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High Score: Flower

High Score: Flower



Video games are changing. They’ve been changing for quite some time. Like all forms of artistic expression, this change is inevitable and necessary if the medium is to survive in an ever-changing cultural landscape. If every game ever made was about shooting things and saving girlfriends, which kind of was the case for an unfortunately long time, gaming would forever be resigned to the toybox; immature, ephemeral wastes of time for children, both actual and perpetual. 

 Thankfully this is not the case. Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto might still hog the mass media headlines but as we know, revolutions don’t get televised and the real shift in tides has been happening behind the scenes in the ever-expanding indie movement. Less than two years after the late Roger Ebert claimed video games can never be art, ‘art games’ are practically an officially recognized genre and there are few developers as influential in their success as thatgamecompany.  If you’ve never played any of thatgamecompany’s titles, you have deprived yourself of some incredible stuff. Their games are evocative, hypnotic, endlessly innovative and meticulously presented, including, and especially, in their scores. Austin Wintory’s work on flOw and Journey is as phenomenal as you have probably heard but today we’re going to take a look at the middle child in thatgamecompay’s PS3 trilogy and one of my favorite games of the last decade; Flower

Vincent Diamante is the composer on Flower and while he’s probably not a name you’re familiar with today, after listening to his work I reckon you’ll remember him hereafter. Flower, for you poor folk who have never played it, is a bizarre little art game where you control a gust of wind; pushing a single flower petal around a barren landscape, collecting other petals and bringing other flowers to bloom around you. It’s score is pretty fascinating, for reasons we’ll go into in a bit, but for now let’s enjoy the piece that Diamante has composed as our introduction to this concept. Sweet and peaceful yet strangely sparse – but not arbitrarily so, as we will discover – Lazy Daydream perfectly sets the tone for what’s to come. 

Ok so I mentioned that Flower’s score was pretty fascinating and I’m sure by now you’re wondering why. Well, it’s gonna take a little imagination on your part to appreciate it (or a quick youtube search, I guess) but I’ll explain as best I can. You might notice that most of these pieces, especially this little beauty, Life as a Flower, are rather empty. They have some melodic content, but not very much and mostly feel like backdrops for some mysterious absent melody. That’s because that’s what they are. In Flower , every petal you collect triggers a single note of music. The goal is to sweep through the flowers with enough fluency to play a small, self-contained melody that will fill out the score. Naturally, some people will take to this like ducks to water but others, like myself, might spend their first few minutes twisting their wrists into pretzel shapes to get the sixaxis to behave. The ambiguity in the score allows the player room to breathe in their performance; even if you suck at first, the game never wants you to worry about it and your disjointed chiming will sound just as beautiful against Diamante’s soundscapes as your eventual proficiency. The score wants you to chill; don’t worry about winning or losing, just sit back, listen to some music and make a little while you’re at it. 

Like most of Flower’s soundtrack, Splash of Color is designed to be tinkered with.  There’s very little going on for its nine minute runtime. That said, what is there is beautiful in and of itself. Winds and strings float around a steady cello pulse, guided by some soft piano accompaniment. Chords are outlined but never completely land, lending an air of unpredictability to proceedings, which culminates in a sudden switch in instrumentation at around the three and a half minute mark. Guitar and piano bring everything down a few levels before the strings and winds make their gradual and haunting return.

The keen listeners among you may be able to pick out one or two recurring melodies by now. There are two small cells of music that Diamante’s score is almost constantly recalling even if it’s not immediately apparent. This piece begins with one of those cells and repeats it throughout, throwing the baton to each instrument as it arrives. Despite being more melody-heavy than its brethren, Peaceful Repose still maintains that sparse ambiguity that defines the entire score and is just as beautiful to listen to with or without your input. 

 Flower isn’t usually talked about as a music game, which I find a little strange. The music might not be used as a selling point like in Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, but it’s an absolutely integral part of the experience and is a bold statement in favor of exploring the unique ways composers can approach their game scores. Flower presents us with the video game equivalent of free jazz; play along and see what comes out. There’s no right, there’s no wrong. There’s just you and the music. 

 And some flowers.