The game’s “overworld,” such as it is, consists of a windowsill inside an urban apartment, upon which perch several flowerpots. Each pot leads to a different level. This cramped area provides a dramatic contrast to the wide open spaces which compose the bulk of the game. Within the levels, the soaring motion controls, understated orchestral score (complemented by the single notes released each time a flower blooms), and whispering wind combine to form a soothing symphony. In the city, the sounds of traffic, construction, and howling dogs dominate. The only hint of moving air comes from a fan at the left edge of the frame-accompanied by an electric whine which summons memories of oppressive summer heat and humidity.
Each level begins with a series of somber, stylized urban tableaux, filled with looming buildings, cracked pavement, and muddy puddles. These dismal images give way to the first glimpse of each playable level with a tangible sense of relief. Without a word of dialogue, Flower manages to construct a coherent narrative, weaving a tale which scorns city life in favor of natural beauty. The levels themselves appear to be the yearnings of the drooping flowers within their pots; after the successful completion of each stage, they stand tall and refreshed, buoyed by their spiritual sojourns to the country. As the game’s locales come to be situated closer to the city, and begin to exhibit increasing evidence of humanity’s influence, they take on more aspects of that bleak windowsill, a surprisingly disturbing visual and auditory shift.
Even at its most urban, Flower is a beautiful game. thatgamecompany claims to have animated and simulated over 200,000 individual blades of grass simultaneously, a figure which sounds unbelievably high-until you see the game in motion. Screenshots can’t convey the smooth parting of the fronds as the wind passes through them, and the vibrancy of the colors must be seen to be believed. On several occasions, I experienced a powerful longing to lie down amidst the greenery and pass a lazy afternoon under the sun (I live in a windowless basement, and recently survived a return trip to the underbelly of Liberty City in The Lost and Damned, so I may have been especially susceptible to Flower’s aesthetic charms). If I weren’t worried about burning out my LCD, I might task Flower with permanent double duty as both a screensaver, and one of those soothing sound emitters. If you leave the controller unattended, Flower becomes exactly that, displaying a succession of fully-rendered scenes from various corners of the map. You can even “play” the credits (the mysterious seventh level I mentioned above). Individual flowers are devoted to each member of the production team, and after blossoming, emit strings of jumbled letters which compose each name. Subtle touches like that elevate Flower above the status of a mere diversion, and make it one of the more memorable gaming experiences you’ll have for some time.
Those looking for an extreme challenge would be wise to direct their attentions elsewhere. There’s no way to “die” in Flower. Even contact with an exposed, sparking electrical wire elicits only the briefly unpleasant sight of singed petal. One could subvert the designers’ intent by making “speed runs” through each level, but to do so would be to rob oneself of the joy provided by a leisurely playthrough. Flower would be the perfect complement to Wii Sports at a senior center (assuming that the senior center can afford to purchase a PS3). The motion controls are every bit as intuitive, and the game’s calming audiovisual palette is almost guaranteed to soften even the most hardened of arteries. If there is such a thing as a “date game,” (doubtful, I know), Flower would be it. Fire it up in the presence of your dream girl, and show her that your revolting hobby isn’t all zombies, aliens, and chainsaws (even if it was, until the moment you bought Flower). February 14th has come and gone, but next Valentine’s Day, consider giving her the gift of Flower, instead of a dozen roses. At $9.99 for the 628 MB download, you might even save some cash. Just don’t come crying to me when she says she never wants to see you again-you knew the risks going in.
Clocking in at a mere 2-3 hours (though completionists will discover a wealth of secrets and trophies to be garnered on their second and third trips through the game), Flower might not represent the best bang for your buck, but it’s hard to fault thatgamecompany for not charging less; after all, millions of Americans shelled out an equivalent amount for the privilege of being bored by Paul Blart: Mall Cop for 87 minutes. If you’re willing to pay a premium for a labor of love, served with a hefty helping of originality, look no further than Flower. As was the case with the company’s previous effort, flOw, the game’s unusual design promises to touch off a new round of deliberations concerning “what makes a game a game.” Rather than become embroiled in that often fruitless debate, I’d recommend taking the title screen’s helpful advice: “Relax and enjoy.” You’ll be glad that you did.