympathize with people who want to play games with their videogame system), Flower does pack a hefty amount of actual gameplay behind all of its nuanced bliss. The later three levels, which I'm doing my best not to spoil, vary the formula a bit without abusing the inherent mechanics. Furthermore, for those determined enough to find every last un-blossomed flower, three petals can be "earned" for each potted plant in your window. Trophies also make an appearance, the most amusing of which correspond perfectly to Flower's ambiance. Again, these tasks aren't things you have to do to breathe in Flower's lush atmosphere, they just appear to be a seamless concession thatgamecompany was willing to make in the wake of flOw's alleged lack of true gameplay. Flower could stand without it, but it's good to know the options are there.