It’s an issue oft raised – by Molyneux or Spielberg – and it’s a question that’s frequently answered with ‘I cried a bit when Aeries died’.
What this question is really about is eliciting emotion in games, but in order to to achieve that, you need to draw the player along with you, to make them feel not just the depth of the emotion that causes tears, but the loss of joy that leads to depth. And to do that, you need to make the player adopt the identity of the in game character – even if that character is a petal floating on the wind.
Part of what makes Flower so effective, beyond it’s kinesthetic & aesthetic appeal or how it gives the player space to fill in it’s subtextual story, is the way the game leads you into that simple, clear identity of a petal – and then transfers the emotion from it to you from through small achievements, frustration, and eventual joy at transforming the world.
(And I’m going to return to these themes of subtext, kinaesthetics, and identity in a post on Heavy Rain, which I think deals far less effectively with all of these elements)
My answer to the question of ‘will a game ever make you cry?’ was when do we see characters in games cry? In other mediums, the reason they affect us so strongly is because we feel a connection to their journey, to the earned emotional context or to the specific emotions they are going through. Flower manages to capture that emotional arc, despite the barrier of no human characters to easily identify with.
The emotional arc of flower is about breaking out of containment, of a shrinking world, of encroaching darkness. The game begins, simply, with open plains and your only task to follow strings of flowers, opening them up, bringing light and colour into the world. Those first levels are free from any real external constraints and feedback is constant as you drift above the landscape. There are no physical barriers in your way, and everything feels light and airy, from the colourscheme to the mechanics.
But as you progress, the game becomes darker, obstacles become manifest, the navigation of the space and achievement of specific goals to progress moves to the foreground. Your sense of movement and joy in bringing life back to the world is gradually replaced with something far more oppressive. Now the player has to bring down power lines, smash through obstacles, or carefully navigate a dangerous canyon, in order to progress.
But without explicit goals, why should the player care?
They care because subtly, the game has shown that the world can be a better place, that what the flower wants – and by extension what the player wants – is to live in that better place, or to at least find it again. The player, and the flower, is searching for Shangri La, an earthly paradise, a place of dreams where everything comes true.
The last level of flower is undertaken by the smallest flower sitting on the windowsill who, not conincidentally, dreams the largest of the others and is able to achieve more than all of the others combined.
The final space is massive, and after the slowly creeping oppression of the rest of the game, your expectations are set low when you begin in what seems to be an open field. Your first actions, at the same scale as they have been throughout the game, but laid low by the narrative, have an amplified effect – the entire field erupts in colour, encouraging you to fly around, triggering flowers to open, gathering their petals, sizing up the barrier blocking your way. You pick up speed and smash through it. More flowers erupt from the ground, you catch sight of more pylons and broken metal and you smash through those, following the trails of flowers, watching as buildings twist out of the ground and fill with colour.
The juxtaposition from previous levels, when you were restricted, funneled, surrounded by darkness, fighting to open even a small amount, is palpable. This gap, this surprise, this overwhelming sense that ‘I can build the world I want here’ drives the player through the rerst of the level, racing down grey streets breaking with colour, flying up and around buildings towards the gardens nestled in the rooftops, smashing through clawing metal fingers as colour swirls behind you, leading the stream of petals to the game’s final and joyous catharsis of colour and sound.
The game had me there, on my couch, smiling, realizing what it had done.
It had taken me on an emotional journey that ended in joy; it had, through doing not telling, made me adopt the needs and goals of its protagonist, and then let me share its frustrations at being constrained and its eventual joy at breaking out of those bonds; and it had done all of that with the tools at its disposal – of contrast, of transfer, of identity adoption, of amplification – in a a way that only an interactive medium could, and as a result stands as a beautiful example of the possibilities of our medium.
Coming Next: more thoughts on games and culture, and a look at Heavy Rain.