With the release of Journey, we decided to have a VGHVI conversation about all of thatgamecompany‘s games. I’d never played the PS3 version of flOw (though I did play the Flash version when it came out), so I figured I’d take this as an opportunity to remedy that gap.

And it certainly wasn’t what I expected. I had a vague memory of what the Flash version was like, but my most recent thatgamecompany memory was of Journey, and I’d played Flower as well a few years back. The later two games have a lot in common; I’d remembered flOw‘s graphics as being quite a bit more simple (in a rather lovely way), but I was expecting the feel of the game to be somewhat similar to its successors.

It really wasn’t, though. In fact my first reaction was that the game didn’t make me feel very good playing it, and in particular didn’t make me feel very good about myself. The former was because of the sense of fear that I had after getting a bit into the game: I ran into a couple of levels in a row that were full of creatures that I wasn’t ready to deal with, so I ended up skirting around the edges, hoping that I’d find the red “descend a level” creature before those big creatures attacked me. And the latter was caused by the aggressive playstyle that the game allows: you can choose to be a sort of vegetarian, only eating relatively sedentary creatures that don’t seem to be eating anything else (and in particular won’t attack back), but you can also try to eat the creatures that are trying to eat you. Which, on its own, wouldn’t be so bad, but there’s also a cannibalism subtext where you can try to eat the same kinds of creatures as yourself.

Which I dutifully did: a large part of the game seems to be about exploring systems, and how to eat what (and what the effects of that consumption are) is the big system to explore. And the game’s major philosophical theme seems to be the circle of life (c.f. the capitalized ‘O’ in the game’s name); in general, that circle is a bit larger (the game is divided up into large stages where you play different life forms, and frequently you’ll be threatened by a life form in one stage and get to play that life form in the next stage), but the mathematician in me appreciates the degenerate case of a very tight circle of life where you’re eating yourself, or at least somebody that looks just like you. So yes, I explored those themes by having one playthrough where I tried to eat everything else that was available; at first, it felt creepy, then I became numb, then my numbness felt creepy.

I really wonder what I would have felt about flOw if I’d played before Flower. Because I play many other games that are filled with killing, including killing people of the same species as yourself; I’m starting to question that a little bit more, but in general I’m content enough with that, and I don’t think that flOw is asking me to do anything worse than what other games ask me to do? My guess is that I wouldn’t have noticed anything odd about flOw if I’d played it when the PS3 version first came out: maybe the feeling of fear would still have been there (I dimly recall that being present in the Flash version), but I wouldn’t have found that as surprising, and I expect I wouldn’t have thought that the omnipresence of death in the game was anything worth remarking about. Compared to its successors, though, it’s much more of distinction. (And not the only one: I mentioned the art style above, and in general the game’s style is quite a bit more abstract; it’s also quite a bit gamier than either Flower or Journey, with systems much more on the surface.)

I’m glad to have played flOw: the art style is lovely, the systems have enough to them to be worth a couple of hours of my time, and I’m finding my disquiet at the game to be interesting in its own right. But I’m glad thatgamecompany went in a different direction with their later releases, and I’m finding more to think about in their later games than in their first offering.

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