Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Look at Games - Flower

Before moving to more serious matters considering flow and user interfaces, let's take a look at a one particular flow experience. In other words a game, and more precisely, Flower. The game has received high acclaim all around, so I too had to see for myself what it's all about.

In Flower, you control a single petal, and your objective is to collect more petals by guiding yourself into flowers, at the same time bringing life back to the world. Some flowers open the way forward, allowing you to move into new areas. The basic concept might not sound very impressive but playing the game is a highly immerse experience for many reasons. First of all, audiovisual presentation of the game is really artistic and well-thought. Go on, find a game play video from YouTube and come back here. Disagree in the comments if you feel like it. Either way, for me the key point is how lifelike everything feels when you, as a stream of petals, are flying through the landscape, parting tall grass as you go.

Much like Lumines, which I discussed in my previous look at games, Flower also combines background music and sound effects as a for of composition. Guiding yourself through a line of flowers successfully creates a pleasant musical piece which further enhances the thrill from visual effects. Flower rewards success instantly - and not with points, better weapons or anything like that - but rather with a powerful feeling of satisfaction. This is a good sign that flow is happening. Of course, it's not just the feedback that makes immersion in Flower so strong. So, what is the key?

The fact I've been withholding is the way Flower is controlled. It uses just one button in combination with the PlayStation 3 controller's motion detecting capabilities. To change direction, just tilt the controller. Of course it's not a new idea, the Wii has been around for quite a long time already, but in Flower it really really works. You see, it's actually not very easy to control a flying stream of petals using motion detection, especially when they are flying quite fast. There is challenge, and the beauty here is that much of the challenge comes from the controls; the game challenges the player in a very physical way. And of course, the levels in the game do get harder.

Harder in a sense at least. I'm not sure if you can actually fail in Flower. No matter how long it takes to get that winding flower path collected, whether you get it on a single pass or twenty passes, the game itself does neither reward or penalize you. The player can set his own goals, getting better and better all the time, and there is almost always a longer path of flowers to collect on a single pass. That is, if you want to do that. It's entirely possible to just enjoy Flower as an experience, and sense of achievement can always be found. When you do a sharp turn, you can see the tail of your petal stream, in all its colorful glory, and realize that it is your creation.

Flower does a good job of inspiring flow. The challenge always fits the player's skills, as long as you're willing to set your goals (which happens almost automatically anyway). The game provides instant feedback and sense of achievement. Finally, the game allows you to marvel at what you've just created. That said, it's not without flaws. I didn't like the second half nearly as much as the first half, as it becomes more challenge-oriented. But it's not a long game, so go ahead and just play it now, if you own a PlayStation 3.

But wait! What can interface designers learn from it? Everything. If I could make a user interface as elegant and beautiful as Flower, I think I could stop my research right there.

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