First video in a while. Hope it's worth the wait! It's my analysis of thatgamecompany's lesser-known masterpiece, Flower!
Are video games art? Some of you may be too young to remember, but there was a time when this was an important question. Most people saw video games as either children’s toys or murder simulators, but not works of art. To change this perspective, many games began to become more like movies, a type of media everyone considered an art form. Halo and Uncharted were more like modern day adventure movies, and Mario and Zelda were akin to Pixar films. And there’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from other art forms, but if someone were to ask me to show them a game to prove that video games are works of art, for me, that game would be Flower.
Welcome to "Dissection." Today, we’re talking about Flower. Released in 2009 for the PlayStation 3, this game was the second developed by thatgamecompany, who would eventually go on to create Journey. And while the youngest sibling has gotten the most attention of the three, the experience Flower has to offer is nothing to scoff at. Every frame in Flower could be a painting in a museum. It’s unique, original, and absolutely stunning, but there’s more under the surface that many people fail to realize.
You see, most games revolve around the idea of living out a fantasy. Embodying the main character and having power beyond your belief. In Flower, you play as the wind. The game is almost like a dream. You can fly around, discover, and explore the environment provided to your heart’s content, with the only goal being to collect flower petals and grow bigger. But in order to understand a game like this, we have to start at the beginning.
The first thing you see upon starting the game is a windowsill in a dirty looking apartment with a dying flower on the desk. By zooming into the flower, we enter the first level. The cutscene shows a bustling city, full of life, excitement, lights, pretty much what you’d expect. We then come across our flower and begin the journey. We’re greeted with this beautiful landscape. Sunny blue sky, lush green grass, and a single flower.
We then start with a petal blowing in our breeze and begin to fly. And nothing that I’ve played thus far has used motion controls quite as well as this game. Something about using the Sixaxis controller to fly through the air, the flawless execution of the motion controls, the flowing movement — everything comes together to give the player absolute control over their flight and it is a truly magical moment.
We then see something in the grass — more flowers. We go up to one and it blooms, giving us a petal to bring along on our ride. As we follow the path of flowers leading to the entrance, we come across a group of colored flowers. By blooming these, we cause a new path to grow, showing the player that certain flowers have special properties. This leads to discovering an area in which different flowers can be bloomed to bring a part of the environment back to life. And this is where Flower proves how incredible it can be.
When you think about most games, the end goal is to defeat your opponent. Whether this means killing Bowser, knocking out your opponent’s Pokemon, or shooting other players online in the face. You win by making other players lose. Flower serves as a stark contrast to this. In Flower, you win by creating life, not ending it. You breathe new life into the world with every area you complete, compelling the player to find each and every flower and restore it.
Sure, you could just go through the motions, only blooming the flowers necessary to proceed, but something about this ability, the new gameplay focus, the change in the player’s mindset, causes them to want to collect every petal they can find before finishing the level. This combined with the near perfect control scheme makes the first level of Flower one of the greatest game levels ever made. All of which is only amplified by the final act of the level being to bring the beautiful tree back to life, an action that echoes through the entire field.
After the first level, we’re taken back to the apartment where the flower in the pot has bloomed and another flower has appeared. The apartment also gets a little nicer. A simple reward, but a satisfying one. Before we jump into the next level, let me talk about the meaning behind what we experienced.
It isn’t made expressly clear to the player what part of the world they’re experiencing. Are we watching the dreams of the flowers as they hope for a world in which humans treat the environment with respect? Are we watching a memory of the flowers from before the area was industrialized? The game doesn’t expressly say, leaving it up to each player’s interpretation, but the fact that it can provoke such thought does speak volumes about its quality.
We’ll skip level two because, while it’s a lovely level to play through, it doesn’t have much outside significance aside from bringing us closer to the city. Instead move on to levels three and four. Mostly because they’re so interconnected in theming. In level three we see the end goal is to turn on all of the wind turbines to proceed. Level four starts with a cutscene in which a street light goes out, followed by an entire level of lighting up the grass to power streetlights found around the environment.
While a lot of this may just seem like basic descriptions of the levels, they do serve a larger role. When someone first picks up a game like this, there’s a good chance they’ll think the overall theme is that mankind is evil and we need to be nice to nature — blah, blah, blah. Yeah, that moral we’ve heard a thousand times? Well these two levels show that’s not the case.
In level three, the wind actively uses its powers to turn the turbines on, supplying people with light and power. And in level four, the flower and lights feed off each other. The flowers light up the street lights and in turn the streetlights illuminate a new area for the flowers to bloom. This shows us that the game isn’t about nature needing to be treasured over mankind’s interests, but rather that mankind and nature should work together to achieve their goals.
The game doesn’t paint mankind as the bad guy coming to destroy the natural world, but instead as another entity trying to get what it wants and needs to grow and survive. The moral of the game is simply that we can achieve this without harming the planet in the process. It’s a kind of optimism that isn’t seen in games very often and it’s actually pretty refreshing.
Of course, level four ends on a pretty dark note. And I mean that literally, as the turbine-powered world gives way to a world powered by fossil fuels. And the world goes black. I believe this is supposed to symbolize the limited resources available through fossil fuels. And if we continue to drain the Earth of its resources, eventually we’ll have nothing but structures meant to burn fuel with nothing left to burn. And the world will inevitably, go black.
Now we can move on to the final two levels. In level five, there are structures around the environment that the flowers can bring back to life, but touching the wrong part of the structure causes your being to feel pain and lose some petals. However, there’s no way to die from this. No matter what happens, you can keep playing. I believe this is meant that, while man is capable of harming nature, we can’t kill the spirit of the planet. When we’re long gone, the planet will still go on as it always has.
On top of this, the entire level switches between toppling some of the structures and converting others. Perhaps alluding to the notion that those that don’t convert to renewable resources will eventually run out, become antiquated, and be destroyed, while those that convert their efforts towards a resource that won’t run out, will live on.
Level five ends on a somber note, without even having an ending. In contrast to this, level six starts out with the ending to level five. This level is so satisfying to play. By entering the vortex here the player gains the ability to cleanse the world of the previously harmful structures. As the player goes through and destroys these barriers, a city emerges in their stead. Again, showing the balance between the eventual collapse of those that can’t accept change, and the salvation of those that do.
After eventually working our way over a highway and into a massive city, we come across the largest structure in the game. After climbing through it, we eventually convert the structure into a giant cherry blossom tree that stands tall over the city. Someone might take this as the game showing the player nature’s dominance over mankind, but I see it differently.
This is one massive tree in the middle of a huge city. I think what this is saying is, once again, man and nature can work together. And while mankind can inherit the majority of the Earth, we have to remember to give nature proper attention and respect.
Flower truly is an incredible game and if you haven’t played it for yourself, I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a game that’s wholly original and has the kind of subtlety and nuance one would expect from a great work of art, because that’s exactly what it is. In fact, I’m giving Flower a spot on the MightyNifty Must Play List, simply because I can’t see myself reviewing a game this abstract any time soon.