Feb 15 2009

Flower, Game Literacy, and Experiential Play

Color me impressed. Flower, available for download on the PlayStation 3, has me giddy. The game has been raved over a fair bit by the journalistic community prior to its release, so my expectations were high. I am happy to say that Flower has exceeded my expectations — and given me a lot to think about in the process. This is a game so beautiful in its sentiment and execution that I found myself moved nearly to tears on more than one occasion without the game ever introducing a word of spoken or written text after the title screen. In many ways, Flower can only be compared to thatgamecompany’s previous release (available for the PlayStation 3 and PSP), flOw. These two games take a different approach to the concept of level progression and interaction than most titles available for wide commercial release. flOw is something like an evolution simulator, with the player character beginning the game as a small organism and growing through the consumption of plankton-like materials and other organisms. Flower has the player character directing the wind in order to carry along a petal to “pollinate” other flowers while collecting a petal from each one. Both games use motion controls extraordinarily well, and in my opinion offer the best instances of such controls currently available in any game.

To my knowledge, there is no way to fail in flOw or Flower. Certain interactions will produce negative feedback: in flOw through backward motion across 3D planes; in Flower most prominently through force feedback from the controller. Many recent games have eliminated the possibility of outright failure, leading to a more relaxing if less challenging experience. However, the majority of those games still carry the old fail-state paradigm, being constructed around that concept but removing its teeth. I am thinking here of infinite continues penalized only by minor steps backward in environmental progression. flOw and Flower disregard this structure entirely, keeping the player in one continuous experience.


Aside from these structural similarities, the two games are quite different. flOw is harrowing at times due to the mechanic of eating other organisms in order to grow the player character. Flower produces similar visceral responses by simply varying the speed required for successful or optimal play. By removing the combat, the developers have exponentially increased the game’s accessibility. The experienced, goal-oriented gamer will probably tend to approach this game as has been taught through years of games with similar structures, but Flower must be approached in a way that is unique. It must be experienced rather than analyzed.

I generally find myself to be an experiential rather than an analytical gamer, and often fighting game design in order to play in this way. Flower is a mixture of open-world and on-rails play, with the sandbox portions being the larger share. The environments beg to be explored, and easily achieved goals allow progression to later levels. Although there are secrets to be found, encouraging multiple playthroughs, the game moves the player along with visual cues that prevent the motion from stopping unless the player directs it to. Nods to the gamer mentality such as this are appreciated and provide a comfortable apparatus for a community that might otherwise find itself totally lost in the experience. Flower utilizes game standards in order to create an environment that is recognizable, yet different and more welcoming than any other title that comes to mind.

Michael Abbott wrote this about Braid last year (and he is having a similarly enthusiastic reaction to Flower currently):

The tragedy of Braid, to me, is that it bars the door on what might have been its most receptive audience. I understand that one game can’t be all things to all people. I get the fact that Braid is, in many ways, a gamer’s game with homages to iconic aspects of gaming history. And I’m sensitive to the fact that Braid relies on our collective sense of games and our experiences playing them as part of its meaning. But when you consider how small that audience really is – and when you subtract from that number “hardcore” types like me who found the game severely unyielding – what you’re left with is a relatively small group of devoted gamers who truly love the game and find it meaningful to them.

I agree, and I think that Flower hits in ways that Braid will probably miss for most people other than select gamers. I intend to show this game to anyone who will look as an example of the potential for narrative in interactive space. I love both of these games, but Flower is clearly the more approachable of the two. A non-gamer would probably be confined to watch Braid being played, as the mechanics are technically demanding and require a significant level of comfort with a game controller. By using motion controls Flower bypasses the most daunting of obstacles to participating in game space.

Flower is about an intermingling of two worlds that begins on a grey desk in a large urban environment and immediately transports the player to an open, pastoral setting. This narrative seems quivering with metaphor, allowing diverse and inclusive readings. I have to believe that Flower will follow a similar path, merging gamers and non-gamers through an experience that both will appreciate for different reasons.

Aug 30 2008

Deus Ex gets Brainy

Some of the best commentary about games and gaming culture to be found anywhere on ye ol interwebs is produced by Michael Abbott. We’re big fans of both his Brainy Gamer blog and podcast, and excited to see he is ramping up his Vintage Game Club to go a few rounds with a little game called Deus Ex.  Shane and I are both tracking down copies of the game (which, apparently, is available to play *for free* over at Gametap) next week, and looking forward to jumping on the VGC discussion board for some high-octane playin and prattlin.

Tangentially: McKenzie Wark dedicated a full chapter of Gamer Theory to Deus Ex. Bet your bottom dollar we’ll be flipping through that soon as well.