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Review: Flower

Jordan Deam | 12 Feb 2009 13:00
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Forget Resistance, Metal Gear Solid 4 and Uncharted; the PS3 games that interest me don't come in a box. It's titles like Everyday Shooter, PixelJunk Eden and flOw, sold through Sony's PlayStation Network, that have solidified that download service's lead over Microsoft's Xbox Live Arcade. flOw in particular was practically a system-seller for me. Developed by a pair of game design students at the University of Southern California (who later formed thatgamecompany), it was one of the first downloadable games to leverage the processing power of a current-generation console. For some, it was a masterpiece. For others, it was nigh unplayable.

It's impossible to talk about Flower, thatgamecompany's latest PSN exclusive, without mentioning its predecessor. Both games force players to steer through the Sixaxis' motion control feature. Both games seamlessly incorporate real-time music generation into the gameplay. And both games, in one way or another, challenge our definitions of a videogame.

In Flower, you control the wind as you guide a single flower petal across a variety of alternately scenic and desolate landscapes. Each level takes place in a new locale with a unique goal, from helping a tree sprout its leaves to destroying a steely spire of mutated electrical lines. But for all the levels' variation in objectives, your methods are largely the same: Collect flower petals to win. Of course, it's slightly more complicated than that - certain flowers have special functions, and collecting all of the same color flower in a patch triggers an event that helps you progress through the level - but if you go by the simple assumption that "flowers are good," you'll probably have no trouble navigating its world.

While Flower's gameplay is fairly straightforward, its presentation is pretty much as sophisticated as it gets for an indie game. It's no exaggeration to say that more creative energy likely went into Flower's title menu than most developers put into entire games. It sets up each stage as the "dream" of an individual flower, from the moment its petal first takes flight to the completion of its humble goal. Loading screens feature short vignettes of a metropolis buzzing with energy, yet conspicuously vacant of human life. They establish an awkward tension between the natural and manmade worlds that the game never really tries to resolve.

Like its predecessor, Flower relies on the PS3 controller's accelerometer for steering duties, and as with flOw, it's a rare example of a PS3 motion-motion control scheme that doesn't feel cumbersome or tacked on. While it lacks the precision of the analog sticks, tilting the controller somehow feels more natural and intuitive than thumbing at a rubber nub. Unfortunately, it gets a bit squirrely at high speeds and unresponsive at slow ones - stay moving at a nice, steady clip, and you're far more likely to enjoy the experience.

Perhaps the highlight of Flower is its gorgeous instrumental soundtrack, which perfectly complements the dreamy yet crystal-clear environments. As with the organisms in flOw, collecting petals produces staccato plucks of guitar, violin or piano. Gliding across a line of flowers produces a counter-melody that floats alongside the background music. It's about as literal an example of harmony between elements in a game's design as you'll find.

In fact, the difference in sound design between flOw and Flower points to a larger difference in the developer's approach to each game. flOw is predominantly an open-ended, cyclical experience, and its icy soundscapes, reminiscent of Aphex Twin's ambient work, reflect this. By contrast, Flower's music is organic, vibrant and, at times, even propulsive - more Steve Reich than Richard D. James. Compared to flOw, Flower actually has a relatively strong narrative - about better integrating nature into our cities and our lives. If you feel any guilt for taking your blustery powers for granted, you can take comfort in the knowledge that you're making the world a better place, one flower petal at a time.

There's a reason I've sidestepped the most important question of any review - is it fun? - and that's because "fun" almost feels like a secondary concern in Flower. It's relaxing, thought provoking, serene and occasionally exhilarating. But even accounting for its more linear, goal-driven structure, there's not much here to motivate you to keep playing the way there is in a traditional puzzle game - Flower's puzzles largely solve themselves. If you treat this game as a challenge, you're liable to be disappointed. But if you treat it as something else - an interactive, visual poem? software-as-thought-experiment? - then Flower will probably have something to offer you.

Bottom Line: If you believe that videogames are the 21st-century art form, you're pretty much obligated to play Flower. You're not, however, obligated to enjoy it.

Recommendation: Buy it. Even if you only play through it once, it's worth $10 and a couple hours of your time.

Jordan Deam isn't MR GAY, no matter how much he likes picking flowers.

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