In my previous post I tried to describe the experience of playing Flower - discovering it, really - for the first time. Today I'll discuss Flower a bit more analytically in hopes of accounting for why this little game holds me so thoroughly in its spell. A second playthrough was required, of course, and I was only too happy to oblige. ;-)
Flower is a game that rests entirely in your hands. You ride the wind as a flower petal, climbing, banking, and descending purely by tilting the Sixaxis controller. Given the brief and spotty history of motion control on the PS3, this was clearly a risk for developer That Game Company, but the implementation is spot-on. The tactile-kinetic link between player and game is pivotal to the experience Flower delivers.
The sensation of floating on air driven by bursts of wind is communicated so beautifully through the Sixaxis that it's impossible for me to imagine receiving the same physical sensation via thumbsticks. The smart responsiveness of the motion controls, and the seamless way they transport you inside the game, make for a convincing refutation of the notion that motion control is a tacked-on feature of the PS3's controller.
The wind has a natural life of its own in Flower. When you press a face button or pull a trigger (any button you choose will do), the wind seems to inhale briefly before launching you forward in a gust of air. It's a little thing, but it subtly conveys a sense of nature as a living, breathing, all-encompassing presence in the world.
Flower presents the player with a choice between free unstructured play and mission-driven challenge - occasionally intense, especially in its later stages. You're free to explore within the invisible walls of each level (enforced by gusts of wind you cannot overcome), but to proceed through the game you must restore each area to its natural state, ala Ōkami or the more recent Prince of Persia. So, perhaps Flower doesn't quite deliver the choice it appears to offer. You can float on the breeze, whoosh through the grass (easily, Flower's most stunning visual treat), and generally play in the environment for as long as you like. But if you wish to go anywhere else, you must complete a challenge.
And it's here that the evolution from TGC's Cloud to flOw to Flower can most clearly be seen. Flower injects a quiet narrative into the player's progress, presenting a series of dreams that collectively mesh into a story the player constructs in his or her mind. Your story will inevitably be different from mine...or you may simply choose to unlock each area with no thought of story at all. Flower can be fully enjoyed either way, as I can personally attest. I found Flower terribly moving, bringing tears to my eyes of both sadness and joy. My wife adores Flower no less than I, but her engagement with it has remained purely ludic. Predictably, I suppose, the pleasure I derive from the game has gradually come to resemble hers.
I'm also struck by Flower's subtle pathfinding. At times the camera swings the player's view toward the next objective (not so subtle at all), but more often the player is left to explore the lush (and not so lush) environments on his own, gradually discovering what must next be done. Apologies for repeatedly dragging my spouse into these matters, but I was fascinated watching her begin the opening level with no instructions from me or the game. Predictably, her first response was "What am I supposed to do?" followed shortly by "Where am I supposed to go?" Within minutes, she had her answers to both questions, and the game made her feel as if she had discovered them by herself. Well designed games do this well. Poorly designed games do this poorly.
Flower would be inconceivable without its music that responds to the player's actions and movement. Some levels are better than others in this regard, but when Flower soars to its fullest potential and most exhilarating release in Dream 6, the music elevates to support it. These culminating moments of Flower remind me why I continue to believe in the power of games to say and do beautiful things. Even if you find yourself indifferent to Flower's charms, you owe it to yourself to experience the last 30 minutes of this game.
Flower is a simple, purposeful, and extraordinary achievement. Its opening menu screen and final credits are better than most games I've played in the last year. Would I recommend buying a PS3 to play a $10 game? Maybe. I'll put it this way instead. If you decide to take the PS3 plunge, you will likely be very satisfied without purchasing a single shrink-wrapped game. And one more thing. TGC still has one more game to deliver in its 3-game deal with Sony. ...Bouquet!