Many PS3 owners will be familiar with the work of independent developer thatgamecompany from their game flOW, which was one of the earliest downloadable titles released on the PlayStation Store. An oddity that was really an “interactive experience,” with only the vaguest game-like qualities, flOW was written off by some as being little more than a tech demo for the PS3’s SixAxis motion control functionality. This wasn’t really fair, as flOw was a surprisingly relaxing and soothing experience, and while it wasn’t exactly much fun, it was engaging enough to mark thatgamecompany as an up-and-coming developer to keep an eye on.
Their latest offering, Flower, shares quite a few similarities with flOw, but is also significantly different. Unlike flOw, Flower is a “proper” game, replete with levels, a narrative structure and various distinct objectives guiding the gameplay. And what a game it is! Flower is a pleasant and unexpected surprise, a game as fresh and beautiful as its title suggests, and one which manages to set a standard that few 2009 games could reasonably be expected to match.
The beauty and uniqueness of Flower begins with its subject matter: the dreams of flowers. Starting the game, players see the interior of a dilapidated and depressing room, with a single, wilted flower standing on a windowsill. They then enter the dream of the flower, playing through a brief but wondrous experience that celebrates rejuvenation and revitalisation. Completing a flower’s dream restores it to health and beauty, and makes another wilted flower with its own dream available. In this way gamers play through a total of six flowers’ dreams, for a short but powerful and mesmerising experience.
Upon entering a flower’s dream, players find themselves starting as a single petal from the flower, carried on a gust of wind. Players control the movement of the gust by powering it with any button on the controller, and steering it with the SixAxis motion control. Each dream takes place in a field, with several other flowers growing there, all of them still closed in their buds. By steering the petal to another flower bud, it will bloom, and get a single petal to join the player’s growing train of petals. Opening up flowers has effects on the surrounding environment, causing other flowers to sprout up, and restoring the often barren field to a state of glorious natural beauty.
Gameplay objectives differ between the various dreams, and in each dream the environment can be interacted with in different ways, resulting in different effects. As players begin to experiment within each dream, they will discover that there are patterns to the way flowers are arranged within the field, and to the results of opening these flowers. This will guide them along to identify the objectives they need to achieve to fully restore the field and complete the dream. Players who really give themselves over to this process of discovery will be rewarded with quite a few surprises that will only add to the experience.
It is astounding how there is a different and complex rule set to each dream that is discovered only through experimenting and playing, with no text or tutorials to guide the player. This makes Flower one of the most remarkably elegant and pure gameplay experiences we have seen in years. It also highlights the brilliant design work of thatgamecompany; even larger and more experienced game developers could learn a lot from them.
Playing the game is a joy. Flower offers one of the best and most satisfying implementations of flight gameplay seen in recent years. Flying your train of petals up as high as it would go, then swooping down at full speed, levelling out to move among the grass and flowers is an experience that is, at present, unequalled. This is as close to meditative daydreaming as gameplay is ever likely to get, and is quite simply exquisite. The controls are spot-on during the course of the game, making for one of the best implementations of motion controls that we have seen so far.
Progressing through the different dreams, players will start to see hints of civilisation and industry, and pick up on a story that is at first barely noticeable, but then becomes surprisingly substantial and engaging. It’s a story that is not told through words, but rather through the gameplay, the environments and the design of each dream. While it builds to a satisfying conclusion, enough is left open for interpretation to have players wondering about what they have experienced. Given the dreamlike nature of the game, it’s a remarkably fitting narrative approach.
The various dreams are brought to life through stunning artistic design, with bold and rich use of colour, and often sparse but melodic music that does a great job of setting the mood of the game. The visuals are technically impressive as well, at least by downloadable game standards, making for an altogether vibrant and breathtaking presentation.
Flower is a very short game, and most players will complete it in around three hours. However, the experience is so involving and poetic that it would be a mistake to fault it on the basis of its length. In some respects the short length works in its favour, as this is a game best experienced in a single sitting. While there aren’t many concrete incentives for replaying it, many players will find themselves returning to the game again and again, simply because they will want to.
Flower is one of the very best downloadable games we have seen thus far, and is certain to be remembered as one of the best games of 2009. As a gameplay experience it is unique and enthralling, making for the type of game that simply doesn’t come along very often. PS3 owners looking for a different experience are strongly encouraged to spend the money and the bandwidth to download Flower, as they’ll find themselves rewarded with a bouquet of brilliance.
Pros: Unique and mesmerising gameplay experience; beautiful presentation.
Cons: Some players might be put off by the short length.