The fifth level of Flower is the most problematic by far. At the end of the fourth level, you get a pretty strong indication that matters have taken a turn for the worse, with some sort of black energy running along power cables that have glowing red lights; even so, I was completely unprepared for the shock that you get when you touch one of the dark towers in the fifth level.

What to make of those towers? My first reaction was to read their combination of dark body, glowing red eye substitutes, and the attack when you come near as a sign of malevolence; given their nature as power transmission structures and the largely pastoral nature of prior levels, I read them as probably some sort of “nature good, technology bad” commentary. Which disappointed me, because I’d really liked the game so far, and I didn’t want my enjoyment to be spoiled by that sort of simplistic commentary.

The next aspect of the level to puzzle me: when you neutralize a tower, it goes white. At first, I read this as your having killed the malevolent entity that the tower had become, with the white color representing its bones. That didn’t feel quite right either, though. Every since I started to read The Nature of Order, I’ve been asking whether or not structures feel alive; those white neutralized towers didn’t feel alive, they felt sterile. And while skeletons of dead animals aren’t alive in a traditional sense, I do think that they qualify as living structures in Alexander’s sense: they’ve formed through living processes, you can feel those processes still within them, they still speak to your soul. Not so with those towers.

So: the dark towers with glowing red eyes weren’t good, but the sterile white towers that are left after you’ve neutralized them aren’t good, either. And, indeed, a naive color symbolism doesn’t fit well with the rest of the game: you’ve seen lots of red before in the form of flowers, and have had a quite positive association with it. And as to light and dark, the immediately preceding level was a sort of evening / early night level, with pools of light and glowing spots contrasting with a general surrounding darkness (or at least dimness); far from feeling threatening, that level was refreshing, welcoming, nourishing of one’s soul. (With, I think, a dose of a wabi sabi aesthetic.)

So I don’t support a reading that either black or white is bad in the context of the game. Though I am willing to support a reading that extremes are bad, that purity is bad: the darks and lights aren’t as extreme in the fourth level as they are in the fifth level. (Or are they? Some of those glowing specks in the fourth level are pretty bright.)

Which got me thinking more sympathetically about the dark towers: they’re not rich living structures, and they’re not even built on rich living structures. In that light, I felt more sorry for them than anything else, which in turn caused me to re-evaluate my labeling of the black energy as malevolent. I’m now instead preferring an interpretation of the dark energy as reflecting something profoundly sick and lashing out in its pain; the sickness is so pervasive that, when you put it out of its misery, there’s nothing left there any more. Which is emphasized in the sixth level: there, the husks of the towers have rusted and fallen, and so little structure remains that, when you touch them, they crumble and vanish.

(After writing the first draft of this post, I replayed the game, and noticed that the windmills go quite white in the third level; I actually felt that the mottled versions of the windmills had more life than the white versions, but I liked the white windmills more than the white tower skeletons. Not sure what to make of that; for now, I’ll take it as evidence of the power of the sickness that animated the towers.)

Actually, right now I’m having a harder time wrapping my brain around the sixth level than the fifth level: maybe it’s the really problematic one? (And maybe as I replay the game I’ll find each of the levels problematic in turn, as I realize how little I understand them?) In it, you regrow a city, sprouting up buildings that, at first, look sterile in the same way that the white husks of towers looked sterile, but then start getting life in the form of color.

Recall the envelope story of the game: you’re in an apartment with dreaming flowers. As you select each flower, you see a bit of the city, and are then transported to an idyllic rural setting. (Until you get to the later levels, of course.) At first, you can read this as “city bad, nature good”; normally, that would make me roll my eyes a bit, but the nature settings are so beautiful, so calming, so nourishing that I was more than willing to give the game a pass on that front.

By the time you get to the sixth level, though, that interpretation is starting to crumble. In the third level, the game says that some forms of industrialization are okay: given that we’re playing as the wind, who can complain about windmills? In the fourth level, we see more human artifacts, presented in the way that they enhance the beauty and soul-nourishing qualities of the scenes. (In fact, the fourth level is currently the one that I look back on most fondly, largely because of those human artifacts.) In the fifth level, we acknowledge that these human artifacts can go horribly wrong. But I think the sixth level gives a pretty clear statement that the lesson from the fifth level isn’t “human artifacts = bad”, it’s that human artifacts can be very powerful, and we need to take care with them. (I particularly liked that one of the ways in which you can regrow the city in the sixth level is by blowing on playground equipment: swings and the like. We don’t see any humans in the game, but those are a reminder of the importance of children, of growth in a human context as well as a nature context.)

Even with all of that, though, in my core the buildings in the sixth level didn’t nourish me in the same ways that, say, the rocks and trees in the first two levels did. So: are we back to “humans bad (or at least imperfect), nature good” again? The first time I finished the game, I didn’t know what to think about that theme. The second time I played the game, I was reminded that the sixth level isn’t the only place where the city makes an appearance: it makes an appearance in the apartment, in the transitions to the levels proper.

And while, on my first play, I’d seen those transitions as a negative comment on cities, I didn’t see them that way on my second play. The cities in those transitions, as brief as they are, have a good deal more life, a good deal more soul than the city in the sixth level of the game.

So now I’m reading it as all being the same city, or perhaps different cycles of the same (autumnal?) city. We see it in its birth in the sixth level of the game, where it’s bright, cheerful, but not so sophisticated. We see it its maturity, its middle age during the envelope story. And we see its death, its return to the soil in the fourth and fifth levels of the game.

Of course, the flowers in the apartment don’t like the city: they dream of being elsewhere. And who can blame them: they’re flowers! I’m glad the game, through the dream of the flowers, is reminding me of the virtues, the joys, the beauties, the calmness of nature; but whether in my in-game role as the wind or in my actual existence as a human being, I don’t have to ultimately be won over by the flowers’ dreams. I should take the best out of those dreams, and even keep a residue of poignancy as a reminder of what I’m missing, but I’m not those specific flowers, I’m not a flower in general, I’m one specific human being.

And one whose life is richer from having played this game.

Looking around, it’s amazing how much people have written about this game. I would feel that I should be doing a Critical Compilation for Critical Distance, except that I don’t think we have enough distance on the game yet. (EDIT: Others thought that it wasn’t too early, so I did turn the links into a Critical Compilation.) Still, for those who wish to read more:

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