flOw: A game of zen

Here’s a truly gorgeous little Flash game: flOw. It’s a simple concept: You control a little amoeba-worm-like creature, and you use your mouse to move it around and eat smaller things floating around in the primordial soup. Each chomp makes your amoeba longer, and more “powerful”. There are also little blue and red thingies; eating a red one dives you down one layer deeper into the soup (if you think of “deeper” as “receding away from you, inwards towards your computer screen”), and blue ones make you rise back upwards. As you go deeper, you begin to face various freaky cephalopodic enemies that try to kill you, but they also drop power-ups that make you bigger and more powerful yet.

The interesting thing about flOw is that the designer, Jenova Chen, designed it based on Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. Csikszentmihalyi called “flow” the exhilirating sense of engagement we get when we’re wrapped up in a task that is perfectly matched to our skills. If it’s too easy, we get bored; too hard, we get frustrated. But hitting the precise mid-point puts us in “the zone” of flow.

Most video games, Chen argues, try to adjust their difficulty on the fly so they perfectly match the player’s aptitude. But games are also largely based on the emotional logic of the side-scroller — by which the game slowly ramps up in intensity as you go along, under the theory that it will tease you to slowly improve your skills. Games like this take their metaphoric cues from the relentless march of time; you can’t opt to scroll backwards if you’re getting freaked out. Chen designed flOw in a different way, as a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal notes:

Mr. Chen’s concept hinges on users unknowingly setting their own difficulty level. “Not with an option box that says easy, medium and hard,” he insists. “I want the player to control it subconsciously, based on what they’re doing.” In the face of a frustrating enemy, players are free to avoid the fight and search for more food, evolving into a more potent form. (Mr. Chen says the first squid-like enemy, encountered at level five, was made excessively difficult on purpose to see if players would instinctually flee from an unfair fight.)

On the other hand, if creature-on-creature combat is too easy, players may gravitate toward more fighting and less eating, and that self-imposed diet will make “flOw” tougher. Mr. Chen hopes players over time will self-select the correct difficulty — keeping the game engaging, but not frustrating — without ever really thinking about it.

An interesting idea! Not entirely revolutionary; one of the reasons people like World of Warcraft so much is that you can choose to plunge in and pick the most dangerous, hard-driving fights one after the other, or ease back and simply kill the same enemies over and over again to slowly gain experience.

What’s far, far more revolutionary about flOw is its artistic beauty. The graceful, looping movements of the ameoboid life-forms, coupled with the trippy, arrival-of-the-mothership ambient music, give the game a totally meditative feel. Trippy!

(By the way, Chen has previously created Cloud, an equally zen-like game where you fly through the air collecting clouds and drawing patterns with them. I wrote about it earlier this year for my column in Wired News.)

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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