Flower Skidrow

The latest PSN release from thatgamecompany is full of incredible floral imagery and a few unexpected twists.

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Few games are so colorful and so nice to look at.
Few games are so colorful and so nice to look at.
Flower is thatgamecompany's latest PlayStation Network release, a mechanically simple romp through nature that emphasizes arresting visual presentation and a palpable sense of discovery over gameplay complexity. TGC, with its roots in the world of game-design academia, has covered this sort of art-house ground before on PSN with the abstract eat-or-be-eaten petri dish simulation flOw, a one-trick pony that presented a unique starting premise and then failed to do much with it. By contrast, Flower starts big and gets bigger, offering a real sense of progression that reaches a delightful crescendo in the game's final moments. It's one of the most gorgeous games I've ever played and, though brief, is well worth playing once and coming back to later even at the $9.99 asking price.

It takes about one minute to learn how Flower works. The game's six levels (or "dreams") are tied together by a hub interface consisting of your drab, depressing urban apartment, and each stage is preceded by some washed-out scenes of life in the metropolitan rat race. That backdrop provides a stark contrast to the rolling green hills and thousands of flowers that make up the lands you'll be zooming through when you actually play the game.

You play the part of the breeze--though what you're really controlling is the camera's perspective--which is marked by the swirl of petals you pick up from each and every flower as you fly by it. The controls couldn't be much simpler. You steer your view by tilting and rotating the controller, and you hit any button to pick up forward momentum. You can't quite turn on a dime, but you get used to the feel of the movement quickly enough.

Certain colors of flowers in each level act as triggers that affect parts of the environment. There's no heads-up display cluttering all that visual splendor, though, so in general, you're just encouraged to explore. In some levels, the right flowers will restore vibrant color to a washed-out landscape; in others, they'll clear a canyon of rocks so you can go zooming through, or start up some windmills to power nearby streetlights. It's always gratifying to see what varied effects you can have on each level, even if it only takes very basic exploration to enact them.

Even when you're just flying around aimlessly, Flower is a real sight, literally exploding color onto your screen from one moment to the next. Your tail of petals can get enormously long and varied if you spend enough time in a level, and picking up speed and doing a quick turnaround can result in you flying right through the middle of it, filling your screen with colors swirling on the wind. Buzzing the ground is also a treat, the way the wind cuts a narrow trough through the tall grass as you speed along. Musical notes are keyed to a lot of the flowers, too, so you're often immediately and dynamically adding to the already jaunty soundtrack as you fly around. The game is a true audiovisual tour de force, giving you the sense that things like 1080p and HDMI are good for more than just marketing bullet points.

Some of Flower is bleaker than you might expect.
Some of Flower is bleaker than you might expect.
Flower could have gone the same way flOw did, with a succession of one lightly enjoyable naturalistic level after the other till you had no more levels to play. It would still be a decent and visually beautiful game if it had. But in the back half, the level design takes you down an unexpectedly darker turn, juxtaposing all that floral jollity with bleaker, dystopian imagery that allows for a couple of twists on the gameplay, too. This unexpected last third of the game really elevated it to a more impressive height, for me. You could extract some environmentalist themes from the latter part of the game with little effort if you wanted, but you're also free to just get lost in the almost overwhelming sensory experience Flower provides.

You can finish Flower in a small handful of hours, but that initial experience is so densely packed with visual splendor and engaging discovery that every minute of it feels meaningful. It's not a bad way to relieve stress, either, just slumping back on the couch after a long day at the office and zooming around fields full of lush flora without a bunch of Locust or Nazis trying to score head shots on you. And the game's trophies are thoughtfully designed, too, encouraging you to go back and play the levels again more skillfully if you're the type of person who's interested in boosting your online rep.

Download services like the PlayStation Store are the best thing to happen to consoles in a long while. They make offbeat experimental games like this one possible, when such games would likely never reach shelves in boxed form due to the raw business realities of retail publishing. But because we can circumvent the obstacles of physical distribution, we can have games like Flower, a tiny, beautiful, elegantly designed piece of software that I feel richer for having played.