It may be my most daunting video-game challenge yet: getting in touch with my feelings.
That's the request made by Flower, released yesterday as a $10 download over Sony's PlayStation 3 Network. It was developed at That Game Company, a studio co-founded by Jenova Chen, the former University of Southern California student who turned his master's thesis into a hit game called Flow. Chen has publicly stated that his goal for Flower is to elicit an emotional response in players - it's a Valentine's Day card with three-dimensional graphics.
It is fair to say video games have thus far lagged in emotional punch. Competition and strife have been the dominant themes in interactive works aimed at adults, and there is no shortage of logic puzzles backed up by computer codes and technology. But as the gaming audience grows - and grows older - there is room for more subtle experiences, for games that tug at heartstrings in addition to thumb tendons.
Flower attempts to fill that void by putting players in charge of an unusual protagonist: a flower petal. The game begins in what appears to be a glum urban apartment, the focus - a flower pot on the windowsill. After you press and hold any button on the PS3 controller, the scene jumps to a beautiful natural landscape with long grasses blowing in the wind and mountains shimmering in the distance. It's almost as if you have entered that trapped flower's dream world - I'd say some feelings are being touched at this point - and your vehicle is one floating petal.
This is where Flower turns into a flying game. You control the petal by moving the PS3's motion-sensitive Sixaxis controller, with inputs that mimic an airplane's flight stick: Pull back to climb, push forward to dive, and soon you are moving your wrist like a kid sticking his hand out the car window to test the wind. You adjust the throttle by holding any button on the controller - and this petal can move.
There are no words or directions to guide players through the six levels that follow so consider this a spoiler warning: Some details are necessary here. To advance through the game, you have to find other flowers. They bloom and release one petal when touched, and each petal is added to your organic flying machine. After a few minutes of exploration, that one petal grows into a horizontal tornado of flowing colour - mostly pinks, whites and soft blues. It looks like that smoke monster in Lost dressed for a wedding, or an out-of-control version of Snake, the computer classic with the ever-growing reptile that had to avoid its own tail.
To add to the good feelings on display, Flower adds flashes of orchestral music and choral flourishes when a new flower blooms; you can choose to play it like a music game if that's your thing.
When enough flowers have been triggered, the landscape starts to change as dead zones turn green and vibrant and new areas open up. Eventually a narrative emerges from the free-form play, one with an environmental message: An early challenge has you connecting a wind farm to the energy grid using your flower power, and after the end point is found in each level, Flower returns to the apartment and the view from its window, which looks brighter and healthier as the game goes on.
Other recent games have used the revitalization of ruined landscapes as a continuing theme, most notably Okami, with its Japanese paintings come to life. But Flower is much more accessible - just about anyone can make that petal dance within a few seconds. And by the time the end came, I was able to qualify its emotional effect: This unique video game has the feel of a good Barack Obama campaign speech. It is uplifting and inspirational, and it points, without going into too many specifics, to a greener, healthier future.
Flower not only packs an emotional punch, it's also part of trend toward more co-operative and inclusive gaming. Another positive step in that direction - last weekend's Game Design Expo, hosted by the Vancouver Film School.
The two-day event ended with a Women in Games panel discussion and the announcement of a $30,000 scholarship aimed at female game designers. The scholarship covers the full cost of the school's one-year game-design program for an aspiring creator (application details can be found at vfs.com).
It is estimated that women make up less than 15 per cent of the work force that creates games, an imbalance that definitely shows up in the products. For example, of the 22 people nominated in the game category for this week's Writers Guild of America Awards, just one was a woman. And Adrianne Ambrose's Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, an upstart PC game, was beaten out by, of all things, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed for the hardware.
bobblehead puck action
For more traditional gaming escapism, it's hard to beat another $10 downloadable title launched this week: 3 on 3 NHL Arcade, developed by Electronic Arts Canada, is now available over Xbox Live for the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation Network for PS3.
Featuring a selection of National Hockey League stars rendered in bobblehead form, it marries the controls of EA's NHL 09, one of last year's best sports games, with the atmosphere of a Super Mario Bros. adventure: Big body checks result in power-ups that turn your little players into giants and give them other superpowers.
This is one fast, robust game with some very humorous touches, and it really comes alive when played with friends online or off: It's digital table-top hockey at its best.
Deadly Creatures (Teen; Wii)
Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and Damned (Mature; Xbox 360)
Street Fighter IV (Teen; Xbox 360, PS3)
Disney Sing It! High School
Musical 3: Senior Year (Everyone; Wii, PS3, PS2)
LocoRoco 2 (Everyone; PlayStation Portable)
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II (Mature; PC)