February 14, 2009 5:12 PM | Michael Rose
When games used to look like a car crash on Silicon Valley Way, developers had to come up with fun and challenging gameplay ideas to keep the punters happy. Of course, emulating a middle-aged gamer who periodically spouts off 'In my day' isn't going to help me get my upcoming point across so well, but it's not so difficult to comprehend that in many cases, as graphics have evolved, the balance between gameplay and looks has shifted rather a lot.
It's now feasible for a game to get by nearly on beauty alone and the evolution of the 'artistic' game has taken leaps and bounds into gamers' hearts. The mix of conceptual gameplay and sheer awe-inspiring sights has spawned a huge range of hits - and misses too.
Flower is thatgamecompany's latest artistic bag - thatgamecompany having already dabbled a fair amount in the field (see fl0w, Cloud). And while no-one can deny that it is unique gaming art, the lack of actual gameplay is a worry of mine.
Let's start from the top. Based around the dreams of flowers sitting on a windowsill in a gloomy city, the concept involves soaring across fields, setting them alight with colour and vibrance. Beginning with a single petal, players use the PS3 Sixaxis Motion Control to guide the lonesome one in the direction of more flowers, gathering more petals and eventually creating a huge swirling ball of beauty.
Initial impressions are indeed sentences containing words like 'wow' and 'beautiful' and rushing through fields full of sunshine, tall grass swaying in the wind is an instant thumbs-up. thatgamecompany really have a work of art on their hands here and they aren't shy about showing it off. Fields of gloom burst into life when certain flowers are collected and now and again the camera will zoom out to show each stunning explosion of colour.
Additionally, the soundtrack is beautifully crafted too. Sweeping along with the flower cloud, it matches the concept note-for-flower and really adds to the atmosphere. Plinks and plonks rise as each flower is collected and all tie up into a pretty little package.
And then after 10 minutes the first level is over and so begins the dream of a different flower, who is dreaming about... floating through yet another meadow. And yet again it's all visually eye-canditastic, the effects move along with fault... and there are even more flowers to find.
Now, I'm not exactly the #1 fan of all this arty farty business, but I like to think I'm pretty open minded and know genius when I see it. Last month my favourite game by far was Gregory Weir's Majesty of Colors - it was the perfect fusion of poetry and gaming and I loved every little detail of it. Yet I wonder - do I just not 'get' Flower?
Halfway through the second dream, I did actually say outloud 'Is this the whole game?'. Don't get me wrong - thatgamecompany have never advertised it as anything less - in fact they describe Flower as 'a medium to explore emotional chords uncommon in video games'. I get all this - it's meant to be a thing of beauty over a real gaming experience. Yet I still sat, tilting my PS3 controller side-to-side, wondering exactly who this 'game' was aimed at.
I honestly spent a good half an hour wondering if there was going to be anymore to it. I wouldn't have minded if there had been any kind of challenge involved, but each set of flowers needed to progress are helpfully pointed out to you and the camera even sets itself at the perfect angle so that simply going in a straight line will nine times out of ten get you to your destination. Again, this was apparently the whole point - it's meant to be a relaxing, simple ride - and again, the point has clearly just passed me by.
(The next couple of paragraphs contain small spoilers as to the direction in which the storyline takes - if you want to discover it yourself, you might want to skip past them)
Then after about 40 minutes, the visuals get bored of riding shotgun and the gameplay kicks in. Darkness falls and Flower gets just a little bit sinister. Lanterns must be lit before progression through the night can be made and electric pylons will burn your precious petals to a crisp if you get too close. Puzzles, albeit simple, must be completed to push the metal back and a path towards the city must be forged. Then, as your power increases, eventually you can take on the city itself, destroying all the bland debris and helping the city to explode into a rainbow of colour and light.
'Epic' doesn't go far enough to describe it. The soundtrack booms, the dross quickly makes way for the beautiful, and I'm back saying words like 'wow' again. The final rush into the heart of the city in particular is of legendary proportions. Flower becomes a force to be reckoned with and a sure-fire hit.
20 minutes later and it's all so prematurely over. It felt as though thatgamecompany had just shown me something so brilliant, so unique and then so harshly snatched it away from me moments later. Clocking in at just over an hour of play, Flower is simply just too short. Of course, there are reasons to go back and play it again - trophies, hidden areas, re-living the beauty - but this is all overshadowed by the initial inadequate length. Still, for $10, beggars can't be choosers.
Flower is a beautiful piece of work that demands to be at least given a go, but it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea. I personally just could not get into the arty state of mind thatgamecompany were aiming at, but that's not to say I'm in the majority - it could be quite possible that the overall consensus is one of inspiration and awe.
My advice to anyone who is unsure about whether Flower will be for them is to grab a copy of the demo and give that a spin before feeding the Playstation Store your cold, hard cash. You may well just not 'get it'.