Arthouse Games
Review: flOw
by jcr13Monday, December 11, 2006 [12:36 pm] This is the fourth in a series of Slamdance Finalist reviews.

flOw is a game that defies genre classification. Actually, it might not be a game at all, depending on what definition we use, because there is no explicit goal. We can look at it instead as a work of interactive art, or as a digital sculpture. In fact, I can imagine it working well in a physical installation with a flat-panel, touch-sensitive screen.

Before I launch into a description of the game, I would suggest that you play with it a bit (it runs in most browsers). There are no instructions provided, so part of the point is to learn about the various game elements as you play.

In flOw, your mouse clicks control an aquatic, segmented, worm-like creature. The world is divided into a number of depth levels, and you start out near the surface. The deeper your go, the darker the water becomes.

At a given depth level, there are various small creatures (they look like diatoms or plankton) that you can eat. Each edible has a slightly different effect on your creature (some cause extra body segments to form, others cause existing body segments to expand, still others cause limbs to sprout or mandibles to become temporarily enlarged). Along with the easy-to-eat are other worm-like creatures, similar to your creature. Deeper levels contain larger creatures, and even some creatures that will try to eat your creature.

Moving between depth levels is facilitated by special edibles at each level---red takes you down, while blue takes you up. From a given level, you can see a soft-focus rendition of the creatures that are lurking at the next-deeper level. As you descend, those creatures come into focus. The effect here, one of diving deeper into a watery world, is quite compelling.

The presentation is stellar, with smooth, geometrical renderings of all the creatures. My words "segmented" and "worm-like" above should not mislead you---the feel is not creepy-crawly, but rather translucent, graceful, and flowing. I'm reminded of a jellyfish exhibit at the aquarium. All the activities in the game are accompanied by musical sounds that blend into an ambient soundtrack. Thus, we could also view flOw as a kind of experimental musical instrument. This one could make Brian Eno proud.

If we view flOw as an interactive sculpture, we can cast it as a work of art due to its sheer beauty and haunting mood. However, flOw's designer, Jenova Chen, is calling it a game, so we should follow his lead. In fact, the game is part of his thesis work on game design, and it's meant to explore games that adjust their difficulty automatically (what he calls Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, or DDA). Such games, the theory goes, could stay in the sweet spot between boredom (too easy) and frustration (too hard).

We can see how flOw attempts to implement DDA: when you dive deeper, the survival challenge increases. If it gets too hard, you can always eat the blue pill and rise back up into safer waters. If you're stubborn and remain "in over your head" for too long, the game will knock you back into shallow waters automatically (if too many body segments of your creature get eaten, up you go). You can never "die"---you just get pushed back up.

The idea is that shallow waters should still provide fun without the frustration you may have encountered while plumbing the deeper areas. However, this is where flOw fails: the shallow waters don't offer enough interesting activities. You can eat the small creatures, but after you eat them all, you are stuck swimming alone. Exploration, if that might provide "fun," is only possible through diving deeper, as there isn't much to explore at a given depth. To maintain the interest level, you must dive deeper and face possible frustration. Thus, the game falls right back into the "frustrating or boring" duality that it is trying to avoid.

DDA is an interesting idea, but I can imagine more successful ways of exploring it. For example, consider a 2d platform game with with several different "reality planes" that span the spectrum of difficulty. You can stroll along in the easy plane, and play the game all the way through if you want. But if you get bored, you can switch to a more difficult plane. Perhaps there are more interesting enemies and more powerful power-ups in the harder planes. Perhaps certain areas, like hidden caves, can only be reached from the harder planes. If you fail in a hard plane, you get knocked back out to an easier plane (but still in the same location in the game world).

The point is that such a game would offer you a full play experience on whatever plane you chose, and you would still have a goal in the easier planes. You could switch planes at will to adjust the challenge. In flOw, on the other hand, the main play experience comes from diving deeper. That's all there is to the game, really. Think of our imaginary multi-plane platformer, and now modify it so that you must delve into the harder planes to progress in the game. That's more like what is happening in flOw.

As a game, flOw earns art points for making us think about DDA, but then loses some points for not really being a good example of DDA after all. It also gains art points for being different than anything else that's out there, posing questions about genre limitations and about what counts as a game.

I highly recommend giving flOw a try, with the warning that it doesn't have much depth. It's a 10-minute experience, perhaps, but I don't think it aims to be anything more than that.


[Submit Comment]
by ClooWednesday, December 13, 2006 [1:39 pm]

Short note as to whether or not this is a game: is continuation (in terms of the exploration) not an explicit goal? Or is some visual representation of this progress (a depth meter, or depth/time score system) necessary?


by jcr13Thursday, December 14, 2006 [10:26 am]

The first time I played flOw, quite a long time ago, I recall that I went as deep as I could go. As I recall, there were something like ten depth levels.

Anyway, "I've been to the bottom," and here's my report: there ain't nothin' down there. Once I got to the bottom, I didn't feel like I "won." The only place to go from there was back up.

When we ask, "Is it a game?", we need to keep some sort of definition of game in mind. For example, in the book Chris Crawford on Game Design, Crawford's definition is something like this (paraphrased):

Creative expression intended to make money (i.e., entertainment, not art) that is interactive, goal-oriented, competative, and allows attacks between competitors. Interactive playthings without goals are toys. Challenges without competitors are puzzels, and conflicts that forbid attacks between opponents are competitions. Games are "conflicts in which the players directly interact in such a way as to foil each other's goals."

Of course, if we stick to Crawford's definition, the whole notion of arthouse games goes right out the window. Still, you see how the goal is important.

Here are some other definitions pulled from that book (italics are used again for paraphrases, as I no longer have the book in front of me):

Kevin Maroney: "A form of play with goals and structure."

Greg Costikyan: A game is a form of art in which participants make decisions in order to manage resources in the pursuit of a goal.

Eric Zimmerman: "An activity with some rules engaged in for an outcome."

Goal, goal, goal, and goal (er... outcome). You see a common thread running here. So what about The Sims? Many people, and maybe even Will Wright himself, would call that kind of software a toy, not a game, and perhaps we should also look at flOw as a toy. There's nothing wrong with toys, of course.


by AbadoxThursday, December 14, 2006 [11:20 pm]

Flow doesn't really seem that much different than any other game, it has a unique look, and some interesting ideas, but advancing through levels of increasing difficulty while collecting power-ups and defeating enemies is fairly standard stuff.

As far as dynamic diffuculty, I don't see how bouncing you back up a level is any different than having to restart a level when you die in Sonic or something. "Try Again" isn't really a new idea.
I mean, I liked the game though, I'm not a total prick or anything.


by DougTuesday, June 12, 2007 [4:53 pm]

I agree that flOw, while nifty, is not a great example of "DDA." Before you understand how it works, with separate levels, it keeps you flowing alright. You eat stuff more or less indiscriminately until you encounter something that bites back, at which point you either win or lose. Losing gets you bumped back up to safer waters, and winning allows you to continue, and also nets you some powerups. Once you realize how the depth levels work though, it becomes a rather uninteresting slog to the bottom, the only goal available.

I'm not sure your example of a multi-planar platformer is a better example of DDA though. If you leave it up to the player to adjust the difficulty, it's not really dynamic. The best example of DDA I can think of is in the chase minigames in The Simpsons Hit & Run. Principal Skinner's car gets a significant speed boost if you get far enough ahead, but he slams into a tree if you're too far behind, until you catch up. Ideally, this is all completely transparent to the player, so the race is tense no matter how good they are at driving. Of course, there have to be some limits so there is a chance of failure or success, otherwise the tension is lost again, since the repeat player knows he can't lose (or win, whichever).


by Some DudeTuesday, June 19, 2007 [2:21 pm]

Anyway, "I've been to the bottom," and here's my report: there ain't nothin' down there. Once I got to the bottom, I didn't feel like I "won." The only place to go from there was back up.

Did you eat all the creatures? If you eat enough at the lowest level, something special happens that's pretty neat... at first anyway. If you really did miss out on that, then don't bother with it unless you really want to play the game again--I just wanted to point out that the game doesn't merely peter out at the bottom as you suggest it does.


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