Games are not art -- they're better. It just depends on whom you ask.
There's this on-again, off-again argument within the intelligentsia as to whether games should be placed on the same pedestal as books, movies, music, and paintings. But even the newest of the accepted fine arts, movies, have had at least a century to develop.
Conventional videogames--and I'm taking Pong, the equivalent of cave drawings, as my starting point here--commenced less than 40 years ago. In that time, games have mimicked movies, electronically emulated books, and tried their hand at playing on some emotional heartstrings. The big difference is that most conventional art forms are passive and two-dimensional experiences: You sit in front of and soak in whatever the artist presents you with. Videogames attempt to create an interactive experience that puts the viewer/ player in control of the palette.
Enter Shanghai-born Xinghan "Jenova" Chen, creative director of ThatGameCompany. Since earning his graduate degree from the University of Southern California Film School's Interactive Media program, he has helped craft several simple-but-surreal game projects that do more than cater to a twitch response. His thesis project, Cloud, floated along, accumulating a following on the indie gaming scene. Flow cast players as an ever-evolving single-celled organism--and that, no doubt, inspired the first stage in Spore. The best way to describe Chen's latest game, Flower: It's a first-person gardener. And it's well-worth the $10 asking price at Sony's PlayStation Store.
The levels, if you choose to call them that, are the dreams of flowers. You are the wind, fulfilling flower fantasies--yeah, it sounds kind of strange. But just try it. This is a Zen exercise with an occasional trophy for completing a task. A meditation pool with an endpoint. More important, it passes my all-important "wife test": She was entranced as she watched me play, until finally she yanked the controller out of my hand to try her luck with it. The last time I got that kind of response out of her was when BioShock came out.
But back to the old "games-versus-art" argument (I'm looking at you, Ebert). I spent some time chatting with Chen recently about the state of gaming and how (if at all) it's maturing. Here's what we came up with:
A Boy and His Flower
PC World: How would you try describing Flower to someone? Is it a game, art, or something else entirely?
Jenova Chen: Flower is made with a different mentality. It's a safe, warm experience. It's like a poem or dance that uses symbolism and scenery to give the player a comforting backdrop.
PCW: And I guess that this would make you the choreographer?
JC: [laughs] Yeah, we're not level designers. We provide all these moves, and because players are different, they will perform the moves differently. It's a game that is meant not only to play, but to watch.
PCW: A game that you watch--technically, that'd make it art. As for the person who grabs the controls, let's talk a little more about the game itself.
JC: The end goal of the player is to make the world a better place. The player is the consciousness of nature. You're living through the dreams of flowers sitting in pots. Gamers call them levels, but each of the dreams for the different flowers has different goals. The Rose, for example, sees a desaturated, drab world of concrete but wants to add color everywhere. As you complete the dream of one flower, the second flower sprouts and fills in a certain aspect of life. The gameplay is that you're this consciousness, this desire. You're bringing life into the world--not the guy killing aliens.
We thought of this like a movie experience. You could probably finish this in two and half hours, but you really get a lot more out of the game after you've finished and come back to revisit each flower's dreams. You find more to explore and play more. It will be a good therapy--to heal yourself and reflect on things.
PCW: How did you come up with the idea of making a game about flowers, anyhow?
JC: I grew up in a city, in Shanghai. I was surrounded by skyscrapers and people. I was never surrounded by nature. When I was on my way into Los Angeles, I saw this windmill farm. Grass fields, blue sky--I'd never seen these things before. Where I lived the sky was purple. So, as an urban man, I was attracted to these things I hadn't really seen before. When you actually go into nature and go hiking, you actually start missing the city and the people. So I wanted to create a space like a window from your living room, and you get surrounded by nature. Meanwhile, you still feel safe and warm. It's a harmony between nature and urban life.
PCW: Normally, games like this don't appear on store shelves...
JC: That's because digital distribution allows for more risk-taking. It allows small development houses to take chances without having to score funding to publish the game on discs. That cost forces you to make sacrifices along the way. It makes you cut costs, enforce deadlines and ship a game that you might not be as proud of. You just can't run that risk. For a game like Flow, it only cost between 500 and 600k, not even a million. [Ed. note: And that's gone on to huge success.] Sony's been great to work with in this respect and has been very supportive both with Flow and now Flower.