A Gaming Education: flOw

I’m tired all the time. I like to think this is because of the effort it takes to keep this mega-brain zipping along at such speed. Or perhaps it’s a subconscious desire to get back to the insane, technicolour, sometimes-lucid dreams I have when I sleep. Sadly, I suspect in reality I’m just lazy.

Whatever the reason, I’ve been finding the long hours I’m working in my pub difficult. Six-day weeks selling Fried Shit with Cheese to identikit media students are taking it out of me.

Gaming under such conditions is tricky. I get back at midnight and have no energy left for memorising stats or searching for keycards or learning esoteric combat systems.

So it is that over the last few days flOw has become my perfect post-work game.

I arrive home, bleary-eyed, my mind all turned to mush, and drop into flOw’s hypnotic underwater realm. Bizarre, simplistic and entrancing, it’s like a warm bath for my brain.

FlOw’s world is an odd one. You play as a creature — not quite micro-organic, but not entirely abstract either — gliding about a dream-like ocean, chomping on plankton and avoiding getting chomped yourself. As you progress your creature grows, eventually evolving into new lifeforms, each with their own unique abilities.

I was surprised by how much flOw is a real game. Its developer, thatgamecompany, often talks of designing unique playable experiences not provided elsewhere in the medium, but at its heart flOw is as traditional a video game as they come. You collect dainties, fight enemies and upgrade your craft. The pace might be sedentary, but the mechanics are old as time.

There are even boss battles, of a sort. You reach a screen filled with delicious morsels there for the taking, and rather than rejoice, you think, “Uh-oh. What’s coming next?” Just like Zelda. The silhouetted shape of a gargantuan beast patrolling the depths below doesn’t allay your trepidation.

Yet for the most part the sense of threat in flOw is minimal. There’s just enough to hold your attention, but it’s never oppressive. FlOw is a game made to wind down to, rather than test yourself against. It helps that death carries only the most cursory of punishments, shunting you up to the previous screen, barely seconds from where you failed.

There are problems. The motion controls aren’t accurate enough, sometimes giving your hands that frustrated, lethargic feel as you circle a collectible, not quite able to reach it.

Also annoying are the red and blue lifeforms that signify the entrances and exits of each screen. Swim into a red one to go down a screen further into the ocean, a blue one to go back up to the previous screen. The minimalist design is to be applauded, but too often you collide with one by accident, usually in the midst of a struggle with an enemy. Their existence is symbolically confusing as well; for what reason would eating glowing organisms lead you to a different depth of the sea?

And I would have liked to see more fluidity in the evolution process. Rather than essentially “unlocking” new creatures at the end of each batch of levels, a more organic transition between the lifeforms would have been nice, adding a sense of allegory I wanted but didn’t quite find.

FlOw is a lovely game though. It looks like a dream of some other-existence not quite our own. The sound is sumptuous, relaxing. This type of experience is massively divisive — you’ve probably already made up your mind from the screenshot at the top of the page — with many finding thatgamecompany’s products to be empty, pretentious drivel. Personally, I find gamers who call anything attempting an interesting aesthetic “pretentious” to be the worst kind of dicks. But that’s just me.

I wouldn’t want every game to be like flOw, but now and again it makes a nice change from unlocking the yellow door with the blue keycard, pulling the lever, shooting the dude in the face. For those lacking time or energy it is ideal — a therapeutic dive into soothing, nebulous waters.

Now, if you’ll — *yawn* — excuse me, I have to take a nap. All this sitting with my laptop by the fire has exhausted me.

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