Is Flower the first game about global warming? My latest Wired gaming column

Spoiler warning: This blog posting contains a lot of spoilers about the video game Flower!

In recent years there’s been a heartening surge in “art” video games — games that use play mechanics to explore an idea or evoke a mood. The creators use gameplay as a rhetorical technique: They use physics, music, action, perspective, goals and challenges of the game as metaphors. A couple of months ago I wrote my Wired News column about Passage, a fantastic little video-game meditation on life and death. This week, I wrote about Flower, an insanely beautiful game released two weeks ago for the Playstation 3 by Jenova Chen. In the game, you control a gust of wind that blows a flower petal along, and you do …

… well, lots of things. You touch other flowers, opening them up and releasing their petals; if you do a lot of this you start to bring dead, dry land back to life. Sometimes you also cause huge rocks to shift and groan and open up like petals themselves. Other times dead trees explode with color and leaves, or winds start blowing that power wind turbines. The final “boss fight” — such as it is — consists of a crazy, massive “awakening” of an entire grey, dead, “fallen” city.

The visual metaphors and the gameplay are sufficiently open-ended enough — yet evocative enough — that critics have been arguing, interestingly, about what precisely the game is supposed to be saying. So I wrote my column arguing that it’s essentially a game about the environment, or climate change.

Of course, the game isn’t solely “about” climate change, in the sense that Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” isn’t solely “about” longing for death, horses, the winter solstice, obligation and freedom, or snow. Flower is amorphous enough that you could say it’s “about” any number of things, ranging from i) spiritual renewal to ii) the vague delights of conquering obstacles to iii) the Cartesian mind/body divide (all that hard steel! all those soft flower petals born aloft on a mere breath of air!) to iv) the sheer weird tactile fun of hurling petals into the wind. When you head into a thunderstorm and watch, close-up, as a handful of floating petals are illuminated from behind by a sudden flash of lightning, it’s clear that Chen is having enormous fun with the artistic traditions here ranging from chiaroscuro to, probably, Katinka Matson’s scanner-photography.

What particularly interested me was how straightforwardly Chen’s imagery in the game was rooted in super-ancient Western mythologies about a dry, broken land healed by a heroic quest. Now, plenty of video games use this as their substructure — hell, you could argue that Super Mario is sort of in that tradition — but Chen strips everything back to pure, raw metaphoric imagery. Yet because so many of those images are so peculiarly contemporary — power windmills, out-of-control electricity, brooding weather, corroded industrial towers — I couldn’t escape the idea that he was deploying all this rich tradition to rummage around in our modern unease about the environment.

Anyway, enough blathering about the column. (My intro is nearly as long as the column itself!) The piece is online free at here the Wired News web site, and a copy is archived below. Above is a bit of gameplay via Youtube!

Spoiler alert: There are many, many very big spoilers for the videogame Flower in this column. Don’t read it if you haven’t played it all the way through. Or unless you — y’know — want to have it spoiled for you! Your life; your call.

What the hell is Flower about?

People have been arguing about this gorgeous little tone poem since it was released two weeks ago. As many reviewers have noted, the game is very abstract. You control a flower petal, guiding it with a gust of wind through blighted, brown landscapes. As you touch different flowers, you gradually bring the landscape back to life — and trees and grass burst into color.

Later, though, the world that you bring “life” to becomes specifically industrial. For example, when you finish a level, it generates winds that power windmills, creating electricity. Then you’re plunged into a dark, murky landscape, where hissing power lines sear your fragile little petals, and corroded-metal electrical towers attack you like diving sharks. When you succeed, you clean up these dark, satanic mills.

At which point I decided, okay, okay, I get it.

Flower is about climate change.

What’s more, it may be the first — and only — truly good game about climate change.

When I say that Flower is the first game about climate change, I don’t mean that it’s the first game to refer to climate change. Plenty of post-apocalyptic games have been set in a near-future world ravaged by global warming — like last year’s Fracture, where two warring tribes scrap amongst the ruins of the depleted planet, or the upcoming game Fuel, where Mad Max-style drivers race across a United States complete with global-warming-created tornadoes and floodplains.

But in these games, climate change is merely part of the background. You’re not supposed to do anything about it; the damage has already been done. (Indeed, Fuel appears to regard the damage as totally awesome, because it has created such badass racing environments! Woo-hoo!)

What makes Flower different is that it is “about” changing or improving the situation — and making you feel wonderful over how you’ve renewed life that was destroyed by industrialization.

And what’s most remarkable is that Flower manages to do this without being cloying and preachy. Indeed, the game is amazingly subtle.

At first, it doesn’t seem that way. On the contrary, Flower pretty much clobbers you over the head with its metaphors. Flowers, flowering grass and wind blowing through renewable-energy windmills = good. Gray urban blight; angry, weird weather; nasty electricity; and corroded old power line towers = bad. Got it?

These allegorical algorithms are about as old as civilization itself. Our literature is full of them: In the Bible, spiritual salvation is regularly characterized as water flowing and trees blooming over dried-up land. T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece The Waste Land — with its vision of a corroded, parched world desperate for life — reads practically like a design document for Flower. (Particularly “What the Thunder Said”!) If you’ve ever read any fairy tales or belonged to any world religion, you’ve had these dark materials flash-burned into your soul — which is precisely why Flower packs such a kick.

Given how old and venerable these metaphors are, you could argue that the game isn’t about climate change at all. It could be merely about the age-old eternal struggle between man and nature, right? Don’t litter, kids! And sure, I agree: Flower is a work of art, and works of art have many meanings, including some the creators never intended.

But at the same time, it’s pretty hard to jingle these particular cultural tokens around in your mind — violent weather? wind turbines? power generation? — without finding yourself at least thinking about global warming. Climate change is the emotional operating system for modern environmental metaphors; you cannot really get around it. While I found Flower genuinely thrilling, at points the implicit politics felt somewhat like watching the tear drip down the Indian’s face in those “ZOMG what are we doing to the environment?” public-service announcements from the ’70s.

Yet here’s the ultimately cool thing: Flower does not, in the end, demonize human civilization. When you begin the game, you start with a bleak, gray-scale vision of a city, where cars stream through the dark streets. At the conclusion of the game, if you succeed in bringing the various blighted fields and areas to color and life, what’s your reward? To hang around and glory in those lovely fields of gold?

Nope. In the final scenes you return to the city where you began. Cars still zoom around town, and plenty of overpasses remain — but this time, trees and flowers are abloom amidst the concrete. In Flower, the “saved” world is one where humanity has figured out how to balance its industrial life with the natural world. We get to keep our automobiles and our greenery — our PlayStation 3s and our roses.

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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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