Last year, due to the generosity of my father-in-law, we were able to purchase a PlayStation 4 for Crystal and me. This was pretty exciting, because, you know, video games! Also, Sony has been aggressively pursuing partnerships with those weird, offbeat indie game companies that make the sorts of games that fascinate me. So the PS4 was a shoo-in. And, yes, I’ve played a couple of AAA games, but most of my gaming has been with indies.
Flower is one of those games that seems like a conscious effort to see how far the video game formula can be successfully stretched. It’s not very long; the playthrough video I’m using for this post is only 100 minutes or so, which is the length of a shortish movie. The concept is weird, as I’ll explain in a few minutes. I’m not even sure that it’s all that difficult to play; Hope (age 5) was able to play through it with only occasional assistance from me.
And yet, what a profound experience.
SPOILER TAG: yes, there will be spoilers. You have been warned.
ADDITIONAL NOTE: I’m going to be hyperlinking a lot in this post to a playthrough of Flower. This way you can actually see and hear what I’m describing.
So here’s the conceit of the game. You are a gust of wind, or the dream of a flower, or a dancing flower petal (the game is kinda vague on this point) that is flying around a landscape filled with flowers. It is your job to touch all the necessary flowers to open the next segment, where you will find more flowers to touch. When you touch a flower, the game plays a musical note, based on which flower you touched. Some sounds like chimes, while others are choral stabs. So your flight is a musical experience. In addition, as you touch flowers, you accumulate more flower petals in your wake. So, you begin as a single petal, and you become this multi-colored streamer of beauty, swooping and twisting in the breeze.
Here’s an example of what I mean. Don’t worry about watching too much; you’ll get the idea pretty quickly.
Pretty, isn’t it?
But there are other things going on. The main menu shows each level as a flower in a pot on the window sill of an apartment. Each level opens with a little cutscene of a dark, broken city, which contrasts sharply with the bright colors of the gameplay levels.
Or does it?
Because as you proceed through the levels, the sun is going down. You progress from daylight on levels 1 and 2 to sunset on level 3 and twilight on level 4. The world is getting darker around you as you flit from flower to flower.
And then there’s The Moment.
Flower is a testament to the power of effective user experience design. By the time you reach level 4, the game has instructed you well through patterns and wordless hints. You have learned that accomplishing a given task unlocks a new area, and you’ve learned what that unlocking looks like. For example, on level 4, you are led from area to area by a series of street lights that turn on as you complete tasks. The lights on the electrical wires turn on, one by one, leading to the next lamp, which initiates the next area. (It looks like this.)
And that’s why The Moment works so well. Check it out.
The black smoke. The pulsating red light. The dying grass. Suddenly the idyllic world you have been playing has been desecrated. Ahead of you lies wreckage and ruin. But the game has taught you well. You must go forward. And so, suddenly, you find yourself moving through a wasteland of pollution and metal. Lightning flashes in the distance above a dark, twisted citadel. The level terminates, and you find yourself feeling, “What happened to my beautiful, happy, relaxing game?”
Which brings you to level 5.
I consider level 5 of Flower to be one of the crowning achievements of video game design. All the work of the previous four levels begins to pay off here.
The color is gone. The sun is gone. Instead, rain pounds out of a black sky, occasionally lit by lightning. All around you, twisted girders punch out of the ground. High voltage electrical wires crisscross across the sky.
And then, as you attempt to find and touch the flowers huddled around the level, you discover something new. If you touch one of the girders, you receive a powerful electrical jolt. The screen shakes and flashes, you hear a zapping sound, and even the controller shakes and buzzes. You feel like you’ve been zapped. Every person I’ve watched play this game yelps and almost drops the controller the first time it happens.
And worse, the petals that you have been accumulating burn up into wisps of smoke.
When I played this game for the first time, I suddenly began to be afraid that it was possible to die in this game, burning up in a flare of electricity.
So, on level 5, you do not swoop and flit through the air. Rather, you crawl through metallic wreckage, oppressed by the sky, threatened by the land, dwarfed by the dark landscape that you wander. I’ll be honest; it felt like passing through Mordor.
The level reaches its climax as you are hurdled down a series of canyons, where spearlike girders thrust out of the canyon walls as you desperately try to avoid being “shocked” over and over again. Pieces of metal fall from overhangs as you try to dodge, and you are so far from the happy place where you started in level 1.
And then, physically and emotionally exhausted, you emerge from the canyons, and before you is the city. Walls made of grey buildings forbid you, and yet the end level swirl beckons.
Admittedly, this is where the game gets a little heavy-handed, but in the moment, I didn’t care.
Because, as you head toward the end of the level, it simply fades out, returning you to the main menu, with level 6 unlocked.
And, of course, you dive right in, because you can’t end on a cliffhanger like that, right?
Level 6 starts right where level 5 left off. The end level swirl is still there, so that’s where you head. And when you enter it, everything changes.
A single flower grows up, but then it begins to radiate power. And, with an explosion of light, color and life bursts back into the world.
The color returns to the grass. Flowers sprout up. And you…you are glowing brightly with power.
The grey forbidding city still stands before you, its entrance webbed over with girders. But something feels different. So you head into the girders, braced for that terrible electrical shock feeling.
The first area is covered with girders, but now you can destroy them. As you fly around, shattering metal, buildings grow from the ground and take on color. Where there was once greyness and death, there is color and life.
The emotion has shifted, too. At the beginning of the game, you are happy and carefree. Levels 4 and 5 destroy that. But, in Level 6, the mood changes again. You aren’t carefree anymore, true, but neither are you afraid. You are focused and determined. You have discovered your strength, and there is a battle to be won. Every time you hurl yourself at another piece of metal, it feels like punching back at the darkness. You have passed the trial of night, and you have now come to usher in the day.
As you work through the level, you can still see the citadel of twisted iron in the distance. Clearly that is where you must go. And, eventually, you arrive at the gate of the tower. It looks like the entrance to hell. And yet, as you storm in, it cannot stop you. The once-fearful girders that spear from the ground fall before you as you force your way inside. And then you are at the base of the tower, shattering it from within as you ascend.
And then, as you burst out of the top of the tower, there is a moment of transcendent beauty. And the world holds its breath as, in a final eruption of life and color, the metal tower is transformed into a giant cherry blossom tree, showering blossoms upon the newly reborn city.
The closing scenes show the city again. All is clean and sunlit. Even spaces that you saw earlier in the game are clean. And the closing image is of a little flower, growing in the crack of a sidewalk. And…fade out.
When I sat down to play Flower, I was looking for a light, mindless game. I was wanting something cute and simple. I was taking a mental health day, and I wasn’t really in the mood to be challenged. So, I was especially susceptible to the bait-and-switch that the game inflicts on its players. I was caught completely off-guard by The Moment and the raw emotion of the last third of the game.
I won’t lie; when the game was finished, I lay back on my bed, emotionally wrung out by the journey I had just taken.
Part of it was my appreciation for the game’s stance on “the city”. The city isn’t evil. It’s just been overtaken by darkness. It is in need of rescue. Level 6 is all about the redemption of the city. You free it from bondage and make it a place fit for human habitation again.
But there was a price. And the price was a passing through darkness. As a player, you are not equipped at the beginning of the game to face the darkness. No, rather you must pass through the night yourself. And, in some way, that is what qualifies you to become a part of the redemption of the city.
In other words, this game told me my story back to me.
What if my suffering isn’t just coincidence? What if it is a necessary part of my becoming what I want to be? What if I need to suffer in order to feel, to care, to empathize with others? To be able to sit across from someone and truly engage with their sorrow? What if I need to hurt in order to find the passion to shield and shelter others?
What if I needed to crawl between an oppressive sky and a dead earth, simply to be ready, willing, and able to bring color and life into the lives of others?
What if it hasn’t all been in vain?
P.S. Thanks to Catfroman for the four-part playthrough that I used. Note that this was the PS3 version. The PS4 version is even prettier. The links to each video are here: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.