How does one ‘measure’ a game? Anyone who has played video games knows they run every inch of the quality gamut. So, what criteria to use… could there be a well-worn set of references and goals, or is it purely personal? I would hazard that despite all personal preferences, there exists a shabby but consistent template, a shared linear measure of whether a game is good. It’s to do with graphics quality, sound effects, and music, but mostly, how exciting is it, how difficult is it to achieve certain levels, beat certain bosses, etc.

I, for whatever reason, tend to think of Cartesian coordinates. For example:

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A game that has great graphics and high game satisfaction (great story, compelling action, strong level of challenge without being, for instance, Demon Souls) might mark at Game 1. Game 2 is rather poor in visual and audio quality but still somewhat fun to play. Game 3 I think any gamer can commiserate with: the game with a superior level of polish and aesthetics, but just isn’t much fun to play.  Okay, having had the audacity to cram a Cartesian graph into a game review, I should now move to the title I am discussing, originally released for the PS3: Flower. At this point, we can now throw out the graphic entirely. There is no effective measure for a game like thatgamecompany’s follow-up to Flow.

“There is no effective measure for a game like thatgamecompany’s follow-up to Flow.”

What is TGC’s goal here? Lead designer Jenova Chen has pointed out that since playing games is primarily fueled by our emotional responses, a set of such responses should be the key to designing the game experience. As most games appeal to a narrow frame of emotions, there is a huge gap in the video game market for experiences that go beyond destroying things or achieving character ‘levels.’

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Released in 2009, Flower is an entirely different gaming experience whose closest relatives might be what in PC game parlance are called ‘casual games’ – such as hidden object adventures – but this is not a fair comparison. Flower is admittedly free of demons, aliens, or gangsters trying to exterminate you, enormous explosions or rivers of blood, but call this game ‘casual’ and you might as well remark that absorbing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony through headphones is just ‘casual’. Flower is an experience, first and foremost. It is an emotional journey, and manages to deliver a message (heaven forbid!) at the same time without committing the cardinal mistake of being didactic. Kellee Santiago, President of thatgamecompany, was quoted as saying of games: “Can we go beyond just excitement…and frustration?” On that desperate plea, lead designer Jenova Chen delivers. This is art, in the sense that art is meant to provoke an emotional response in the viewer or, in this game, the player, and it succeeds magnificently.

“Can we go beyond just excitement… and frustration?” – Kellee Santiago, President of thatgamecompany

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Okay, to the game itself: The player (it’s a one-player game) is a flower petal propelled by the wind – or the wind propelling a flower petal, depending on how you see it – which moves through grassy fields ‘opening’ other flowers into  bloom and collecting more and more petals until a cloud of them is propelled across the landscape. The SIXAXIS technology employed here by the developers, controlling this gliding movement, is flawless. There are goals of course, such as finding the barren or dead spots of grass and, having opened up enough of the surrounding flowers, ‘unlocking’ those areas which are then swept with fresh green grass, more flowers, etc. The music, composed by Vincent Diamante, reacts to the player’s movements in a seamless wizardry of game mechanics. As the game progresses into its later stages, the needs become a bit more urgent; abandoned urban and industrial landscapes must be reclaimed and their rusted metal debris can be expelled by the gentle but insistent movements of the petal cloud.

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I should mention how the game begins: Serving as a kind of menu, you have a window sill before you, and a row of little pots of varying sort in which are withered flowers. Each represents a level to complete. Here at this window the colors are grays and other washed-out, dreary shades. Outside the window a grim urban landscape glowers, and streets are filled with a blur of traffic; headlights in endless streaks rushing past. Once you’ve accomplished the task(s) on each level, you return to the menu and the chosen flower has come back to life and is in full color. The palette of the whole scene, in fact, becomes brighter and more cheerful as you continue. The message can hardly be overlooked: Flower is a game about restoring nature and abolishing (as much as can be) the ugliness of our modern urban nightmare. Nevertheless, the game does not bury you under meaning, but simply transports you into its landscapes and lets you breeze through, literally, making all these sad places green again: a genius concept. Despite not resembling mainstream game structure, especially for a console title, Flower was a critical and commercial success.

Despite not resembling mainstream game structure, especially for a console title, Flower was a critical and commercial success.  

The question remains whether or not Chen’s ‘emotional’ game will leave a legacy in video gaming, or whether or not it’s simply going to be treated as a one-off; too risky to try again for game companies in what is a savagely competitive marketplace. It could be argued that such a legacy is something to be hoped for. In a video game universe that is gradually transcending mere ‘entertainment’ and starting to become part of our conscious living experience, games like Flower are critically important for the simple reason that positive emotional experiences, those that go far beyond the saccharine or ‘cute’, are necessary to that collective experience. Might we become nothing but questers, shooters and pilots, or might our emotions be allowed into our shared digital future? If the latter, then we owe Chen (and co-designer Nicholas Park) a large debt in showing us how to do it.