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.