Of Flowers and Flamethrowers

Headshot. Killing spree. Execution. If you were to hear these words on the local news, it would make your stomach turn at how awful and disgusting of a place the world can be. But throw those same three words into the context of a video game, and the tone changes entirely. Now you hear epic music, your guys and gals are cheering you on, and there’s a lot of holding down the Right Trigger button or pressing X to get that last glorious decapitation that will end a boss fight. If the video game police were a thing, let’s be real, we’d all be in jail for life, because the body count we’ve wracked up over the years would be enough to populate whole planets.

To say that video games aren’t inherently violent is a lie. There’s no getting around it, it’s a bald-faced, one hundred percent, Pinocchio-nose-growing lie. It’s a fantasy that 10 and under kids tell their mom so they can get that one game their older sibling plays. It’s as untrue as when Christopher Lambert told people in the old Mortal Kombat movie that “Mortal Kombat is not about death, it’s about life.”

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LOL, okay Raiden.

Now, contrary to how I’m starting this post, I’m not turning this into a “Video Games Cause Violence!” tirade. That statement has been proven wrong time and time again, and only has ANY credence to it when someone already has mental issues and needs serious help. I have shot, slashed, poisoned, crushed, and fatality-ed with the best of them, and I am a perfectly civil, well-balanced human being (in proofreading this for me, my wife got to this part and muttered “sometimes”. Thanks babe).

That statement, however, leads into the topic of my post. Over the years I have played, and still play, SO many violent games. I have killed SO many more bad guys than I could ever hope to count. I, like most gamers, am so desensitized to combat in games that my years of playing have conditioned me to the fact that if I am in a virtual world, and someone/something is moving toward me, I automatically assume it is my solemn duty to go total Rambo on it.

In the past year however, I discovered something about games that I had long, long forgotten. I had just finished Ninja Gaiden 3 (Razor’s Edge, not the terrible vanilla release fans don’t speak of), and was looking through my “to-do list library” for my next game. In case you don’t know the Ninja Gaiden series, let me sum it up for you: you’re a ninja, and you kill stuff a lot.

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The only game I’ve ever played where you can still finish someone off after you decapitate them.

It’s a superb, adrenaline-fueled, controller-smashing carnage fest that never let’s up until the credits roll. The bonkers ultraviolence is so in your face that even by the time I, a seasoned gaming grim reaper, was done… even I knew I needed a break.

As I was looking for something to get the sound of sword clashes and recently dismembered ninjas screaming for vengeance out of my head (oh yes, they come after you Monty Python’s Black Knight style), my eyes landed on something I had bought as a present for my wife: Super Mario Galaxy. Now, to give you some context, I played a lot of Nintendo as a kid and young teen. My parents were understandably leery of violence in games when I was young because the art and its ramifications were still fairly new, so I got used to playing games for a long time that were more “kid-friendly”. Sonic, Mario, Link, Samus, etc., are all old buddies of mine, but as I got older and was allowed to play more, they slowly got pushed further and further back, because now I could try all those shiny M rated titles that I’d heard legends of over the years. Fast-forward a bit and my Nintendo console is collecting dust except when me and my best friends need to settle an argument.

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And we all know there’s only one true way to settle an argument.

But some ancient, little voice of childhood nostalgia won me over that day. I found some new AA batteries to put in my Wii Mote, booted up the console, went through all the expected software updates, and started playing Galaxy.

You guys, it was so much fun.

It was SO much fun. And not just because Galaxy is a fantastic game (it is), or because it was the polar opposite of Ninja Gaiden (it really is), but because it reminded me of something that I had not felt in a video game in a long… long time: pure, unfiltered, unending wonder.

You remember that first time you crested the hill and saw Rapture in Bioshock? Or the very first time you synchronized a viewpoint then performed a Leap of Faith in Assassin’s Creed? Your first parkour run in Mirror’s Edge? That feeling of absolute innocence with the giraffes in the Last of Us? That’s what I was feeling playing Mario, only the whole time. Pure wonder and excitement. What would the next level entail? Would I be soaring through the stars, or swimming through the oceans, or riding an oversized toy train? Here I was, playing a game designed for kids, and physically smiling more than any other game has made me for a long, long time.

Now, this might seem like the end of this blog post, but it’s not. Because what I really want to talk about is a double-edged sword. We just got done with edge one: no matter how much you love being a badass and mowing down swarms of enemies, that does not mean you should forego the games that you used to play as a kid. To be honest, they are probably better designed, and more fun, than 90% of the stuff in your current play log.

The other edge, however, is a message to myself, as a designer, and to all the other game designers who read this: as tempting as it is, combat and violence do not have to be factors in all the games we make. In fact… it can make a game so much more meaningful when they’re excluded entirely. And if there is one glowing example of that statement, it’s this:
Flower

Within the past decade, I have beaten over 100 games. That’s not including mobile, multiplayer, or web-based games. Some of those games have individually taken over 75 hours to beat, and many have included multi-hour-long DLC that expands upon the story and game experience further. And yet the game pictured above, Flower, by Thatgamecompany, has touched me more than any of those 100+ could ever hope to. If Super Mario Galaxy rekindled that spark of wonder in me… Flower did the equivalent of lighting a bonfire for it.

The game takes, MAYBE, 2+ hours to complete. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Well, this is Jonathan, so the story must be incredible.” Here’s the story summary: there really isn’t one.

I know. I KNOW. If you’ve read any of my previous stuff you’re probably worried I’ve been kidnapped and am writing that last statement as a call for help. But I’m completely serious: the most memorable game I’ve played… pretty much ever, didn’t have a single drop of actual narrative to it. And yet, the lessons you’re supposed to take from the game are so crystal clear it’s unbelievable: nature is beautiful, and wonder doesn’t need context.

Okay Jonathan, you’re saying, maybe there’s no concrete narrative, but maybe there’s an implied narrative like what Nerissa so eloquently discussed in our last post? Perhaps the character you play as is rife with symbolism and a sense of humanism that we can all relate to at an emotional level.

Nope, you play as the wind. Not the Spirit of the Wind, not the mystical demi-god of wind AuGUSTus (see what I did there?). You play, as the plain old, go-outside-and-your-hat-gets-blown-off wind.

What’s the point of the game? You go through various natural settings, picking up flower petals in your breeze. Each flower petal enhances the music a little bit, and by the end of the level a soothing orchestral score is accompanying you as hundreds of tiny little flower petals trail behind you, twisting and turning over fields and forests.

There’s no fighting, there’s no bosses. There’s you, nature, and an orchestra. It’s so intimate, and so peaceful, that you’ll all but forget you’re playing a video game… because you just shouldn’t get this much tranquility from a video game… should you?

And that is the beauty of Flower. Because it goes against every video game normative out there. It replaces high definition buildings with grass blowing in a field. It replaces the demon-slaying awesomeness of the heavy metal guitars in Doom with a piano and some subtle instruments. And it doesn’t need a rich narrative to convey its lesson that no matter how complex your combo system is, sometimes the greatest amounts of joy can be given by the simplest things.

Flower is only available on the PS3 or PS4. If you haven’t played it, I can’t suggest enough that you do. If you don’t have those consoles, one of your friends will. Spot them $10 and ask them to download it for you. You will not regret it.

As designers, and as players, it’s easy to fall into the trap of repetition. That’s actually the topic that Nerissa will be covering in her next post. It’s so easy for us to get used to that familiar sense of: play tutorial, go forth, shoot everything. We do it without thinking. And you know what, those kind of games are totally fine. I’m just as excited for the next Shadow of Mordor or Far Cry game as you are. I’m a gamer, bullets and mayhem are my bread-and-butter.

But… don’t let yourself believe that is the only thing that games have to offer. It’s not. You’ve heard me say before that games can put you into a world, and I almost always mean that in the context of a story, but if a game like Flower can teach us anything, it’s that sometimes… just the world is enough. We say that games let us experience things we could never experience in real life, like slaying a dragon or saving the world. But they can also let you see wonders. They can let you explore new places. They can let you fly.

… and I don’t care who you are. You could be a seasoned Call of Duty pro or a League champion, we’ve all wanted to fly. And games can give us that. Whether we’re in a fighter jet… or simply a flower petal, caught in a gust of wind.

Jonathan Wine, Founder and Creative Director of Wyvern Interactive, LLC.

NOTE: The images used in this blog post are not the property or creations of Wyvern Interactive, LLC. These depict characters from other games and companies who own them in their own right. We do not claim any rights over these characters, companies, or their affiliates.

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