UK, February 11, 2009
starts off with a pervading sense of gloom and the faint throb of distant drumming rain, before dispelling any dark thoughts as you cast off the intrusions and grottiness of the world outside in a bout of sheer, unadulterated bliss. It's a shot of pure gaming Nirvana, and it's a brave choice of subject matter, too, given the games industry's obsession with pumped-up men full of muscles and guns. When shooting things is the default mode of interaction, who knew pretending to be a flower could be so much fun?
Flower's been developed by thatgamecompany (note the achingly hip allonewordness of it) who, you might remember, created flOw. flOw is another art-house game with SIXAXIS motion control yet, despite similarities in their underlying game philosophy, the two couldn't be further apart. While flOw let you noodle around for ages, doing nothing but watching pretty shapes on-screen, Flower gives you a much more clearly defined sense of purpose. At the risk of ruining some of the surprise and delight that make the game so very captivating, that purpose is to light up the screen, transforming the world around you by flying through lush meadows, lightening-skewered skies and turbine farms. Taking control of a solitary petal at the start of each level, flying through other flowers until that single petal has transformed into a huge swirl of riotous colour and sound.
Of course, it's just as easy to noodle around aimlessly - and it's just as enjoyable - because Flower probably boasts the best implementation of motion control yet seen in a game. By twisting and turning your controller, your on-screen swirl of petals gracefully flows through the landscape like some sort of divine wind. Rising up to the highest heights, you can survey the majestic views from above or, swooping low, you can find yourself among the 200,000 blades of grass that bend in your wake, swaying with breathtaking beauty.
It's sometimes a terrifying beauty, too, as later levels take place against grim, decaying urban landscapes, filled with felled pylons that spit electricity, or ruined buildings that crumble as you fly through them. Consequently, this latter part of Flower becomes much more like a conventional game than the blissed-out floating around of the early levels, and initially it's a bit disappointing - partly because the first of these thunder-and-lightning levels is one of the game's only moments of frustrating design, reigning in your freedom by buffetting you around if you stray too close to a downed pylon. For the first time, you have to wrestle with the controller.
Thankfully it's a moment of frustration that's short-lived, however, as subsequent levels deliver a sense of freedom that feel different, but just as empowering as earlier segments. You crash through dilapidated structures and swirl around buildings and empty roads to restore harmony to an urban dystopia (in fact, the final level is similar to Rez, in the way it's stylistically so different, yet thematically consistent with the rest of the game - and also because, like Rez, the game's climax is the best bit by some distance).
This sense of empowerment - the satisfaction of the controls, the exhilaration of soaring freely, and the evolving beauty of the game's landscapes - will make you want to play through Flower in a single sitting. Which brings us on to the game's biggest potential flaw: there's no doubt that the easiest criticism to level at Flower is the fact that it's all over in just a couple of hours. The game boasts just seven levels and, even though there are a few hidden petals to collect in each area, it's not very challenging or taxing. But why do games have to be challenging or taxing? Flower proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is room for this sort of relaxing, stress-free gaming (years after Rez started the ball rolling with its god-like Trance Mode). There's also plenty of replay value, as you try to work out the quickest, or most stylish routes through the game, or as you explore every last hidden corner of each level, or experiment with the controls just because you can.
And this sort of relaxing, stress-free gaming enables thatgamecompany to take you on a voyage – a voyage in which the sound is every bit as special as the interactivity and lush visuals. The audio is part of the interactivity, in fact, as the game builds up a soundtrack around your actions, with each graceful pirouette accompanied by some sort of musical flourish until you find you've conjured up the sort of thing you might expect to hear at a Sigur Ros concert, or the sort of thing you'd want to stick on your iPod if you were taking a trip to some Buddhist temples. Everything you do in the game builds the melody, step-by-step, until, in evolving the landscape, you find you've also immersed yourself into this rich and varied soundtrack.
And it does all this without ever forcing itself on you. With only the barest hint of an instruction to go on, Flower begs you to make sense of it on your own terms. Perhaps because of that, it’s probably a game that will divide opinions. In that respect, it’s similar to Electroplankton, or those Flash bubble-popping games. For people who don’t get it, it’ll just be another pretty but pointless bit of multimedia, and the arty aspirations won’t be enough to mask the lack of substance. But if you succumb to its charms and let it meander its way into the deeper recesses of your consciousness, you’ll find Flower to be full of some of the finest gaming moments known, and your life will be all the richer for playing it. So why be a bulging-veined Space Marine with steroids coming out of your eyeballs, when you could be a little Flower, dreaming of brighter days?