flOwer is an unusual videogame. It's a downloadable game for Sony's PS3, costs $10, and has a novel and touching style of gameplay, in which you direct an ever-growing cloud of petals around the game's landscapes, touching flowers on the ground to 'bloom' them and alter the environment. New colours and sounds spring up as you touch things; some flowers are triggers that alter the landscape more dramatically. A cliff might crumble, a stone circle might open, or a turbine might start spinning.
There are no words in flOwer, but its six levels provide a distinct political narrative about rural and urban environments. They're the dreams of six flowers sitting in pots on an urban windowsill.
So the game starts inside the city. We see its grey horizon out of the window, and we're given odd clips of it at the start of the levels; tall towers, traffic, feral birds. (People are never pictured in focus in flOwer, and given that it's a game about human environments that struck me as potentially troubling. But it's part of the game's aesthetic). The game starts when you zoom in on a flower and are transported from the city to a rural idyll; a landscape of hills and meadow dotted with rock formations. There are no signs of human existence here - or to put it another way, there's no technology. This dualism raises its head throughout the entire game; there's nature, and then there's tech, and they might mingle to form something that's a bit of both, but they're still portrayed as being two separate poles. Explore flOwer's nature scene, and you'll change it - open up new areas, change the direction of the wind that carries you - but there's still this sense that here, at the start of all things, the landscape is virgin, the organic whole.
This is an origin story. And oh damn am I obsessed with the Cyborg Manifesto this year:
An origin story in the 'Western', humanist sense depends on the myth of original unity, fullness, bliss and terror, represented by the phallic mother from whom all humans must separate, the task of individual development and of history, the twin potent myths inscribed most powerfully for us in psychoanalysis and Marxism. Hilary Klein has argued that both Marxism and psychoanalysis, in their concepts of labour and of individuation and gender formation, depend on the plot of original unity out of which difference must be produced and enlisted in a drama of escalating domination of woman/nature.
Origin stories are never true, especially not when it comes to cities.
And yet, there's other moments in flOwer when technology seems to be framed more like something that arises from nature. It's exploring its own conceit, even if its tech tree is, at times, bizarre.
The second flowerpot introduces human design in the form of stone circles - rings of megaliths tilted inwards. (And I love this.) You continue to explore, opening flowers with a touch, and when you've opened the right flowers the megaliths draw apart and tilt outward - opening just like the flowers. Can you define the megaliths as a form of technology? Certainly it's a human working on the landscape that, because it is primitive, gets a pass at being flower-like, natural.
The third moves us on to wind turbines. Touch the flowers, and their arms start spinning.
Bit of a hop, isn't it? I don't know what the Civ beeline for stone circles-->wind power would be, but, it's all aesthetic anyway; the game's connecting rural idylls with pagan prehistory with wind turbines, like it's sketching out the interests of the hippie/new-age movement.
Turbines, see, are still Good Tech. They move with the breeze; they aren't affecting the empty landscape, but the landscape is affecting them. And in between these levels, we're still seeing the city in all its grim grey glory; the flowers are dreaming of this better way, far from reality but coming ever closer.
Part 4 was the one which touched me the most. It was set in night, swooping from sunset towards sunrise through a dark and lonely sky, and one of the ways in which my actions altered the landscape was to make light. The ground became luminous, and the central tech element, overhead power lines bearing lamps, started to glow.
Aside from the power lines, there were a few other signs of human activity; small, round haystacks, overturned carts, white-chalk paths, and some fences. The fences unnerved me. The game was gradually leading you back to the human race, and the designers had chosen to use the division of land as an icon to represent that journey - land that at the start of the game was entirely untouched and empty. Later, I could see the story they were telling there - a condensed historical narrative that shows enclosure leading us to industrialisation and industrialisation leading us to the cities - but at the time I felt like I was wandering the Ridgeway in the little hours again.
It was about light, this little nightscape level. The scene in the city before it began showed a streetlamp flickering; the city is breaking. At the start of the dream, the turbines we'd seen in the last level set the power flowing, and your actions then made the power flow towards the city - until the end of the level, where the lights began flickering like the one in the city, and the landscape changed into an industrial dystopia, full of smog and twisted pylons. It's dark here, but there's a blue flower blooming in the murk.
So cities are broken and wrong and can only be enlightened by your twee flower power narrative? Right. The snark, I can't help it, I detest rural idylls. :/ I love nature. I love human nature. There's as much of nature in the city as anywhere else.
Part 5 is the most grim, and the one that made me most sceptical of the game's ethos. We're close to the city, in a grey maze of pipelines, pylons and power lines, still lit by those dim orange lights. It's the only part of the game where the environment can hurt you, burning your comet of petals down to almost nothing if you brush against one of the spitting black transformers. And if you manage to open the flowers without touching any of these obstacles, what happens? These tech features untwist and become sleek and silver, they can't hurt you any more and - this is what really killed me - the orange lights are replaced with white CFL mercury bulbs.
*headdesk* Even the CCC (and I am no great fan of the CCC) urge people to, if they care about the environment, stop faffing about plastic bags and lightbulbs and start lobbying your government to stop airport expansion and close coal plants. flOwer is taking the other path, describing ecological problems and reducing them to the consumer question of which object is better than which other object and, oh, it's all down to you, you directing your cloud of flowers, you making little changes one by one. Even if you see the flower cloud as a group of individuals rather than as an avatar of a single individual player, it's still a horribly flawed way to talk about environmentalism, or even energy efficiency - they're not individualist issues, they're problems that start at the top and can only be tackled on a grand scale. And if you are going to do anything about it as individuals? I'm reminded of the woman who organised a disruption of Drax, the huge coal plant in northern England: she spoke afterwards about how easy it had been, and how few people it would take to inconvenience the place on a regular basis.
But flOwer is, itself, a consumer product; it might be odder if it didn't portray efficiency and environmentalism in consumerist terms. It's a beautiful picture of 'being the change', so long as you don't try to apply it to the real-world problem they're describing.
The fifth level ends at the gates of the city, so by the time the sixth began, I was already in full-on sceptic mode. We're in the city now. What we're changing with our actions is the city - filling it with colour, clearing out the wreckage, opening the gates. It seemed like that dualism again, the rural idyll entering on the urban dystopia and Making It Better. There are no people in the city. You don't have to worry about gentrification, or any of the other creepy human implications that creep in when you start Making Cities Better. flOwer's hate-on for the high-rise is all well and good, and you know I believe in a forest called London, but the elevation of the floral over the urban did not move me.
The more I think about it, the more I realise that I could have read it all in a more positive way, but the lack of people to centre that reading around makes it hard to do. I instinctively side with the city in all its dirty chaos. I'd ask for a game where the urban invades the rural, unravels its twists and leaves it sterile and overgroomed or not at all; but that game is called The Real World.