It’s a sight that feels so familiar. A neglected plant sits on a windowsill overlooking a drab, colourless metropolis. The stresses of city living, of work, family and maintaining a social life, have pushed this plant, this microcosm of life that its owner was once so determined to keep alive, further and further down the list of priorities. Now the flower withers, and as its leaves lose their colour the plant takes with it any semblance of vibrancy it once brought to this dull living space. Who exactly owns the plant doesn’t matter – it could be any one of us, really.
Like photographer Aristotle Roufanis’ painstakingly captured cityspaces, the title screen of Flower is an exaggeration of the loneliness and hopelessness that is felt so desperately in these hubs of human life that should logically be some of the most joyous and friendly places in which to exist. But this facsimile of a living space isn’t real, this is merely a game. There’s no bills to worry about here, no deadlines to meet. We can stare at this empty space for as long as we wish, and eventually we must do the only thing that there is to do, the one thing we so frequently don’t have time for in reality – turn our attention back to the plant.
And as we do so, we drift away from the city, where life always seems to move either too fast or too slow with seemingly no middle ground, and awake in a field to find another identical flower ready to bloom. Hit a button on your controller – any will do – and the head of the flower opens, releasing a single petal into the air that we suddenly find we can control. Only we’re not controlling the petal itself, but the gentle breeze that guides it up into the fresh air and down into the long grass.
This is how every level in Flower starts, and from there, each one plays out more or less the same. We control the wind as it guides the petal towards other flowers, the breeze gently gathering more and more petals until it appears a kaleidoscopic maelstrom of life and colour. Each flower we pass opens its petals to face the sun as we do so, and is accompanied by a gentle but expressive musical note. We are bringing life into this space and eventually moving on from it enriched. Each time that we return to the windowsill, some colour has returned and more life can be found.
And we will always return to that same windowsill. The message of Flower is not about forsaking built-up areas for a return to living wild amongst nature, but finding a balance between both. No matter what happens in each level, our time amongst nature is just a visit. After all, cities are teeming with resources to utilise, culture to experience and people to meet. They can be a wonderful place in which to exist and ultimately the mere concept of people living in one huge community is in itself quite beautiful. It is only when it becomes a space in which people feel trapped, losing any sense of a connection with their environment, that something has to give.
For all its beauty, though, Flower is a game with a strange legacy. It always stood out for being different, of course, but it’s also perhaps overshadowed by developer Thatgamecompany’s more commercially successful follow-up title Journey, a game that’s just as beautiful and profound but with more polish and less janky controls. That isn’t to say it’s been forgotten though, and indeed Flower remains a reference point when discussing games that eschew the usual format of the medium, given that there’s no protagonist, no combat, no XP to grind or achievements to unlock beyond simply getting to the end.
Perhaps it was a stepping stone on the way to titles like Proteus, a game all about exploration for exploration’s sake to the extent that some folks reading this probably just grimaced because I referred to it as a game at all. Flower’s deviance from the norm is even what led it to come up in Roger Ebert’s infamous “video games can never be art” debate. When arguing against a TED Talk entitled “An Argument For Game Artistry”, given by Thatgamecompany co-founder Kellee Santiago at USC, he quite hilariously asked as a rebuttal: “Is the game scored? She doesn’t say. Do you win if you’re the first to find the balance between the urban and the natural? Can you control the flower? Does the game know what the ideal balance is?”
Flower is profound precisely because it isn’t scored or timed. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to bring life back to that lonely windowsill, only that eventually, you will. The controls are so simple, avoiding any test of dexterity or timing and even going so far as to reduce the needed inputs to a gentle rocking of the SIXAXIS controller and the occasional tap of X. Of course, there’s a reason that in the long run so few games really tapped into the movement capabilities of the PS3 controller, and Flower can be frustrating because of how unresponsive those controls can be, but ultimately it doesn’t matter. Missing a petal won’t result in failure or damn that windowsill to eternal abandonment. We can turn around and explore to our heart’s content, and that’s really the point of Flower. It doesn’t entail a grand narrative or an endurance test that you’ll emerge from with a sense of triumph. It’s not a power fantasy. It’s just a chance to drift for a time, perhaps in thought, perhaps not. It’s a soothing experience, like a cool balm on an agonising burn. Massive open-worlds with hundreds of hours of content aren’t going anywhere, but we need more games like Flower too.
Flower created by Thatgamecompany is available now on PlayStation platforms, Windows, and iOS
Words: George Parr