Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review: Flower


PSN, $15.50

Developer Jenova Chen doesn’t play games any more, doesn’t see the attraction of first-person shooters, and doesn’t like wasting his time on games that don't create an emotional connection. Good, then, that he and thatgamecompany have spent their last couple of years of development time tending Flower, a “visual tone poem” of a game that is a natural successor to thatgamecompany’s PSN hit flOw.

Using the PS3’s motion controls, you direct a gust of wind towards flowers in a series of increasing gloomy meadows, aiming to make the world a brighter place and, perhaps, beautify a city overgrown with spiky power pylons. Maybe. The themes all get a little muddled, which is, I suppose, the wont of poetry.

It’s easier to assume that there’s no direct moral to the game – there are traces of commentary about the benefits of renewable energy and the ugliness of traditional pylons as compared to wind turbines, all mediated through the dream of a flower on a windowsill. Certainly it isn’t really made clear until the last couple of levels, where somehow flowers and the wind can eliminate “bad” electricity and replace it with bright colours and the good stuff. Poets, right?

The motion controls work well, if only because there’s no time limit on completing levels. This means mistakes or a missed flower in a sequence aren’t punished, and the only thing you’ll miss is hearing the accompanying note (or later, chord) in the right sequence. Again, no great loss, and it’s a testament to the visual characteristics of the game that it’s often more interesting to “wander” around the levels before making all of the flowers bloom, simply because, well, it’s so damn pretty.

All up, Flower will last for a couple of hours, which is probably about as long as I’d want to spend rotating a PS3 controller before my wrists give up on me. That it ends before the pastoral conceit gets old is a nice touch, although the relatively small levels mean that there’s no real free play mode – I’d happily flick to the game on a whim if I could tool around a level for as long as I wanted without encountering a menu. flOw managed this admirably – although given its origins as a Master’s thesis in game design on the “flow” state of play, that’s hardly surprising. Flower doesn’t allow quite this level of interplay between different levels, but nor does it have any gradation of difficulty – great for validating its purchase to non-gaming flatmates, perhaps, but there’s little reason to go back to the game after it’s been completed.

The levels through which you progress, controlling a gust of wind, are slightly less open than you might expect – it seems that even a powerful breeze can’t get past certain wooden fences. But the budding flowers are spread out over hill and dale, which lends a degree of veritas to the motion as you puff your way along rows of flowers and bring foliage to barren fields (after a couple of hours play, the lyrical aspects of the game begin to overwhelm and influence, as you may well notice).

Flower confuses electricity generation with perennial propagation, but the con-fusion is revealing. Flowers on windowsills dreaming of brightening a dark city, pollen controlling a breath of wind, or a heuristic “she-loves-me-she-loves-me-not” petal-picking solution to global warming – when a game (or poem) is paced so well, the presence or absence of grand themes don’t really matter. All that’s necessary is an enjoyed moment in time – the promise of an objective correlative for the experience – and Flower supplies those moments in spades; even the overuse of colour saturation and rampant bloom (see what I did there?) can be part of the game’s conceit. All it’s really lacking is a rhyming couplet to round things off with a flourish.

[This review first appeared in Critic magazine.]

No comments: