As a fan of video games ever since I was introduced to Pac-Man and Dig Dug by my uncle at the age of three, it pains me to admit that most gaming stories are in fact quite terrible; many of them are riddled with cringe-worthy clichés and written expressly to stimulate and titillate. It’s understandable and almost forgivable: Crafting good stories takes time and effort. It is not often a high priority for most game developers when they are justifiably concentrating their energies on things that make games playable: interesting level design, enjoyable game mechanics, user-friendly controls. As a result, few games have stories that approach the quality of ones routinely found in more established mediums such as literature and film; fewer still deal with environmental themes, ideas, and connections of any depth.
But once in a while, something comes along and fuses interactivity, the unique strength of the medium, with a compelling narrative to create an affective and emotional experience about the relationship of humanity and nature. Flower, released by thatgamecompany, is one of those games.
The premise of Flower is simple, but unique. As the player, you are asked to play through the daydreams of potted flowers. Each level consists of navigating through a series of landscapes. Your avatar in the game is a petal floating on the wind; the objective is to interact with flowers and other objects in order to affect changes to the surroundings and progress towards a vortex that transports you back to reality.
Flower is not a long or challenging game: It takes perhaps an hour or so to finish the experience. Its ability to connect with the player derives primarily from the strength of its audiovisual presentation and the pacing of its narrative. I recall playing Flower at a friend’s house shortly after its release and how the game captivated us from the very beginning. We alternated playing through the levels, passing the controller to one another in silence, transfixed on the story unfolding before us. The experience of Flower has stayed with me; I still vividly recall my thoughts and emotions during that initial playthrough. In the following section, I’ll take you through them.
This is one of the first images I see in the game. The visual contrast is striking: A small bright flower sits on a dusty windowsill somewhere, looking out at a grey cityscape. This scene, coupled with the transition of the flower to its daydream, conveys to me that the flower longs for something more than its current existence. It dreams of experiencing a free and an open landscape. A line is immediately drawn between the world of man and the world of the flower: grey and dull versus colour and life. It is a visually arresting introduction to the game.
Level One: A Flower’s Escape
The noisy hustle and grey dreariness of the city gradually fades away, and the flower’s dream begins on a lush meadow scape, a vibrant green space. I control a single petal floating on the wind and am invited to fly through the area, to collect more petals, and to watch the interactions between petals, wind, and grass. As I progress along, I observe that my avatar has the ability to change the environment. It starts with small things: changing a patch of grass from yellow to green, causing areas to bloom with flowers, but it grows increasingly more significant as the game progresses. The level climaxes with the bloom of a single flower triggering a dramatic cascade of changes, leading to the restoration of leaves on the leafless tree situated on a hill. The dream ends, and I am transported back to the windowsill. The flower, having been rejuvenated by its dream, opens its bloom.
Level Two: Breathing Colour
The second level starts out with a second flower staring out to another cityscape. I see a grey alley and a brick wall. The scene shifts to a vast landscape of hills, meadows and canyons. But this time, everything is grey. As I traverse the terrain, colour comes back to the landscape. The changes I trigger are visually akin to breathing life back into the world. My ability to affect the environment increases; I am able to move rocks, shift monoliths, even open up canyon walls. Towards the end of the level, the wind carries me faster and faster through the canyon passes, until I emerge at the end of the level on a wide-open field. A gentle shower sets in.
Level Three: Playing in the Wind
The next level begins on a hot summer day. Staring out at the trees, the third flower sees a few leaves drifting in the lazy hazy heat, and it begins to dream of wind. I am transported to a landscape of wind farms. This is the first sign of human technology in any of the daydreams. Most of the objectives of this third level is to gather flowers at the base of wind turbines in order to generate wind for the turbines to move. There is a subtle progression of scale and scope: you gradually affect bigger operations – more turbines, bigger windmills. An atmosphere of relaxation is still present as I fly around to conduct these tasks. The sun sets in the background, and the level draws to a quiet and uneventful end.
Level Four: A Nighttime Excursion
The fourth flower has its dream at night. Its vision begins playfully. The petal I control takes on a brilliant phosphorescent blue. More human artifacts are seen on this landscape. I whirl around piles of haystacks, making them glow with a ghostly aura. Power lines are seen for the first time, and I gain the ability to illuminate the lights strung along the lines and poles.
Suddenly the mood shifts. The music stops. The lights flicker as darkness runs down along the power lines. Something feels wrong. The benign orange-yellow warm glow of the night lights abruptly changes into a dark warning red. I forge ahead in some discomfort, only to find more troubling signs of disorder and darkness. The sound of thunder and foreboding ruins of huge steel transmission towers lurk in the background. The level ends ominously and on a note of uncertainty.
Level Five: A Flower’s Nightmare
I enter the dream of the fifth flower and quickly realize that it is a nightmare. The sense of despair is heavy; the landscape is dark, grey, foggy, and rainy. Even the petal itself, usually so colourful, vibrant, and bright, is dull and subdued. The atmosphere is somber and bleak. It is devastating to learn that for the first time the landscape is actively hostile towards me; touching the ruins of steel transmission towers leads to a powerful and violent shock. After being able to do so much to affect your surroundings in earlier levels, my abilities for change are limited; the petals cannot repair the ruined transmission lines or restore the natural environment, but can only render the dangerous “live” elements white and inert. Dystopic imagery of ruined pipelines, downed power lines, and red lights abound. Thunder and lightning are constant elements in the background. Towards the end, I traverse the canyon passes (similar to Level Two) once more. This time, decaying steel girders fall across my path. I narrowly escape, and the level ends at the outskirts of a dark city.
Level Six: A Flower’s Hope
The last flower’s dream brings me back to the walls of a grey silent city. I tentatively interact with my surroundings, and notice that I once again have the ability to bring life back to a desolate landscape. The most pleasant surprise is that touching the ruined towers and girders shatters them. I once again become an agent of change capable of bringing life back to the city. New buildings emerge from crumbling ruins, and colours climb up the walls of grey towers. Where there once was stasis and rigidity there is now life, freedom and light. The stifling steel cobwebs of the old city are broken. I traverse broken highways towards the heart of the city, pushing back the shadows as I journey to an enormous twisted tower of steel. The old structures attempt to hinder my progress, but are unable to do so. My avatar of petals take on a fierce burning white aura, and I easily break through a series of erupting girders that seek to stymie my ascent up the tower. At the summit, I find an image of a chair and a window: Home. I fly back into the potted plant. The dream ends, but not before a final transformation of the cityscape. The old tower erupts into a giant blossoming tree. All is changed.
Relationships between nature and humans
The six levels of Flower portray the various relationships of humans and nature. The first two levels denote the absence of relationship; there are no signs of human activity to be found. They serve to remind me that life exists outside of the perceptions and the existence of humanity. On the other hand, the “nightmare” level shows an extremely dysfunctional relationship between humanity and nature. Darkness, ruins, and chaos are common images associated with rampant industrialization and a disregard for the natural world. Finally, the third and sixth levels portray more peaceful and harmonious relationships, with artifacts of man co-existing in a natural setting (the windmills in level three) and the prominence of nature within the heart of humanity’s domain (seen as the giant blossoming tree at game’s end).
I also found the narrative of Flower to be centered on the key idea of empowerment. A petal, the most insignificant object imaginable, has the power to shape the world. At first, its power is subtle – small patches of grass, changing rock formations, making the wind blow – but by the end of the game, it becomes an irresistible agent of change, sweeping over the old decaying ruins of the city as an agent of renewal. For me, experiencing the last level conveyed the message that even the most powerless of us has the ability to transform the world we live in.
An ecocentric game
To me, the concept of playing through the daydreams of a flower is significant in conveying environmental ideas and connections. In a medium where satisfaction is primarily derived from wish-fulfillment – becoming superhuman, shooting big guns, driving fast cars – asking a player to embody a petal, albeit a petal with powers, is rather a unique premise. From this one design choice, Flower is able to provide a stepping-stone for an individual to think differently.
On a very basic level, the player can at least project human qualities to the potted plant that dreamt the dreams: It’s lonely, sad, bored. That in itself generates sympathy and understanding towards a non-human life form. However, Flower is able to move beyond mere anthropomorphism; the interactive score and beautiful visuals work in concert to draw the player into a narrative that is abstract, wordless, emotional, but thoroughly non-human. The player’s avatar does not possess any human qualities. There are no people or even animals in any of the levels. The player must seek their own interpretations on what is happening and why. In doing so, the player can become more accepting of considering, relating, and connecting to the world from an ecocentric perspective. Flower as an experience is conducive to the contemplation of perspectives beyond the player’s own, a key ingredient for the development of a stronger ecological identity.
The importance of daydreams
In modern society, we are daily bombarded with an overabundance of information. Our downtime is increasingly occupied with planned activities or passive entertainment options designed to quell active thinking. We have little time and see no use for daydreaming.
Free time must be filled: Pour in a quick-set slurry of mini-games, youtube videos, and twitter feeds.
But empty time is in reality a precious commodity. It can be used for daydreaming, an active and unstructured process of creation and speculation. Daydreaming helps us decompress the information we receive, allows us to make unseen connections, and aids us to develop new ways of thinking. In short, daydreams are crucial in helping us adapt to a rapidly changing world. By doing less and thinking about different possibilities more, we are in the position of coming up with more innovative solutions to existing challenging problems.
Flower provides a space for that. There is no dialogue to listen to, no menus to navigate, no enemies to fight, and next to no game mechanics to contemplate. After completing the game, all the levels are available to access, and each environment is eminently conducive for leisurely exploration (but save Level Five if you’re having too good a day and want a downer). While the player is floating in the wind, they have the opportunity to unpack their minds and wander along new lines and trains of thought, all while being immersed in an appealing and relaxing audiovisual experience that depicts nature in its most idyllic forms.
For me, there’s something fascinating about daydreaming in someone (in this case, something’s) else’s daydreams. At the very least, Flower reminds us to reflect upon the act of daydreaming, something we should indulge in more often in today’s busy world.
A personal connection
Perhaps the reason why Flower resonates so strongly with me is that I can identify with the motivations that went into the game. Jenova Chen, the Shanghai-born creator of the game, reflects upon his influences:
“I grew up in a very metropolitan city, very polluted and not a lot of green. But when I moved to California, I would drive between Los Angeles and San Francisco and see these endless green fields, extending to the horizon,” says Chen. “I felt this strange attraction to it – it’s very romantic and dreamlike. When I was thinking about what kind of experience I wanted to offer the player, I wondered, how can I evoke that feeling?” (Exclaim.ca interview)
As a young child that grew up in another metropolitan city, nature for me wasn’t out in the rural countryside: it was the tree outside my grandmother’s window. Like Chen, it was only when I immigrated to North America that I was exposed and became fascinated by those “endless green fields, extending to the horizon.” Flower explores the integration of the urban and the natural, and that is one of the reasons why I found the narrative so satisfying and powerful.
- What was your most memorable experience with nature within an urban setting?
An Ekostory in an alternative medium
Video games frequently carry the stigma of catering to those with short attention spans, pandering to an audience who crave visual stimulation and short-term gratification above all else. Flower represents a refreshing counterexample to that stereotype. It has received critical acclaim from the enthusiast press, and has been a commercial success for a digital title released in 2009. Its narrative, strengthened by the quality of its audiovisual presentation, resonates with many, and has surprisingly evoked interesting reactions in a demographic not generally exposed to environmental messages and themes:
“Watching the petals join together in a subtle blend of light and musical notes while thousands of blades of grass billow back to life stirred deeply-rooted emotions in me… It will especially resonate with people that possess a deep connection with nature and spirituality, as it’s the type of game that reaches out to us and whispers about the beauty of life — without saying anything at all.” (IGN Flower Review)
“We read the story to be one of nature torn apart by man, and each level expresses this theme via the repressed memory of a single flower… The moment when you’re torn from dusk into a nightmarish industrial disaster is genuinely affecting and one of the most memorable points of the game.” (Gamespot Flower Review)
Many reviewers have also found the experience to be “relaxing” and/or “meditative”, feelings that are generally not associated with video games. Flower represents a unique approach for stimulating environmental thought in a demographic that is not generally reached through traditional channels of education and communication. Its narrative conveys environmental themes in a genuinely affective manner without feeling too preachy or emotionally manipulative. Much credit goes to thatgamecompany for striking the right balance. Flower is a form of escapism, but unlike most, it is escapism with a purpose, and its unique narrative has the ability to stay with the player long after the experience is over – like it has with me.
- Flower is a simulated depiction of the most idyllic forms of nature. Is It possible to form deep and rich associations with nature without spending time in real wild spaces?
Images of Flower © 2009 thatgamecompany, Inc. All rights reserved.