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Sound and Music as Narrative in Flower

flower thatgamecompany urban finale

Sticking to last weeks’s topic on music and sound in storytelling, I wanted to share a series of development videos around Flower, a videogame released in 2009 by thatgamecompany.  It’s one of my personal favourites, and in these videos, music composer Vincent Diamante and sound designer Steve Johnson talk about their experiences crafting an emotionally resonant narrative for a game without text, speech, or even characters. Take a look:

There are eight videos in all. Since portions of the later videos get quite detailed,  I’ve extracted some of the comments scattered throughout that seem interesting and relevant to Ekostories.

A Score’s Progression

“One of the only anchor points that [designer] Jenova Chen had was that he knew he wanted to make a game with a strong narrative; he wasn’t much of a story writer, but he knew he wanted that traditional three-act structure. Flower ended up without dialogue or characters, but it could still tell a narrative due to the things you have in games, such as level design, art direction and audio.”

In the videos, Diamante speaks about the importance of establishing a strong aural identity with the score, believing in the power of loops to create comfort and resonance. The music is layered (up to eight layers), interactive, and unlocked as the player interacts and progresses through different areas of each level. The score is composed in D-major; Diamante believed that it conveyed an aura of majesty to the game’s depiction of a swarm of petals flying in the wind.

Diamante also wanted a broader musical arc; the progression of music in the game parallels musical progression throughout history, beginning with a classical feel before shifting to late-classical, romantic, and then finally to a neo-romantic, almost contemporary sound. There’s a lot going on behind the visuals on the screen.

Rising, Falling, Rising Again

flower thatgamecompany three act structureSlide from Sound and Music as Narrative in Flower, GDC 2010 workshop.

During the walkthrough of the game, Johnson describes the intended feel of each of Flower’s level and how the game follows the conventional three-act structure.

  • Level 1: Freedom, healing, soothing, magical, life-giving.
  • Level 2: Beginning, bringing colour to a melancholy landscape.
  • Level 3: Energy, exhilaration, movement, thrill.
  • Level 4: Night-time, restfulness, calm. (End of Act One)
  • Level 5: Lost, shock, terror, desperation (End of Act Two)
  • Level 6: Heroic strength, triumph, empowerment (End of Act Three)

It’s very interesting to compare this to the reactions I had playing the game, years ago. Looking back at my own musings on Flower, I think the developers were quite successful in achieving what they set out to do.

A Narrative Open to Interpretation

In this last video, Johnson muses on how Flower’s narrative seems to speak to a broad range of people. For him, he sees it potentially as a story of an unknown and depressed tenant who eventually opens up to the life and colours of the city around him/her. Diamante, like me, seems to perceive the story as a collection of flower dreams.

It’s fascinating to hear how two people who collaborated very closely on a project can still derive entirely different things from it. Both seem to acknowledge that this is a wonderful thing, and that by working with and playing off each other, they were able to create the aural component of a narrative that offers people from all walks of life the space to find their own interpretation. 

Question:

  • Do you have any examples of powerful wordless audiovisual narratives?

Related Ekostories

8 Comments

  1. I personally love this game and the concept behind it. A fellow blogger suggested that I visit your space and I am enjoying exploring your posts and your ideas. I am in the middle of a large project, “A Year in Penn’s Woods” involved in creating music and video based on sound and visuals recorded in natural habitats in western Pennsylvania. As a composer, visual artist, and organic gardener, it is my attempt to draw attention to the importance of preserving natural habitats in my local area. I hope you get a chance to stop by and take a look.

    • Thanks for stumbling across my space. I am intrigued by your approach and the first part of your video, to use music to complement the sounds of nature without overwhelming it. Looking forward to hearing more.

  2. I’ve never played Flower, but now I want to! Remember the old videogame Myst? I couldn’t help recalling it as I watched the first video. I love the thought process that went into the development and scoring of Flower. I’m going to watch the second video above, but I wanted to comment while my thoughts were still fresh.

    A friend of mine is into the Zelda games and always remarks on the score. They bought the soundtrack to listen to it while driving. He clearly loves it, so I can see the need for careful thought concerning which emotions are evoked within the game.

    • Yes I remember Myst – the ambience of that game was definitely enhanced by the music.

      I’m a huge fan of soundtracks, in films and games. I think good music really strengthen my connection to a narrative; it puts me back in the exact moment and helps evoke what I was feeling during that moment. I really agree with Diamante on the power of loops to create resonance. I love recurring leitmotifs because of that.

  3. This makes me really want to experience Flower. Have you played Journey? It’s breathtaking in its animation and music.

    • Hi Camile. I haven’t unfortunately, although I’ve heard nothing but great things about it. I really enjoy thatgamecompany’s development philosophy, always trying to evoke an emotional response in players through all the tools videogames have to offer.

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