Blowing in the wind…

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Flower.

“It’s like running barefoot through a meadow!”

That was my initial impression of Flower formed after a minute of play. It feels as true now as it did then. Flower is an instantly gratifying experience based on very simply concepts, the pleasure of fligth and the sensation of bringing something to life. In a recent interview conducted by Michael Abbott, thatgamecompany‘s Jenova Chen described it as the “anti-Grand Theft Auto” a goal at which it succeeds admirable.

At the heart of Flower is a means of progression that involves quite simply doing whatever is the most pleasurable thing you can at any moment. Movement inside the game is controlled by physical movement of the SIXAXIS. Simply moving the controller around in a fashion mimicking flight is loaded with the the potential to amuse and entertain in much the same way spreading your arms and pretending to fly around the room is; who hasn’t tried that when they’ve thought nobody could see them?

Flying around you soon realise that flying past a closed flower causes it to burst open with a sound and visual effect that is at once subtle yet pleasing, it’s an action that is clearly good because everything about the aesthetic experience reinforces its positive nature. Automatically you try and find the next closed flower so you can experience that sensation again.

After you’ve found and opened a few flowers the camera pulls back and you witness a rush of colour into the world, much like de Blob and Prince Of Persia before it, this eruption of colour is clearly a welcome event and one you want to witness again. Therefore just as with the first flower you open, you want to have that sensation again, your immediate desire is to bring more colour to the environment. How do you do that? By flying around and finding more flowers of course, by doing the only things you can do, which also happen to be the things you most want to do.

This is the basic formula for the first few stages of the game, what you want to do and what you need to do are in sync and so without really considering your actions, you do what is required. Until something goes wrong …

… When it happens it feels like the worst thing that could happen, not simply because it clearly looks unpleasant, not simply because you feel you’ve caused it (Though some part of you realises it was inevitable). It’s the worst thing that could happen because for the first time you don’t really understand what you’ve got to do anymore. So you just keep flying because, despite the loss of colour and loss of purpose, that is still something that feels like a positive act.

The next stage is jarring and actively unpleasant, it requires a degree of precision not found previously and though you cannot die, the shock of failure stings because the effect it is so different from what you’ve come to expect; it’s a diminishing experience not a rewarding one.  You don’t want to carry on because this stage is not like those that came before it’s hostile and dark, and sad.

I nearly stopped playing at this point, I was no longer comfortable, it felt wrong and I didn’t want to be there. Flower had provided me with a mechanic that was inherently pleasurable and then taken it away in a manner than made me long for its return. It had succeed in showing me something I liked and then taken it away right before my eyes. In the space of a few seconds it had successfully conveyed a sense of destruction and loss that the more explicit Fallout 3 had required dozens of hours to evovke. All I wanted was to return everything to the way it was before. Once again the one thing I needed to do, find a way to restore the world to it’s former beauty, was exactly what I needed to do.

Pushing through to the next stage can feel like a chore, for every minor victory you gain the world around you remains a forbidding, dark place. Once you reach that final stage and it slowly dawns on you what you have to do everything up to the conclusion seems to go in a rush of flight and colour. Filled with a sense of righteous indignation you soar through the streets crashing into anything that doesn’t belong. The music building as you get nearer and nearer to the centre of the city, the crescendo of sound echoing the beating of your heart as you rush headlong for the tangled mass of blackened metal, bursting it apart and allowing the colour to flood back in.

Flower is a simple game with a simple premise, it is also a game that so many others can learn from. It doesn’t need explicit objectives, or a map screen, or a voice in your ear urging you in a specific direction. It ensures you do what is required by making what is necessary exactly what you want to be doing.

Of course you’ll play Flower why wouldn’t you? It’s exactly what you want to do, even if maybe you don’t know it yet.

Different Vocabularies.

Games can be thought of as a language of communication by which the player communicates their intent through the use of nouns (Objects) and adverb-verb pairs (Actions) and the game responds by changing the adjectives (Properties) describing the nouns.

The grammar of the game defines the type of sentences that have meaning within the current context; which nouns are valid with which adverb-pairs. This grammar is flexible to the extent that the rules governing interactions are able to change over the course of a game. However as I’ve discussed previously too much deviation from the core grammar can lead to multi-modal gameplay requiring players to learn an entirely new set of interactions for specific sections of the game.

Even if the rules of grammar remain generally inflexible within each game this doesn’t mean that all games have the same basic grammatical structure. Some games are rich with objects which can be interact with, or feature a deeper vocabulary with a greater range of valid interactions. Others might have a limited range of nouns and adverb-verb pairs but what they lack in depth their make up for in clarity, an action that is valid between two objects will always be valid, the outcomes predictable.

Consider Deus Ex, this is a game with both a rich and deep vocabulary. There are dozens of objects within the world that can be interacted with, interactions that are rarely limited to single use actions. An example of this is the “Fire Extinguisher”, in addition to the obvious use of putting out objects that are “On Fire” it can also be used on “Characters” within the world to “Stun” them. If “Shot” the “Fire Extinguishers” can even “Stun” the player themselves. Games with a rich and deep vocabulary present players with a variety of methods for overcoming challenges as there is often redundancy and overlap in which objects can perform which actions, or provoke which property changes in other objects. With such a deep vocabulary players can explore and exploit this to achieve their goals using different tactics.

Prince Of Persia on the other hand is a noun poor game with a limited vocabulary. Each object has a specific and unique verb attached to it, “Pillars” exist only to be “Climbed”, “Light Seeds” solely to be “Collected”. Though this specification of purpose means there is little room for the player to explore the possibility space of the game, it does eliminate redundancy and ambiguity.  When objects only have single uses players can be sure that, provided they understand the interactions available, they will be met with few unexpected situations. They can be confidant in the validity of any plans they make, the challenge coming from their ability to execute them.

Languages can also be direct or indirect. Direct languages are ones where the actions directly affect objects and change their properties. Indirect languages are ones where the actions affect the world itself, or lead to the creation of new objects, which in turn affect changes in the properties of other objects. The world itself can be thought of as a specific object in indirect languages.

In the previous example of the “Fire Extinguisher” it would be more accurate to say that the “Fire Extinguisher Creates a Gas Cloud” and that the “Gas Cloud Stuns the Character”. Games that are object rich tend to be indirect and feature a heavy degree of simulation as otherwise each individual action would need to be hard-coded into the system.

Games based on a direct language can feel more focused, all the interactions between objects are directed and specifically implemented. This provides the designer much tighter control over what the player is able to do, where and when. When all interactions are specifically designed it means that any events that occur within the game are ones initiated directly by the player or by the game in response to the player; usually through the actions of opposing characters. This is in contrast to an indirect language where interactions can occur outside the player’s control. A “Fire” object can ignite another object which can in turn ignite others leading to a chain reaction of actions and reactions.

Games with deep, indirect and noun rich vocabularies offer a wide range of options to the player, a number of ways in which they can communicate their intent. This leads to lots of possibilities self expression and emergent gameplay at the expense of robustness and authorial control

Shallow, direct and noun poor vocabularies lead to more tightly authored games, where all possible player actions are accounted for. Such games are often highly crafted experiences, even though there are a limited number of options available each one has been given specific attention. This leads to a more focused game with less freedom but also less unpredictable or unexpected behaviour.