Atmosphere is enough: Why Flower succeeds where Limbo fails

Last year I spent a bit of energy lambasting Limbo for not living up to the hype and being rather empty. The response was that Limbo was not a game that relied on traditional narrative, instead relying on mood and atmosphere to convey its themes and meaning. Limbo didn’t have a plot, only a framework in which to work out the story. I disagreed. I don’t take lacking a traditional narrative as an excuse for a work being empty. However, as the debate wore on, while no one asked I did say I was going to write about a game that accomplishes the thing all the Limbo defenders says Limbo does. I was going to present a game that does not have a plot or traditional narrative, but instead relies on mood, ambiance and atmosphere to generate and convey meaning. (I also said I was going to write on a game that speaks to the topic of existentialism where Limbo fails to, but one step at a time. It’s the same game in any case.)

That Game Company’s Flower is a game without plot or narrative in the traditional sense, but the game does convey meaning. It has a central point. It has a core to which all its aspects derive from. Because it does not have a traditional narrative based on a plot and the meaning isn’t garnered through standard means – dialogue, characterization, plot points, etc like Another World – instead we are offered it through mood, atmosphere and imagery, like Limbo was suppose to. Though where Limbo’s atmosphere was an oppressive nightmare, Flower’s is a pleasant dream. It’s a hopeful escape from bleak reality.

Each of Flower’s levels is a short vignette all on its own. They are playgrounds where the goals are the thematic text of the dream. Each dream begins with a short shot of some aspect of the city that we are then meant to compare or contrast with the dream. In the dream composer Vincent Diamante’s music has no bombast, instead focusing on peaceful reaffirmations of what we are seeing and doing, the very essence of tranquility. The motion of the petals at full speed can be an exhilarating experience, but you can also slow down and see them just floating in the air captured in a moment of slowmo. It’s surreal to see things hover in the air like that. It enhances the dreamlike nature of what we are playing.

Flower is described as zen like because of its peaceful nature, but also because of its participatory nature. It creates peace in you, a certain state of mind, when you participate. It’s not placating the player. It’s not pacifying or dulling one’s senses through repeated action. The game keeps the player focused with what one is doing by ironically loosening up on the goals. Yes, they are there, but they are neither urgent nor ever really necessary. You can do the challenges and head for the goal, but the primary concern of the game is player enjoyment through merely existing in the space. Yes to unlock the next flower dream you have to get to the end of each one and there are also secret flowers to collect, but nothing about the game would insist that flying about or even just laying back and watching the petals float is an incorrect way to play. In fact the game can be seen to subtle encourage such play. Through the exploration of the boundaries and rules of each dream does the meaning emerge.

Despite the lack of plot and structural connection between the vignettes, there is thematic bricklaying from one dream to the next. Each dream does not affect or interact with the others just as the flowers do not interact with each other. In fact each dream can and does work as a stand-alone mood piece. The flowers are off having their own dreams, but the game creates a thematic narrative in similar style as Koyanisqatsi does through juxtaposition of scenes by blurring the lines of the elements. If you’ll allow me an extended metaphor.

Think of the standard narrative arc. Introduction giving way to the rising action going on until the emotional low point of the story before it rebound to go higher straight to the climax until the lines curves downward into the falling action and eventually settles into the denouement.

Now imagine swashes of colors painting is broad but quick streaks onto a canvas. This is done in the seven colors of the rainbow: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. A single swash of color represents a single dream from the game. These color swashes are then spread one after another so that their edges mingle and meld so that the eye sees red turning into orange, which will lighten into yellow before doing whatever it does when it becomes green and so forth to the end of the color spectrum. These color swashes are not painted in a straight line, but instead along the story arc above. Each is painted horizontally on its own plateau like stepping stones for the next color swash to meld into the next at a single edge. Red the introduction followed by orange, yellow and green as the rising action before blue, the emotional low point, and indigo races to the climax. Violet is the falling action and denouement. This is a visual approximation of the thematic merging that occurs from dream to dream.

It’s impressionistic in that sense. The metaphoric swashes of thematic color seemingly blend into one another to give the illusion of a narrative arc, but under close inspection such an arc doesn’t actually exist. Each dream is an isolated instance and each has its own thematic juxtaposition between the real city world and the flower’s dream, but it also has qualities that pull a secondary duty that build to the final flower’s dream before settling in a final level played in a painting where you send the credits flaying high into starry night sky.

Each flower looks out and sees the city and as an escape dreams of a world that counters their vista. The first flower sees the noise and bustle of the city as represented by the rush hour traffic flowing down the cramped corridors of the streets and slips into a dream of wide open calm fields of grass. The peaceable music punctuates the feeling the flower wishes for as a counter for its dreary existence. Likewise with the second flower which sees the washed out grays of the city and dreams of an equally washed out fields and canyon but gives the flower agency to return color the grass, the rocks and everything else. The dream eventually crescendos with the flying petal becoming a magical paintbrush drawing on the primary colors and using the grass as a canvas. Next, the third flower’s introductory shot has a sense of longing under the open sky and then sees the wind take a handful of leaves off a tree to blow away. Its dream fulfills its wish by first restoring the wind and then dancing upon it.

The fourth flower looks up at a streetlight before the bulb goes out in the late evening. Its dream combines the rustic world and the electricity of man. It gives the power of light to the flower and it illuminates the grass of the fields to keep the night aglow. This flower sees the farm as the best place for nature and man. Beyond that it sees only darkness. The fifth flower witnesses only a puddle in the asphalt as the rain pours. It is a limp flower, it’s built hanging down instead of looking up like all the others. Its dream ranges from the melancholic to nightmare as the rain pours, the thunder claps and the distorted, violent creations of man encroach into the world. They spark and sizzle should they petal touch them, destroying the trail of collected petals behind it. It is the only violent act of the game.

The final flower eschews the trend and drops us straight into the dream, picking up almost where 5 left off. It’s fitting that the smallest and youngest of the flower should embody a message of co-existence and harmony. The single flower begins surrounded by the menacing structures that plagued flower 5’s dream and purifies them. It dreams of flying around the city and not only purifying the cable towers and bringing life back to nature, but also returning the city structures to their former glory as well. Together nature and man can thrive in its optimism.

There is a nature vs. man-made theme going on in Flower, with an ending suggesting a compromise that both can live together in harmony. At the time of its release many people noted it as a game with an environmental message. I don’t think that’s correct. It is not about the physical realm, but of the spiritual one. It calls for a compromise between the two worlds and is about fulfilling a need to our psyche, to our soul as it were. Among all of life’s challenges and experiences in the modern urban blight there is still a need to connect to nature. The world we have created of concrete and steel is all well and good, but the game suggests there is an inherent need or a desire to feel the rustic in our world. It calls upon this as a personal need rather than a societal one. Each flower looks at different aspects of the city, feels a different need and dreams a different dream to fulfill a wish. It can live in the room on the windowsill physically, but after the flower’s dream, where it experiences whatever spiritual need it was craving, it blossoms.

So while the thematic arc over the whole work comes to the conclusion of integration of the natural and man made to one’s psyche, it comes back to the individual dreams. Each dream shows an aspect of the problem and the counter or the confrontation and coming out the other side. The game flows. The game has meaning. Even if you don’t ascribe to my interpretation it is a possibility. Flower without need of plot or narrative or even what one would normally call a story is able to thematically convey meaning by simply being.