Flow, flOw, Flow-er and other Thatgamecompany themes…

That title was what I came up with as a way to try to describe the latest episode of The School of Athens. We gathered to discuss “thatgamecompany’s oeuvre” and, as you might imagine, got entangled into how to say “Thatgamecompany’s games” without stumbling through it, how to pronounce Csikszentmihalyi [cheek-SENT-me-high] and, of course, what exactly Flow is in the first place. It’s the last item I want to talk about first for a moment.

For games that are based on this concept, I think both flOw and Flower do not quite make the best examples many people set them out to be for achieving this mental state. Meditative might be better term for them. They allow you to relax and play a game without much difficulty, to submerge yourself into a pleasing aesthetic experience. The problem with that approach, as I hinted at early in the episode (and then wrote about the other day), is that, at least according to the definition, the player must have some equal measure of challenge and control at the same time. We might sink into what we are doing, but such a response might be more us reacting out of concentration than the games themselves invoking it in us. Of course, I could be wrong about that.

There are, in some respect, variations on understanding Flow. Kineticism was suggested in the episode, in fact, to be part of another way to look at this idea. Continuous motion, such as might be found in games like Prince of PersiaMirror’s Edge and other games, is linked into this consideration. As long as we are both connected to what we are doing, challenges are present, as well as relaxed enough to respond to  the game when needed, we might be getting into a Flow state of mind. I think that is probably part of it. However, I also wonder if smooth on-screen kineticism might be more an outcome than any form of necessary input. We might be seeing the result of moments of Flow after they happen.

Any conversation about Flow, and Thatgamecompnay, must, of course, eventually flow (see what I did there?) into flOw itself, which we did. One of the more intriguing observations made by David Carlton upon returning to the game was that it is about cannibalism to some degree: you must other creatures of your type to progress. He later, upon reflecting on the episode for his own blog, wrote:

“…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

…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.”

There is probably a great deal more to be said about how often we look past the fact that the characters we control “cannibalise”, in various ways, the bodies, other characters and even worlds we play within at different moments. The fact that flOw has it as an integral part, yet is ignored by most people playing the game, probably says something about how ubiquitous such an action has become for us as players. Yes, of course, we will kill and consume other characters and creatures — through removing currency, items or even parts from them — in order to continue in the game. It’s normal behavior, while also probably feeds the narcissism that many games are based on too: only the player-controlled character is important. All other entities serve — often literally — to help the player.

Towards the end of the episode, we drifted into talking about what themes might be present across the works, the most obvious being naturalism with a touch of transcendentalism. All three major games — flOwFlower and Journey — see the player controlling an individual creature or force that seeks to use nature, to be part of organic cycles, in order to progress. Flower with its petals and flOw with the creature are more obvious in their approaches, but Journey sees this too, in a way, with its ending. All promote nature above all to some degree and serve to counterbalance the representation of industrialization as uncaring and corrupting such inherent purity (i.e. Edenic ideals). Escaping from, or through, nature is the only way to do this, to achieve the next level of that cycle.

Repeating patterns of behavior and life, notably of getting through a game only to return back home changed in some special way, is also central to all three games. Mechanically, in flOw, this is the evolution and eventual resetting of the game after going through the credit sequence. We also talked about it being, in both Flower and Journey, more pronounced with ascension motifs, going towards the sky and of being in flight. Even though the cycle starts again, it seems as if the player is starting from a  higher level, of having learned something during the journey (yes, I went there).

Next Thursday night (31 May 2012), we will probably talk about Demon’s Souls, themes/ideas present in that game and what it might mean for the possibility space of that game now that the multiplayer servers are being shutdown. For the first week in June, Roger proposes the sentence that “Where flow was, there should ruleset be”, a combination of previous discussions on rulesets, gamespace(s) and this latest episode’s thoughts on Flow.