How A Game About Flowers Almost Made Me Soil Myself

2009 February 13
by Vanir

I’d been waiting for some time for Flower to be released, and yesterday I finally got to download it. I will admit that my masculine side looked funny at me when it found out and possibly wrote nasty friends-only posts about me on its livejournal for doing so, but the rest of me was looking at the screenshots and going holy crap this game is gorgeous. It is, too. Every blade of grass is rendered individually, and since this game is about you being the wind, they all move accordingly when you blow on them.

For the first couple levels, I was happy as a clam — a clam set free riding a warm breeze in the spring! I’d seen this sort of gameplay before. It wasn’t rocket science. You activate things by running over them, they activate, and something happens (usually involving some sort of land-rejuvenation like dead grass turning green). It’s not a real complex puzzle game at all. But you don’t play Flower because you want challenging gameplay. You play Flower because you want to go WHEEEEEE I CAN FLY WHEEE GRASS ON A SUNNY DAY WHEEEEEEEE. I’m recall thinking that the first couple levels of this game are the cure for Seasonal Affective Disorder, and that I would play this game every time I get stressed out. It was like being four years old again, and running through a field full of rolling hills and dandelions. It felt great.

After that, things changed.

The nighttime level started off much as the daytime ones, except the grass that the wind touched glowed, and would power these little lightposts everywhere. It was quiet, and pretty, and tranquil. Kind of like a dream, which was not a big surprise since I’d heard the developer referred to each level as a “dream”. What the bastards forgot to tell us is that they also included nightmares.

After clearing part of the level and lighting something up, all of a sudden the soothing music darkens noticeably and the camera pans over to a dark place on the horizon. Something cracks and pops, and small dark red lights hang menacingly from powerlines I can’t see. Oh, and darkness started creeping over the ground, seemingly led by some malevolent force. And that’s where I have to go next. No problem, I think, I’d find some flowers and light that shit right up. But as I go deeper into the darkness, there’s no flowers. Matter of fact, I can barely see where I’m going aside from those red lights. And it’s getting narrower. And those lights look like they’re watching me. And I’m going so fast, I can’t stop, everything’s in the way. Is it reaching for me? I’m going to trip and something’s going to get me! My pulse quickens and my breath is gone. I almost want to cry a little.

Then, as quickly as it started, it’s over. I’d cleared the level somehow. The previous levels had some goal, like revitalizing a tree or activating a bunch of windmills, and you got a nice little set of cutscenes at the end where you could just watch and relax. This dumped me out to the stage selection menu, sitting on the couch trying to catch my breath, wondering what the hell had just happened.

Then it hit me. This was completely intentional, and brilliant. The reason I was so scared is they managed to activate my inner 4 year old, and keep me in that mindset for awhile, and then throw in exactly what scares the crap out of him. And when I’d have a nightmare as a kid, it almost always was me doing something fun, and then something changes subtly, and then I’m running for my life from something, and I don’t know what it is but it’s scary, and things are going way too fast for me to process and I’d want to cry and then suddenly I’m awake and everything is OK again but I don’t know how I got here or if any of this is real and I’m still scared out of my mind. (I briefly considered phoning my parents to see if they’d let me sleep in their bed that night, but I think Efreak might have objected.)

Imagine if you could harness that kind of fear in your campaign. While I struggle to think of ways to do it as effectively in D&D as it’s done in Flower, the idea of something dark, malevolent, and most importantly nameless seems like a very good place to start. If you plop an enemy down and the players sort of know its stats and you announce all its abilities (with stats) as they happen, it breaks the spell. Now, granted, you can’t really get around that in D&D — when they take damage, you have to tell the players what happened to them in a way that they can record on their character sheet. But that doesn’t mean you have to say “the wight uses its Drain Level ability on the farmer”. You could, instead, talk about the NPC farmer suddenly being grabbed by a clawed hand from the shadows, his face suddenly growing gaunter and paler. Make sure to mention his attempts to cry for aid instead producing a dry rattle. You don’t have to tell the PC’s everything all the time!

…….OK, I admit it. I wrote that last part about D&D because I wanted to distract everyone from the fact that a game about flowers scared the hell out of me. It’s not the first time flowers have scared me so. There was also that time when I was 3 that my older brother told me there was a new kind of killer bee that looked just like floating dandelion seeds……

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