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Magical Wasteland is written by Matthew S. Burns.

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Thursday
Feb192009

But Never the Rose Without the Thorn

In a certain way, Flower is an interactive experience reduced to one of its barest possible minima. The player navigates a space, “touches” things to unlock other things, and touches those in turn to unlock new areas— where the same thing takes place, and over again until it ends. The simplicity of the rules makes it seem easy and short for people who are already fluent in the language of the video game medium. Distilled to its basic pattern of interactivity, divorced from its art and music and its ambience, Flower would not be particularly fun and would only barely qualify as a game. Our enjoyment of the experience comes mostly from the content, which in turn creates the context, and feeling, of its action: the sun and the clouds, the grass in the wind, the floating and the soaring.

At one point, the developers of Flower experimented with more of the traditional elements of games: a health bar, different actions assigned to each of the face buttons, and tests of mastery or skill in order to progress. Those mechanics added a measure of what designers might call depth or engagement or what a competitive gamer might call fun; they also introduced challenge and the possibility of failure. But Jenova Chen, Flower’s director, reasoned that there were already plenty of complex and challenging games for gamers. Across a mental divide, however, was a whole group of people who never played games, or who did once but subsequently gave up such childish things. Chen wanted to reach out to that audience— the ones who didn’t think video games were for them, and who would never take them seriously unless more experiences of the sort that Flower is came along. Ultimately, he decided the game-like elements detracted from this goal, and took them out.

That’s really the central creative decision of Flower: not its unusual setting or story conceit, but the deliberate omission of what some argue are the fundamental tenets of a good game, the decision to make the evocation of emotion the main goal of the project as opposed to simulation of a system with many variables and possible outcomes, or even any interesting choices for players to make. Because of this, Flower has become the subject of some impassioned discussions inside the industry and among gamers, and though on the surface they appear to be about whether this particular title has any merit, the underlying issue is: when does a “game” become something else entirely? Some advocate a wide and loose definition of the term, one that welcomes the kinds of experiences that Flower or oddities like Endless Forest can provide. Others feel that, while these things may be wonderful screensavers or software toys or art installations, they are just not good games, because they do not do well under the criteria upon which one should judge games.

The level of interaction that Flower provides isn’t without important precedent in the history of our industry, though. In fact, it was close to fifteen years ago when a computer game called Myst burst upon the scene and sold astonishingly well. Like Flower, Myst was almost laughably simple when you stripped it to its core— it was essentially a slide show with atmospheric music and sound. There was no interface or inventory or any “mechanics” to speak of and consisted solely of methodical navigation through a virtual world plus the solving of puzzles, which were serviceable if not remarkable. But, crucially, Myst powerfully evoked the lonely ambience of its imaginative and surreal locales better than anything else did when it came out in 1994. Though it was derided by hardcore gamers then and now for its simplicity, it found a broad audience among the people Chen dreams of reaching. They had purchased their personal computers on a salesman’s promise of “multimedia,” whatever that meant, and only later found this exception of a game had connected with them on an emotional level.

For its part, Flower has done well in the enthusiast press, where it has been hailed not only as a powerful demonstration of the potential of our medium, but, interestingly enough, a fun game, too. The cynic might argue we’re looking so hard to prove ourselves to have “cultural legitimacy” that we’ll heap praise on anything that seems like a good candidate for broader acceptance. But it could also be that we’re starting to accept that the evocation of a sense of place suffused with emotion can be a worthy quality on its own— just as we accept that some films may eschew a concrete, detailed story for what amounts to a collection of juxtaposed imagery (in an interview, Chen cites Koyaanisqatsi as an influence).

Though he’s aware he broke many of the “rules” of games in making Flower, Chen told me that he feels that he may not have broken enough— that the title still makes concessions to the traditional game experience with its unlocks and sequence of “levels” in linear progression. But, thanks in part to his efforts, the idea that some future “video game” could take on an even purer formlessness of interaction and still be seen as legitimate by those who understand and play games doesn’t seem like an impossibility. So while it remains to be seen if Flower makes real inroads into the mass of those who don’t feel games are for them, perhaps the new ground it has broken within the gamer culture is just as significant.

Reader Comments (10)

I'm not too concerned with the debate of whether titles such as Flower are true videogames. Any "electronic experience" can have merit, even if it's not goal or mechanic oriented. Hell, it doesn't even need to be fun as long as it's interesting.

But do you really think Chen was going for a broad, mainstream audience? If so, then why create Flower for a pricey console?

I realize its control scheme is a huge part of the experience, but that seems more like a result of having already decided on the PS3, i.e., I'd be surprised to find out that Sixaxis was the inspiration for the game. And if Chen did feel that motion controls were integral to Flower, then why not release it on the iPhone? After all, it's a very casual space where even dice simulators sell like hotcakes.

Of course every platform has its strengths, and maybe the PS3 simply offered the perfect blend of everything he wanted, but it doesn't seem like the best route for reaching non-gamers.
February 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterThe Management
Maaan...I really need to get a PS3 now. Flower looks like something right up my alley; a game that isn't neurotic about itself, that just exists.

Could the reason Flower is on the PS3 be the simple mercenary reason that Chen has signed a long-term contract with Sony? I thought I read about that in one of his Gamasutra interviews.

And let me just say, that it's awesome to have a game designer who doesn't think 'breaking the rules' means 'moar boobs/blood'.
February 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAdam 'Pi' Burch
"Though he’s aware he broke many of the “rules” of games in making Flower, Chen told me that he feels that he may not have broken enough— that the title still makes concessions to the traditional game experience . . . ."

This was perhaps what I took most from the game after my initial playthrough. I wasn't sold the way many people were, though I did certainly like the game. Perhaps I was just not willing enough to let go of my hangups or perhaps because there are so few game mechanics present in the game that they simply stuck out more to me when I had to, say, avoid getting shocked.

Going back and playing the first few levels over and over again is closer to the experience I was hoping for with the game. I can just be the wind and forget collecting everything. In that way it's calming and an enjoyable interactive experience, which is something I've never felt with another game hailed to be relaxing, Pixel Junk Eden.

Regardless, it appears I want my stripped down experiences to lose all sense of traditional gaming mechanics. Does that mean Noby Noby Boy is the game I've always been looking for?
February 22, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterPaul
I don't see why people are so hung up about whether Flower, Wii Music or Wii Fit are games. In my opinion, they aren't, but so what?

To me, a game is anything that has rules and a goal. Taking away the concept of "video" games (which adds the immersive and simulator aspects that fubars any debate about what a game is), games are just rules and a goal. That's all that tag, chess and soccer are composed of. Now, should someone come along and come up with their own rules or goals concerning Flower then that instance is a game. For example, Flight of the 747 was an old plan simulator I used to play, but it wasn't a game until I came up with the rules "don't bomb churches and hospitals, and if you destroy the Eiffel Tower you win!"

Myst has puzzles that must be solved. Each puzzles has it's own rules for how it is to be solved, and the goal is completing the puzzle (and getting to the end of the game), thus I'd argue Myst is a game. If Flower lacks these things, then it is not a game, and not fit for comparison.
February 24, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSome Guy
This is an informative angle on the development of Flower. Magical Wasteland, you remain just as fierce than ever before.
February 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJeriaska
I don't think your comparison to Myst is very accurate. It did have a good atmosphere, but the puzzles were the core of the game and they were a lot more than 'serviceable if not remarkable'. In fact, 'remarkable' is exactly how I would describe Myst's puzzles. And they were certainly not 'almost laughably simple'.

Maybe I am getting too defensive considering this is not even the point of the article. But I think there are a lot of other games that would serve as better analogues to Flower.
February 28, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterchutup
I may have been a bit harsh on Myst. The puzzles in it were indeed better, and better integrated, than those found in just about all of its imitators. The "simplicity" comment was meant to describe the basic interactions in Myst from the viewpoint of the advocates of deep simulation with emergent properties, and not something to describe the puzzles themselves.
March 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew
"So while it remains to be seen if Flower makes real inroads into the mass of those who don’t feel games are for them"

I think it's safe to assume that casual gamers, or "those who don’t feel games are for them", will remain unchanged by this particular title.

I bought Flower after reading this blog, thinking it would be a beautiful and relaxing experience. Beautiful, yes. Relaxing? I haven't been this frustrated by a game since the final level of "Gargoyle's Quest" on the original gameboy. The difficulty level jumped by an order of magnitude from the earlier levels. That didn't make it impossible. It ruined the gaming experience.

Gargoyle's Quest has nothing on Flower in this respect. Flower has raised the bar when it comes to ruining a gaming experience.

Flower is without question a game. There are set rules. There is progression. There are rewards and punishments. The game designers seemed to favour the latter.

Flower is a game for hard-core players with an incredible patience. Players that don't mind pointless repetition as a punishment.

In my book, that makes it a bad game.

March 15, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNiclas
It's spelled ambiance. People in glass houses and all...
April 8, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterb
If you want to play the pedantic game, be my guest! As it happens, two out of three American English dictionaries prefer ambience to ambiance.
April 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew
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