A worthy model

Flower is a sensational game.

And by that I mean to say that it is a great game, but also that its purpose is to transmit a physical sensation of gliding on the wind. It's successful at this, and certainly worth experiencing for oneself if you've got a PS3 lying around.

The game is unique but not without predecessors, and affecting without being complex. It's a simple, straight-forward experience which doesn't deny being a video game, but manages to instill feelings in the player that few games ever do. It's a game anyone can pick up and play by its very nature. And it's a model worth repeating.

Mechanics focused on transmitting a concrete, sensational aesthetic. Games are uniquely suited to putting the player into novel physical contexts and allowing them to be and do things that would otherwise be impossible. In your natural life you won't ever have the experience of swooping along the tips of the grass like a sparrow, but Flower aims to replicate the experience of gliding on the wind with as little remove as possible. It doesn't start at genre and work backwards, or with a series of plot points it wants to tell, but instead starts with a single core sensation it wants the player to experience-- one that most people have probably had in dreams-- and figures out what mechanical and presentational elements will make that feeling possible.

Discoverable progression elements and intuitive controls. The only inputs in Flower are tilting the controller to change the angle of your flight, and pressing a button to gain speed. The game features no explicit tutorial on how to get to the next level, but the method of progression is quickly and naturally apparent to the player. These are both inroads to legitimate accessibility. Where many games follow genre conventions to fulfill established players' expectations, or tune down the difficulty of their hardcore game to accommodate inexperienced players, Flower's concept and execution lend it that "pick-up-and-play" quality in a way that feels completely natural.

Small scope, high fidelity. You only do one thing in Flower-- fly around on the breeze through different locations. The game takes only a few hours to complete. There is no voice acting or any pre-rendered cutscenes. And yet, it's one of the most beautiful, high-fidelity games I've ever played. The game is a model of focus-- no extraneous mechanics, no interactive side-alleys for the player to spin their wheels in; no grinding or backtracking or punishing difficulty to arbitrarily extend the length of the game; no overreaching visual or story elements requiring player attention or graphical bandwidth to be diverted from the core experience. This restrained scope allows the game to be sold for only $10. And so Flower is a game inexpensive enough that most people might reasonably be willing to pay for it, a game accessible enough that most people might reasonably be able play it effectively, a game short enough that most players might reasonably finish it, and a game beautiful enough that most anyone might reasonably praise it in comparison with even the biggest AAA productions. It manages to be a budget game without going retro 2D or looking cheap, thanks to a singular focus on reasonable scope of design.

I would love to see more games that use Flower as a model, not in the copycat sense of being "flying games" or "games where you're the wind," but in the high-level approach that the production implies. Smaller, shorter, higher-fidelity, more focused, more sensate experiences that are affordable, accessible, and digestible. The primary obstacle to one designing a game with these principles in mind seem to be finding an engaging core sensation that fits the constraints. I can't wait to see the results that this challenge brings.


Anonymous said...

The games industry in general will go much further when players realize that the hour of gameplay to dollar ratio is not indicative of quality.

AmandaJ said...

I loved Flower, I thought the 'narrative' was amazing and the sense of joy that a dialogue and character free game managed to impart was astonishing. Not since I watched My Neighbour Totoro for the first time had I such a huge stupid grin on my face as I did at the start of the last level.

However, I found, to my astonishment, that a lot of the people I talked to about Flower didn't think it was a game. I tried to explain that there were levels and challenge and progression and an end, but they wouldn't be convinced. Some of them even played the first level and still couldn't see the 'gameness' of it.

It's been my favourite game of this year so far, and I still return to it when I want a slice of joy, but I wonder how well the game sold when even the people who I work with (in the games industry) couldn't see the game for the trees, or flowers.