Monday, March 2, 2009

Flower is Pretty, and Also Pretty Rad

Leigh Alexander wrote a three-part series detailing her misgivings with Flower slash with the critical reception of Flower, and I have to give her big ups for having the courage of her convictions and articulating some criticisms of a game so beloved amongst the game-blog set. I've already said my piece on the game, albeit indirectly, but there were aspects of her critique that bothered me, so I'll try to sort them out here rather than writing an absurdly long comment on the excellent Sexy Videogameland.

Let's hit her discontent with the critical reception first. Her central idea, in the last of the three posts, is that games critics have pressed Flower into playing a role for which it is unfit:

We play Flower and find that it is beautiful -- "oh," we sigh, "here's the one, here is our latest ambassador to legitimacy."... We are waiting, always waiting, for a game that can send us running to the blogosphere to discuss -- "here, here's one," we gasp, prizing Flower closely, thumbing through the indices of academia to find quotes about art, cracking our thesauruses for synonyms of narrative, homophones for wind. Poor Flower, unpermitted to simply be a good, thoughtful video game. We did this to Braid, too.

I think this is a fair cop. (“homophones for wind” is a good line too) Maybe us in the serious games network of pretension have a slight messianic complex when it comes to the self-consciously artsy console titles. I think there's little disputing that the average games blogger wants games like Flower to succeed, because we do want games to move out of their current thematic ghetto.

What I don't like about this tack is the accusation of bad faith. It implies that we're lying to ourselves, being unconsciously dishonest about the object at hand, out of a desire to legitimize gaming (and perhaps, by extension, our obsession with writing about gaming) to the culture at large. And sure, we all spend some segment of our existence lying to ourselves, sometimes on the Internet. But I don't think you need to appeal to our legitimacy-complex to explain the rapturous reception of Flower; one needn't be desperate to authentically love this sort of thing. I think it's plausible to say that for a certain consumer, Flower just is their cup of tea.

Which brings us to her substantive critique of Flower itself. In her second article, Alexander begins with the statement of an excellent critical principle: “I suggest that one of my aims in discussing games is to try to evaluate them according to what the developer's intention might have been and how well the game achieved it.” As I've said before, this strikes me as an eminently sane way to approach the translation of an inescapably private experience into something communicable.

The problem, sez Alexander, is the very fact that Flower sets out to cultivate an emotional response in the player. To her, the relentless serenity and simple narrative contours of the experience felt artificial: “the deliberate intention of creating emotion is manipulative.”

I disagree. How does the intent to create a particular mood or though visuals, sound and play mechanics vitiate a game? All good games are consciously designed to evoke something in the player. Silent Hill sets out to create an excruciatingly sustained unease. Mario aims for whimsy. And what could be more deliberate than that episode in Metal Gear Solid 4 where the player desperately mashes the X button to haul Solid Snake's disintegrating frame through an irradiated corridor?

What Alexander means here, I think, is that we all dislike it when the devices a game uses to gain an emotional purchase on the player are excessively transparent. That is, we feel that the emotional resonance of a piece of art should emerge from the way it presents a compelling vision of the world and the people in it; we don't like the feeling that elements of the work-- cheap sentiment, melodrama, weeping-- are put in there for the purpose of tugging at our heartstrings. (This is a great paradox about beauty, which Kant made central to his aesthetics: great works of art please us, without seeming to be designed for our pleasure. This is what natural beauty and artistic beauty have in common)

And this is where games like Flower have to walk a certain tightrope: onesidedly pleasant artworks run the risk of being veering into kitsch. There's no denying that Flower trafficks in oversaturated colors, plinky strings, limpid harmonies. One's tolerance for audiovisual splendor tends to be a matter of taste: what appears charming to some will come off as cloying or precious to others. But if the overabundance of these patently emollient touches ruins the aesthetic effect, this is precisely where it has failed on its own terms.

The root my disagreement with Alexander, I think, is that we have different assessments of what Flower aims to be. To me, Flower is a simple pop song, not a concept album. A few of the critics have found it to be a profound, emotionally transmogrifying experience, but I don't think it's fair to say that the game tries to be an existential asskicker, like a Mahler symphony. It doesn't strive after metaphysics, and it doesn't have a particularly deep philosophical point to make about the relationship between man and nature. Saying it aims to be merely lyrical does it any discredit. (N'Gai Croal said it has the emotional sophistication of a Pixar film, and this seems about right.)

What is impressive to me about Flower is the way that its achieves this lyricism through the design of its core mechanics. While the audiovisual grandeur does a lot of the heavy lifting, I think the real genius is all in the implementation of the motion controls, which give the game its unique feeling of lightness and freedom. The contrast between the total impunity the player enjoys in the first few levels and the sudden emergence of punitive gameplay elements in the fifth level makes for a good contrast; when you regain your impunity and bring down the military-industrial complex in the sixth, it feels genuinely empowering.

Alexander says that these elements are “design principles, not transcendental philosophical threads, not transporting narrative elegance” -- but this seems really wrongheaded to me. It implies a gulf: game design on one side, profound art on the other. But it seems to me that genuine artistry in game design resides in how you use these mechanics and design principles to create emotion. I don't think the artistry on display in Flower is totally original (it leans heavily on the template carved out by REZ), but it succeeds in what it sets out to do-- create a lovely, enjoyable synthesis of gameplay mechanics and verdant panoramas.


L.B. Jeffries said...

I haven't played the game yet and methinks I'll avoid it for a while. People seem to get very hostile over the subject of being wind. It's interesting that the issue you take with Alexander is what the purpose of the game is, as opposed to execution or aesthetics. I made the same joke with 8bithack on's funny how much we argue over seemingly non-controversial games. Titles that have such bold topics as being about sadness, relaxation or even something like exercise generate more arguments than any shooter or RTS.

I suppose it's a sign that the game is doing something new for all of us.

Nels Anderson said...

That's what really bothered me about what Leigh had to say too- it felt like she was accusing people of somehow being dishonest about what they were experiencing. While it's certainly possible that some folks are perhaps waxing a bit too lyrical, I just don't understand how she can really hold up the claim "All your love will not imbue Flower with traits it doesn't possess."

What impact Flower did or didn't have on a player can only be determined by them and unless people are making claims truly outrageous or objectively false, it just seems fundamentally wrong to say what someone else experienced wasn't real.

And god damn, I wish I could achieve the kind of clarity you demonstrate here. Brilliant calling out of aesthetic beauty via design. If you haven't read the MDA Framework paper, I'd suggest it, since it's saying something quite similar.

Mitch Krpata said...

I've seen that N'Gai quote referenced in a couple of places, but I haven't read the original, so I'm not sure: Is it saying that Flower is emotionally sophisticated, or that Pixar films aren't?

Or that they're both kind of emotionally sophisticated?

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@lbeez: (can I call you lbeez? I suppose I already have.) Dude, don't sleep on flower. It's a good game. I can almost guarantee that your experience of the game will be noncontroversial.

At any rate, despite the differences I think Leigh and I basically agree about what flower is; we just disagree some about what it tries to be.

@nels: yeah I kind of felt the same way, though like you, I felt some of the adulation was a bit overlyrical.

And I have checked out the MDA framework before (was it you who led me to it?); it's a bit formal but I think I agree with its overall approach. I like the way it links mechanics and aesthetic experience together. (This is what bothered me most about the Alexander piece, really, this idea that game design and aesthetic experience stand opposed to each other.)

@mkrpata: Well, to be honest I think your pixar films are more sophisticated than flower. Like flower they tend to be really simple in their basic themes-- but I have to say that Pixar movies are usually pretty subtle in the way they go about dealing with emotion.

At any rate, I don't think flower is emotionally sophisticated by any stretch. It's harmonious but uncomplicated, which is fine for what it sets out to do.

Nels Anderson said...

Yea, I probably linked the MDA thing before. I'll try my best to avoiding trumpeting it again, but I guarantee nothing ;)

laz said...

Hmmm I'm kind of curious to try flower. I want to be the wind! On the other hand, I tend to have a kneejerk hate reaction to pixar movies.

Are there any homophones of wind in english? I can't think of any.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@laz: You gots to play it! What else are you doing with that PlayStation anyways. And it's a pretty good game. Very swooshy.

Danilo said...

I agree with most of what you say, and the way you say it, but i still have something to comment.

"“design principles, not transcendental philosophical threads, not transporting narrative elegance” -- but this seems really wrongheaded to me. It implies a gulf: game design on one side, profound art on the other."

I see where you're getting at but I think there's another layer of interpretation available here. Players were shouting the way that Flowers was a Zen game, a new experience that raised the media qualities and etc, yet the game had just a different dressing, with de same old principles. Maybe the old ones were transcendental philosophical threads, but then why Flowers is the avant-garde ad the others not?

Anyway, I’m probably just nitpicking. Great text and great blog.

Charles said...

I have to agree with Danilo here. The thing that annoyed me when playing Flower was that it was billed as some new experience, when in fact the underlying structure was incredibly traditional ("You mean I light this thing to open a path to this other place where I can light other things to open new paths? Genius!").

The only thing that was really clever about Flower was the control scheme, but if I'm never asked to do anything interesting with a control scheme, is it really worth it?

Thatgamecompany has some really talented folks, but sometimes I get the feeling they're trying to break the rules without knowing them really well in the first place.

Iroquois Pliskin said...

@danilo: this is a good point. the game's basic mechanics (the collection-to-unlock structure, the level-by-level progression) are pretty traditional. Maybe this is all she meant-- these specific elements undermined the experience and made it feel too artificial and gamey, got in the way of the serenity and whatnot.

There was this overall feel I got from the articles, though-- she thought that presence of any game mechanics at all disqualified the game as a piece of art. To which I would say: well, it depends what you do with the mechanics. that's where the art is.

@charles: like I said to Danilo, there's no denying that the mechanics in flower are very standard fare. (except for the lack of any punitive element, which isn't unique but is important.) It's not a work of staggering mechanical genius by any stretch.

But again, I didn't really feel disappointed by this. I really do see this as a game with modest ambitions and I think it achieved them very well. And again, the genius isn't just the scheme: it's the way the control scheme and the audiovisual aesthetic complement each other. I think this is what people have been responding to.

brian said...

The idea that the game mechanics and structure aren't totally original are true. Maybe the fault is holding up flower as a revolution, as opposed to just a refreshing departure.

However, to crosspost myself a bit (tacky?):

"Flower does something rare by giving players a rush [of flight] despite lacking a fail state... This is no small feat."


"You finish feeling rejuvenated and at peace — just like the world you’ve traveled across to revive — in a way no other game this year is likely to match."

Isn't that enough to be really grateful for and excited about?

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