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Flower is not art

So there’s this game called Flower. Some sort of downloadable thing for the Playstation 3. I had previously heard many glowing things said about it, for example, on IGN:

If you’re interested in something very unique and very powerful, Flower is a must-play. It will especially resonate with people that possess a deep connection with nature and spirituality, as it’s the type of game that reaches out to us and whispers about the beauty of life — without saying anything at all.

Wow! And how about this guy, on The Sixth Axis:

…never before has a game moved me so strongly, never before has a game made my day better, never before has a game affected my view on life…

Or in the words of Sony themselves:

We like to think of it as a video game version of a poem…

(The Sony people even ran a contest to see who could describe the game in the single most elegant 10-word sentence).

I finally got around to playing this much-beloved… poem the other day, and my overwhelming reaction was: huh? This is it?

Flower is a remarkably simple, uninspired, rigidly task-oriented game where you try to steer some floating flower petals over some earthbound flower buds in order to make them bloom. The action takes place in a big vast field, and the difficulty stems from the hassle of finding all the flower buds scattered across this sprawling grassy void.

The graphics are beautiful, undoubtably, and the music is soothing, and I suppose compared to blasting the faces off skinless rottweilers, or whatever your mainstream Playstation title consists of these days, yes, Flower is a gentle and moving experience.

But it’s still very obviously a game in the most crude sense of the word. In fact, far from disguising the fact, I found the entire nature motif merely highlighted the shallow mundanity of the video game experience. There was no other pretense — I was very obviously controlling abstract objects to achieve a specific, point-oriented goal. There was no story, no characters, no anything to evoke any sense of empathy or allegiance, just the beauty of nature — artificial, computer-generated nature — which only carries any impact because of its contrast to the bloody, gray mess or cartoonish nonsense we’d otherwise be wasting our screen time with.

I know there has been some debate as of late, prompted by Roger Ebert and others, as to whether or not a video game can ever be accurately described as “art,” in the way practically all other popular media can. Until now, I was somewhat indifferent, but having played Flower, which I understand is Exhibit A to the pro-games-as-art people, I can say with some confidence that no, video games cannot be art.

Video games are a wonderfully innovative and enjoyable creation of modern technology. There is definitely an art to both their creation and play, and a multitude of sensory and emotional delights to be experienced by their consumers and spectators. But the raison d’être of a game, of any game, from football to God of War, is inherently inartistic and utilitarian. It’s a thing you play, (and eventually learn how to play properly) and thus lacks the detachment and distance from its audience that good art requires.

A video game that strives to be artistic will inevitably sacrifice the very elements that should be giving it strength as a game in the fist place — namely firm user control and confidence, and obvious objectives and purpose. Flower was not the sort of game I personally enjoy, which is to say, slow-paced, abstract puzzlers, but it’s good enough for what it is, in that specific regard. And it can ultimately be no more than that. The strange need of the “gamer” community to inflate Flower into a cultural artifact of higher worth seems to reflect little more than that subculture’s persistent desire to be shed its lingering adolescent image and be integrated into respectable adult society.




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