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Tastes gamey: How Flower was this close to being a Zen experience

5:34 AM on 02.15.2009 // Topher Cantler

I enjoyed Flower on PSN. In fact, I thought it was wonderful. The visuals were pretty, the score was gorgeous, the control was smooth and fluid. I was ready for something different when I downloaded the game; something I'd never played before, outside of Thatgamecompany's previous offering.

I almost got it. Ask me which of yesterday's reviewers I'm more apt to side with, and I'll point you to Anthony. Flower should have been a leap in the right direction, and in my own opinion, it was; but there was a bit of a clumsy stumble in its landing that prevented it from looking like a badass in front of the ladies after it took said leap.

It came so close to instilling in me a belief that there really could be games out there that defied convention, ones that rolled down the window and thrust a middle finger at expectation and tradition. So close. Hit the jump to see what went wrong.

Flower started as I expected it would. I rode the wind, towing behind me a vibrant train of botany as was seen in the trailers that caught my interest in the first place. It was beautiful, it was graceful in its motion, and best of all, it was relaxing. I brought life to arid lands, painted the fields with my breeze, and for the first several stages, hadn't a care in the world. Everything was bright, colorful, and my TV screen danced wildly with life.

The next level was a bit different, but that was okay. The landscape was punctuated by jagged rock formations, under a dark sky that threatened less cheerful weather, and most notably, it was very brown. I'm cool with that. The game is nothing if not colorful, and hey, brown is a color, too. Besides which, the visual tone reminded me of Shadow of the Colossus, and that's always a welcome vibe. To be perfectly honest, I was rather pleased to see a change after all the shiny botanical rainbows I'd been unleashing on this world. Not bad, Flower. This may yet be better than I expected.

Venturing into the next area, it's twilight. Hey, cool. Let's illuminate some stuff. Sounds good. I drifted like a swarm of fireflies through the darkness, triggering lights and bringing a soft, blue glow to the field around me. It started out being as fun as the previous worlds, but after having the controls ripped out of my hands for a short cutscene each and every time I lit one of several haystacks, things began to feel less like Zen and more like busywork. That was okay, though. It seemed the carefree experience I'd hoped for was going to be slightly tainted by a bit of old cliche, but I was willing to overlook that to a degree. I should have expected it, I suppose. Somebody surely would have bitched if there weren't at least a few blatant "go here, do this" objectives to distinguish game from tech demo. We're still okay here. We've still got that relaxing flow going. Let's finish the level.

Then it happens. Lighting the final patch of grass sends a jolt through to a nearby power line, resulting in a sharp crackling sound and a sudden downward shift in the music. The camera pans up, revealing a pitch black valley, dotted with tiny fires and ominous masses of steel, making it clear to the player that this wasteland will be your next destination.

Oh, what the fuck

Alright, let's not get excited. Zen gaming, right? That's the sound of the horn they've been blowing, isn't it? They wouldn't ruin the experience by making me dodge a bunch of stupid obstacles and weave in and out of stuff. That would just make this another videogame. I like a litle darkness, why not. Lightning is always fun to watch, sure. Let's give it a spin. The sky here is pitch black, and the grass has taken on a lifeless silvery color. Alright, I don't mind that, and look -- there's a bluish-purple flower over there to grab, off we go.

Thunder booms overhead, and the clouds periodically blossom hints of lightning. Being a fan of storms, my worries begin to fade. Zen indeed, and they've managed to add a little something for those of us who find different meaning in the term. This is nice after all. I think I'll float over and grab that next flower, tucked just within that twisted pile of metal over there.

A violent crack of electricity. The controller instantaneously explodes with vibration, and the screen shakes and blurs into several directions, with a red wash over everything displayed on it. Black smoke begins to billow from somewhere within my petal collection, which is now significantly smaller than it was just a moment ago. Suddenly, the game that's supposed to be soothing is anything but.

Really? Seriously? After spending several levels with a game that's done everything in its power to lull me into a state of carefree relaxation, I'm now meant to wiggle between these hulking masses of twisted steel and cable to chase my flowers, and I can't touch the sides? Operation: now available on PSN, $9.99. The naked dude's nose doesn't light up, but it's otherwise just as you remember it.

No need to worry about unfamiliar experiences anymore, you know exactly what to do now. Shift. Experience mode off, game mode activated. Tediously weave around inside of these terminal towers in order to activate them, which you must do in order to send electricity along a conduit to the gate that blocks the next area. Shift. There are three of them. You may not pass until all three have been triggered and the gate is fully powered. Point A to point B. Collect. Trigger. Activate switch. Here is your objective. Complete the procedure. Follow the conduit to the location of the next terminal. Collect. Trigger. Activate swi ... why don't you just put a text tutorial and a fucking HUD on the screen? Maybe a life bar? A progress meter? Are there some crates lying around that I could break? Anything more you could maybe do to remind me that I'm playing a videogame?

For something that has tried so hard (and until now, succeeded), in shedding convention and offering a different kind of experience, it's very disappointing to have the shit shocked out of you without warning, before being thrust into a game of dodge-the-danger, connect-the-dots. You almost had me, Flower; you were so close. Why? Why would you tear down everything you've built in the past hour on the next-to-last level? This isn't relaxing; it's jarring and unpleasant. It's tedious. It's repetitive. It's ... not fun. That sucks, because I was enjoying myself.

Don't get me wrong here; I don't mind dodging shit and flipping switches -- I play those games all the time. But that's the problem. Somebody promised me that wasn't what I was downloading. Somebody promised a relaxing, "Zen gaming" experience. They almost delivered. If you're thinking of filling my comments with a shitstorm, I would like to refer you to the first two sentences of this article. I liked Flower, I really did. But it's kind of like getting an ice cream cone with a hummus-flavored cone. Ooh, yummy chocolate, oh man, this is so good, and the sprinkles are so tasty, and ... what the ... is that hummus?

I like hummus, Sony. Just not in my ice cream.

Topher Cantler,
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