“Child of the kindly West, I have come to know, if more of us valued your ways – food and cheer above hoarded gold – it would be a merrier world.”
-Thorin Oakenshield, The Hobbit
A heavily stylized and simplistic game about microorganisms and bacteria. No, it’s not the barbacoa at Chipotle. It’s flOw!
flOw was created by Jenova Chen and Nicholas Clark. It was eventually transformed into a PS3 game a year later by Chen’s development studio, thatgamecompany, who also produced similar works in Flower and Journey. flOw was well received and became the most downloaded game on the PlayStation Network in 2007.
The tagline for flOw is: “life could be simple”. That’s more of an entreaty than a suggestion. Gameplay consists of very basic controls: tilt the controller to move, press any button to get a boost in speed, and press start to pause. Players begin as a tiny microscopic organism and float through what seems to be a bead of water, devouring other animal and plant-like microorganisms. Consuming other organisms causes your own to mature and evolve, increasing maneuverability and other abilities. Stages are played by descending lower into the depths, represented hazily in the background, until the final area is reached, usually where a larger organism must be confronted and consumed. Other organisms are predatory and can eat your segments (ew), sending you back the way you came upward through the liquid. All of this is done with seamless transitions between what must be called “levels” as you glide across the screen in an elegant, bio-luminescent light show.
Once an organism reaches its maximum potential the player will be allowed to take control of another more advanced one. Here is a short list of each mysterious creature (note, none of them are named by the game, I just tried to come up with easy identifications for them):
1. The basic worm
The first organism that flOw introduces you too is a tiny worm-like creature that grows longer as it eats, developing wing-like additions to its body. Pressing a button will urge it on faster but its sluggish and not very maneuverable.
2. The spinning jellyfish
Round and somewhat cylindrical, the jellyfish is even slower than the worm, however it can build up momentum by spinning and sucking other organisms into its center, adding to the glowing embellishments along its convex flanks.
3. The dolphin
Reminiscent of an ichthyoid and the only vertebrate in the game, the dolphin is faster and possesses a powerful dashing ability. It grows a longer tail and wider fins as it grows.
4. The stealth snake
Equipped with a SOCOM, cigarettes and a codec, the stealth snake swims around breaking necks. Actually, it has the ability to paralyze organisms with a yellowish “poison” and also render itself invisible and intangible for a small period of time. It resembles a worm-like creature with wing-appendages.
5. The predator
Another worm-like creature but one with highly aggressive habits, the predator glows red with hunger and dashes quickly through the ether. Probably the easiest creature to maneuver since the predator locks on to its prey with uncanny accuracy.
6. The credits snake
The credits snake is a segmented worm that is the longest organism in flOw. As its name indicates, it is only playable during the credits sequence.
7. The ring worm
Thank me for not uploading a picture of actual ringworm (dermatophytosis). flOw’s seventh and final creature is only accessible with the expansion pack. It looks like a roughly spherical shape which flexes as it moves, comprised of individual segments. It can gather its body into itself and create a temporary shell for defense.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the father of the psychological term “flow” which describes a mental state that is almost trance-like which a person enters when fully immersed in a feeling of focus, concentration and enjoyment. This is something that video games themselves can sometimes produce, we would call it being “in the zone”, when we become blind and deaf to all other outside distractions such as a nagging mother or girlfriend or life’s responsibilities and seem to experience what’s happening on screen in real time where you’re just taking it all in without processing it rationally. The same thing can happen with movies or great books. It is almost like forms of religious meditation, although the term “flow” is not a religious one.
thatgamecompany’s masterpiece Journey really took the idea to the next level on an emotional plane, but it is still very much prototypically present in flOw. Fascinatingly, this concept formed a key element that this game was built on. Indeed it is deceptively easy to become enthralled by (that word means literally “enslave”) flOw learn-as-you-go gameplay and bright, primal, evocative graphics. The concept of flow is at the core of what this game is all about and what it is trying to tell you in its own wordless, non-narrative way.
The 8-Bit Review
The top down view of the game and its liquid depths of layers provides a unique visual in flOw. To accentuate the simple nature of the gameplay, the developers chose to make the game’s characters microscopic organisms. But none of these microorganisms are photo-realistic, thank God. It’d be disgusting.
Rather, we’re visually treated to glowing lights and shapes which vaguely resemble things like protozoa and cells and bacteria and plankton and worms. The result is a game tied less to rigid biology and more to amorphous oneirology, the study of dreams. The shimmering shapes and ghost-like creatures belong more in the stuff that happens in the subconscious rather than in a textbook of microorganisms. It is a spectacle that has earned flOw the earmarks of a work of art than a video game. It’s as if you’ve made contact with another world just beyond the reaches of normal human perception.
The soundtrack just fits perfectly with this game. It’s simplistic, muted, limited, it sounds like the noises are organic and coming up through water. Its arpeggios are reminiscent of droplets and bubbles. It evokes a kind of alien existence and slowness, a “laidbackness” that further exemplifies the games theme. It’s the kind of music you could easily study to or doze off to. Austin Wintory later released a compilation album with some of flOw’s tracks included.
Transitioning between levels and layers and creatures is a seamless experience. Even pressing start to pause the game doesn’t feel like it takes you out of “flowing”. The various different organisms seem to handle differently enough to be distinct from each other without the more cumbersome ones feeling too punishing or too challenging to helm. This is a game that puts its gameplay essentially before any other aspect of its design, to really pull you in and immerse you.
Other players can pick up another controller and jump in to flOw at any time, and if they get bored they can simply drop out, easily and simply. It seems it would be more for curiosity’s sake as the second player feature doesn’t really add anything to the game, modify difficulty, or alter its course. It is seamless and fun, sure, but it doesn’t bring much to the table. In fact, another player seems to lessen the experience of psychological “flow” merely because you’ll suddenly be sharing a screen with someone who wants to chase a piece of plankton that way while you want to swim the other way, and there is no split screen. It works just fine but it’s just kinda pointless.
Aiming for simplicity, flOw hits the bullseye. It’s hard to find a simpler game with simpler controls. Everything you need to know about handling is taught to you before the title screen comes up, in the span of a few seconds. Everything else you learn as if you were adapting right along with the organisms under your microscope.
There isn’t much reason to revisit flOw after its completion. It isn’t any less fun but the exploratory experience doesn’t work twice and the sensation of achieving “flow” as a trance doesn’t really happen again. That’s an elusive experience any way. Playing through a second time more yields toward the “left brainer” analysis, and when that happens flOw breaks down. Because it’s so simple, it’s pieces, while remarkable, don’t prove to be extraordinary. Not enough for you to return all that often for more. Trophies enhance the replay value but not by much. What may bring you back to flOw is its brevity and its beauty. It’s easy to introduce others to by showing it off, too.
The trio of games released by thatgamecompany (flOw, Flower, and Journey) are all impressively unique. Hats off to you, sirs. Thank you for contributing to the gaming industry rather than simply adding to its noise.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
I was really impressed by flOw. I remember originally purchasing it because of two reasons. It was cheap and it had some beautiful graphics in the screenshots I saw. Both of those elements were just icing on the cake when I actually began to play this art piece. There ought to be more games like this, free from all of the tedium of stats, points, menus, controls, items, DLC’s and grinding that so many games are mired down in. flOw is a game filled with wonder and it possesses just one agenda: to prove to you with its tiny creatures of light that life can be simple.
Aggregated Score: 8.8
Did you enjoy this post? Consider becoming a Warrior of Light and join us in restoring integrity and quality to entertainment journalism. We specialize in long-form, analytical reviews and we aim to expand into a podcast and webzine with paid contributors! See our Patreon page for more info!
Categories: Game Review