Complications from cancer took my mom almost three years ago. We had an often fractious relationship fraught with guilt, blind spots and important things left unsaid. Still, the smell of fresh basil and mint invariably cause me to tear up. She grew them in our backyard when my siblings and I were growing up, along with tomatoes and peppers and lots of different kinds of flowers. My uncle, who let me know just how good freshly picked mangoes and avocadoes taste, tends acres of land in the mountainous northwest region of Haiti. My father left Haiti for the Netherlands in the late 1960s to study agrarian science.
I say all this because, despite the relationship my family has had with the soil, I've always been a city boy. I left the culturally arid suburbs for the rhythmic energy of New York City's boroughs, and I can barely tell an azalea from a zinnia. Flower, however, manages to put me in touch with what I think my family members might be feeling when they plant, reap, and sow.
Flower puts you in a wordless environment, where a combination of pictures and motion creates the narrative. You begin in a dreary city apartment home to one lonely plant. After a short cinematic, you're shifted into what might be the dreams of that houseplant in a vast field of tall grass. A button-press plucks a petal off of the dreaming flower, and you can then steer that petal on gusts of wind to cause other flowers to blossom. Opening other flowers adds their petals to the first one.
Controlling the petal stream in Flower feels like a combination of flying a kite, driving a car, and steering the head of a comet. A press of a face button grants momentum, and tilting the Sixaxis changes the direction or pitch of your flight. There are no brakes, but judicious use of wind gives you more precise steering.
Sometimes, you control the wind; sometimes, the wind controls you. At least, that's what our karate sensei used to say.
As you open specific sets of flowers, others pop up, and opening those in turn causes certain changes in the environment. At the end of a level, things change in the waking world. The small, cramped apartment looks different, brightened with better, clearer light. Another plant shows up, and with it, another level to breeze through. The change wrought in both the dream and real worlds reminded me of my mom's delight when her flowers would start to unfurl in early spring.
In a way, Flower represents a blossoming for development studio That Game Company, too. It's the company's second title, after its debut Flow. I didn?t like Flow because it felt too abstract and too hard to relate to, with its odd petri-dish environment, sterile gray art direction and micro-organism avatar. Flower shows marked improvement: The tight controls feel supple, responsive and hypnotic (rivaling anything on the Nintendo Wii); the increasingly beautiful visuals make you care about nurturing the world; and the great sound design makes you feel as if you're conducting an orchestra.
As I tried to help my girlfriend through the game, she yelped, "You're stressing me out and it's supposed to be Zen." She had a point -- progression through a level can feel confusing. But even while she furrowed her brows, a satisfied gasp escaped every time she revived a patch of green, and she giggled as she tried to control the wind-blown petals.
Play this game with your significant other. If you don't have a sweetheart, find one. Heck, it may even help you out of the friend zone.
Each species of flower sounds a different note when it opens, reminding me of Wii Music for the relationship created between motion and sound. But, Flower trumps last year's Wii best-seller in visual reward. Colors bounce to life as you revive the land, and the lush, individuated blades of grass sway as you snake through them. Though the graphics are detailed and ultra-realistic, the overall effect is impressionistic.
As you play, the dreamscape changes, too. Barriers open, windmills spring to life, and time does pass, albeit slowly. Levels begin to reveal themselves as intricately puzzle-like and mysteriously interconnected. Explore them enough and patterns will emerge to gently lead you through them.
Flower isn't just a dreamy simulation, though. There's gameplay here. At first, it seems like you can do no wrong wafting on the winds, but danger and failure come into the picture after the fourth level. Certain hazards will zap you, forcibly redirect you, and burn off petals. It's a brave thing to make players feel bad after a sprightly romp. The twinges I felt from losing petals dredged up memories of Mom nervously shuttling uprooted plants into the house. She'd transfer bulbs into pots with the hope that autumn's growing chill hadn't deadened them. I understand her fears better now, understand the kinds of connections formed with the greenery you nurture.
Too bad gardening isn't this engaging in real life. Every flower we've ever touched withered away. Maybe we were too impatient?
Later, you unexpectedly find you have power, and using it feels good. As the game goes on, it becomes a fable of you against industrialization, which can feel heavy-handed. But Flower's message isn't anti-urban. In later levels, buildings are among the things you revive. The game avoids naivet? by seeming to advocate balance and responsibility. And when you triumph over Flower's dark moments, the feeling of overwhelming happiness trumps any buzz you might get from killing your thousandth Locust in Gears of War.
In the world That Game Company has crafted, the usual critical metrics like collision detection and frame rate stability don't really matter. But some caveats bear mentioning: Flower is short. It maxes out at about three hours and holds little replay value. And the save structure is annoying -- every level needs to be completed in one playthrough. Still, such knocks against Flower feel petty in light of how much new ground the game is breaking. Flower's not meant to compete with God of War III or Resident Evil 5.
It's the videogame equivalent of a short story, communicating ideas about joy, fragility and transformation. I wouldn't go so far as to call Flower a spiritual journey, but it did more to make me think about nature and my place in it than most celebrity-fueled PSAs. That achievement's even more significant when you consider that you're never given a human avatar through which to identify in Flower. I would defy anyone to play through the last level without getting a lump in their throat. I held tears in my eyes even through the first chunk of credits, which, in an ingenious twist, you play through, making individual names blossom just like the game's plants.
In the second level, some rejuvenated rocks go from grey-brown to a deep rusty red, and I remembered my grandfather telling me that the color comes from a high iron content in the dirt. I only remember meeting my paternal grandfather once, but the instance of that telling -- coasting downhill in neutral to conserve hard-to-find gasoline -- flared up as fresh as yesterday.
In that way, Flower packs a deceptively large emotional impact that, like the best and worst things in life, sneaks up on you. Playing it made me want to return to my uncle's farms in Haiti or invite my dad over for an afternoon to see how he'd react to the Sixaxis. And while I don't know if my mom ever truly "got" my passion for videogames, I think Flower would've been the game to make her understand.
This review is based on a downloadable copy of the game provided by the publisher.
Want more? Get the first hour of the game in Kyle Orland's Games for Lunch: Flower.