Last week, when the hard-core gamers of the world were supposed to be firing up the Lost and Damned, a new, downloadable episode of Grand Theft Auto IV, I instead decided to spend more than $400 for the privilege of playing a $10 game. I bought a PlayStation 3—a system I had consciously avoided to date in favor of the Xbox 360 and the Wii—so that I could download Flower, a little marvel of a game that casts the player as a series of petals floating in the wind.
What's remarkable about Flower is the sensation it creates, from start to finish: simple, almost indescribable, joy. Kellee Santiago, the president and co-founder of thatgamecompany, the game's publisher, says in an accompanying behind-the-scenes video that Flower is "the video game version of a poem" and that its purpose is to create "an emotion" in those who play it. Flower, which at least for now is exclusively for sale on the PlayStation Network of downloadable games, is not unique in that ability—other games successfully create fear, or nervousness, or exhilaration (or controller-hurtling anger)—but it is the only game I've played that made me feel relaxed, peaceful, and happy. What's the point of it? Only that. Which is plenty.
Flower is set in an asphalt city, inside a room where all that can be heard is the rush of the traffic outside. In this grim landscape, the blur of car lights on the road seems to be the only man-made creation that doesn't come from a palette of grays. Sitting on a table in the room is a splash of color: a yellow flower. The instructions are simple: "[T]ilt the controller to soar; press any button to blow wind; relax, enjoy." So you do.
Inside the plant—at least, I think that's where I ended up—a single petal emerges to drift in the breeze, gathering other petals to follow it as the wind blows across a row of flowers, reds and yellows and purples and blues. The petals turn with each tilt of the controller, and the wind gusts, moving the petals forward, with the pressing of any button. As the petals dance across the screen, patches of brown grass turn green.
This, or something like it, repeats itself as one flowerpot after another appears on the table in the gray city. Petals float in the rain and at sunset and at night, and they sometimes encounter danger, disappearing into blackness and smoke when they fly into an electric light. The PlayStation 3's motion-sensitive controller adds to the game's airy quality. Flower asks those who play it to turn the controller elegantly through space, rather than forcefully thumb around joysticks and mash buttons. It's the most effective use of motion controls that I've encountered since Wii Sports: What the game asks the player to do physically complements what it wants the player to experience emotionally.
After a few hours of play, the petals have painted a new city, with pink trees and white buildings and brightly colored graffiti, awnings, and birds. There's a floating, trippy quality that's entrancing. And then, after a credit sequence that is unlocked through game-play, it's over. Can you play it again? Of course. Is it still fun? Yes. Is this a game worth playing over and over and over? Probably not. But that's why it's $10.
Not everything in the game works. The musical score is less effective—and less affecting—than the game-play, and (very) occasionally the imagery veers too far into rainbows and doves and other decorative elements you might find on the walls of a sixth-grade girl's bedroom. (Thankfully, there are no unicorns.) But it is hard to be cynical about the game's small flaws. Overall, Flower is a delight, a welcome refutation of the notion that video games can do nothing more than create spectacle and excitement.
Flower is barely a game in some ways. "There's no score, there's no time limit, there's no death," Santiago says in the behind-the-scenes video. On the other hand, it is clearly, in its interface, identifiable as a game, and it does have levels and sets of challenges, albeit very easy ones. The experience feels both pleasingly familiar and startlingly new.
There is a wrongheaded assumption among many game players that choice is the sine qua non of game-play. Flower rebuts that notion, creating a sense of freedom within a linear structure. There's very little choice and almost no story, no crafting of a character and no choosing of your own adventure.
In Flower, the players don't choose the game's path or insert themselves into the story. This isn't a game that's willing to relinquish control to the all-important you. Flower demands that you relinquish control to the game and its designers, and it's all the better for asking its players to surrender themselves to it.