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.