"The powerful dreams of ordinary flowers."

Flower is the latest game released by thatgamecompany (the same company behind flOw), and it is an absolutely stunning achievement. It is breathtakingly beautiful, but also surprisingly emotional and evocative for a game that is so short and has such simple controls.

It isn't a game for everyone, but I believe it is a game that everyone should try.

Gameplay: The controls for Flower are stunningly simple. There is no real "you" in this game--what you the player are doing is essentially controlling the wind, driving petals forward. To do this, tilt the Sixaxis controller in the direction you want the petals to go, and press any button but start to push the petals forward with a more powerful wind. The controls take a little getting used to, but after a short time, it is fairly easy to make tight turns and guide the petals with precision. In some cases this precision is necessary, but often it is not. Most of the game takes place in vast fields.

The goal of guiding the petals is to touch a new flower and cause it to bloom, which will add more petals to the collection and make it easier to cause larger fields of flowers to bloom. Blooming flowers result in a variety of events; some flowers cause a breeze to pick up, others cause more flowers to grow. Generally, the flowers needed to bloom will have a glow about them and be pointed out by camera zooms, while seemingly ordinary white flowers will lead you around by growing in lines. Each level generally has three sections to it, each opened up by blooming the flowers inside it. This is not difficult at all, for the most part; usually it's quite relaxing and fun. Occasionally it can be a bit frustrating and not entirely clear what the goal of each level is. So there is an exploratory aspect to the game.

The game is almost flawlessly immersive due to the simple controls. The fact that there are trophies to earn can break that immersion. Seeing a little notice in the corner and hearing a chime when a trophy is unlocked can be startling. Having trophies gives players something more traditionally game-like to do other than experience Flower, and I suppose that is a good reason to have them, but I found them intrusive. Flowers don't dream of trophies.

Simply put, the game is fun, usually relaxing, and very easy to play.

Story: Can flowers on a windowsill tell a story? Absolutely! It is not a traditionally told story, but it is certainly there. The premise of the game is that several drooping flowers on a windowsill overlooking a city each have a dream. The first time you play, it must be done in order, which provides the vehicle for the story to be told. As each successive flower is revealed (and it's level, what it dreams of) the story unfolds. Each flower has a different kind of dream, but they follow one another fairly well. The narrative, which is told entirely through a few slide show images of the city and the gameplay, fall together nicely to become a surprisingly emotional experience. The story has a clear beginning, a conflict, and a resolution. I began to feel what the flowers felt, their whimsy, their desires, their sadness, their fear, and their exultation and triumph. The story that I saw was not of flowers taking over the world, or fighting against the people that put them in their little pots on a windowsill...I saw a story of flowers dreaming of improving the lives of not just themselves, but the people they live with. It's nature wanting to live in harmony, including with people, by removing what is malignant in the mechanical and leaving behind a colorful, happy place for people and flowers to live. The triumph of the last (and the least) flower's dream shows this very well.

Graphics: In a word: stunning. The graphics are nearly flawless. Every blade of grass looks and feels real because they are all rendered in real time. Hundreds of petals blowing in the wind, hundreds of thousands of blades of grass...it is absolutely incredible. Directing the petals to blow through the grass at a low level looks and feels like a thrill because it is so realistic. There is a certain point at which it breaks down; if you blow through the grass at too low a level, you will see a plain single color ground and the blades of grass, though reacting realistically to the wind, start looking a bit like what they likely are, low polygon models. Still, this is such a minor thing and you have to look closely to see it. Direct the petals up high, and you can see a huge, realistic vista. It all has a certain level of idealization, to give it a dream-like quality.

The graphics help to tell the story as well. In one dream, there is a thunderstorm, which does well to set the mood; the screen shakes (as does a Dualshock 3 controller) as blinding light flashes across a dark, dismal landscape, heightening the feeling of danger. In another, following the path of the dream forward shows the sun setting and gives an already playful dream a further touch of dreamy whimsy, recalling times when a child just wanted to stay outside playing for ten more minutes. So not only are the graphics incredible in their own right, they are there for a purpose: they help set the mood, which elevates them from a just a pretty display to a work of art.

There are a very few points where the graphics could be improved. In one place, there is just so much going on that the game slows down. Perhaps this was intentional so that the player could see the results of the flower's efforts...still, it was a bit jarring. The movement in the slide shows of the city could be improved. It makes sense for them not to be as stunning as the dreams, but occasionally they have movement in them (such as a gull flying) that look stilted. For such an otherwise gorgeous game, it was a bit of a shock to see that some things in the city snapshots could not have been animated a little more smoothly.

Perhaps one of the most unique and interesting uses of the beautiful graphics are to display the credits. There is very little in the way of dull scrolling to see them; they are a level of their own, and to see the credits, you have to play them! The only other game I know that has a similar mechanic to present the credits is flOw, which is by the same company, so this was not unexpected to me. I look forward to the credits in a thatgamecompany game because I know they will be presented in an interesting way.

Sound: Much like the graphics, the sound and music is impressive, but serves the experience, rather than standing out on its own. Each flower has a musical tone when it is bloomed the first time, or if you direct the petals to blow over them again. In some dreams, the tones are discordant, which fits the mood--it isn't expected that in darkness, with danger all around, that the flowers would make happy sounds. If they did, it would detract from the mood. Each dream has different types of music, ranging from happy-go-lucky to dismal to triumphant. All of it is good, and all of it serves to enhance the dreams, to help with the immersion.

The only time the sound took me out of the game was when a trophy was unlocked in the middle of a dream. Most are unlocked on the menu screen, where they will not intrude. This is only an issue on the first few play-throughs, however; once the trophies unlock, they can no longer break the immersion the rest of the soundscape provides.

Replay Value: Alas, there is very little traditional gaming reason to replay Flower. It is a fairly short game, easily completed in an evening, and once the story has unfolded, there is no longer any surprise. The trophies add some artificial replay value, as it can be fun and challenging to get them all. Otherwise, the replay value is only to be found if you enjoyed the game as an experience and wish to experience it again. Just gently wafting around with no goal in mind is as valid a way to replay Flower as trying to win the game is.

Final Thoughts: While Flower is not a hard-core gamer's game, it is, without question, a work of art that I believe everyone should play at least once. It is unusual, inventive, artistic, and an experience not to be missed. Flower shows another side of games, one where all factors blend virtually flawlessly into the whole to create a masterpiece experience. For me, it is easily worth the $10 price and I would recommend Flower without reservation.

Reviewer's Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Originally Posted: 02/26/09

Game Release: flower (US, 02/12/09)

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