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Let there be life: Games go organic

Consider for a moment, the flower — that delicate collection of stems and stamens, pistils and petals, that bringer of color and fragrance to our lives, and, of course, that perfect protagonist for today’s video games.
Image: 'FlOw'
"FlOw," which started as an MFA thesis project, is one of the PlayStation Network's most beloved games. That Game Company

Consider for a moment, the flower — that delicate collection of stems and stamens, pistils and petals, that bringer of color and fragrance to our lives, and, of course, that perfect protagonist for today’s video games.

Yes, video games. Before you start pondering just what kind of pollen I’ve been huffing, note that while heavily armed giants like “Fallout 3,” “Gears of War 2,” and “Resident Evil 5” were dazzling the masses at this year’s games industry hootenanny known as E3, a modest title called “Flower” was causing its own fair share of head turning and tongue wagging.

According to the developers of this forthcoming PlayStation 3 title, “Flower,” is a game about, well, flowers, their dreams and the way their colorful petals dance on the wind. No, really! It was even nominated for a Game Critics Best of E3 Award, and it is eagerly anticipated by many. Well, at least by me and these guys.

And if it’s not flowers, it’s plants, in fact, it’s entire gardens of plants that are currently taking gaming by storm … or at least by delicate sprinkle. Last week’s launch of “PixelJunk Eden” on the PS3 sets players swinging from plant to plant, capturing pollen, fertilizing seeds, nudging greenery to grow skyward.

Sounds boring, you say? You don’t have a green thumb, you insist? Don’t judge the garden by its gate because “Eden” is the most addictive and elegant platformer I’ve played in possibly forever. 

And "Eden" and “Flower” aren’t alone in their organic exploits. From last year’s sleeper hit "flOw" to a little indie exploration called "Phyta" — nature, growth, life, the delicate dance of reproduction and evolution … game developers are nursing some creative and compelling new gameplay out of Mother Nature’s mulch.

"PixelJunk Eden" is a trippy, stylish journey into a series of psychedelic gardens.

Indeed. “Eden” is the third game in Q-Games’ much-lauded “PixelJunk” series. All three games can be downloaded directly to the PS3 through the PlayStation Network and all three games, on the surface, appear to be completely different — “PixelJunk Racers” is a slot-racing game, “PixelJunk Monsters” is a tower defense game, and “PixelJunk Eden” is a trippy, stylish journey into a series of psychedelic gardens.

But what all these games have in common is gorgeous high-def graphics, careful attention to detail and an almost whimsical disregard for mainstream gaming’s rules of engagement.

“I started Q-Games about seven years ago because I wanted to try and make games in my own style and I found I couldn't do that while I was working at a publisher,” Cuthbert says. “The reason being is that I don't pay much attention to what the consumer wants — I am a bit selfish and simply make the games that I find cool and that I want to make, and this quite often doesn't gel well with mass-market publishing.”

You can see how the pitch might have gone: Yes, I’d like to make a game about a garden gnome who helps plants grow and tends to his own Eden. It’ll be sorta old-school, 2-D even. No, there won’t be any guns. No, your character never dies. What’s that, you say? Oh yes, I see the exit right over there.

And yet, “Eden” really is the bees’ knees…in more ways than one.

Created with the help of mono-named Japanese artist and DJ Baiyon, “Eden”  puts players in control of a Grimp — so named because this little bug/garden gnome moves by means of gripping and jumping (he also does a whole lot of swinging, but apparently that didn’t fit neatly into the name).

Cuthbert said he wanted “to create a lush organic environment perfectly in tune with the music,” but he’s also quick to point out that he wanted the game to offer “proper gameplay and not the wishy-washy stuff that is normally associated with esoteric artistic and musical games.”

And so “Eden” got its fantastical pastoral look from some of Baiyon’s illustrations and it was swathed in his pulsing sonic landscapes. But at the core, “Eden” presents nothing but rock solid and innovative platforming gameplay.

Here you maneuver the Grimp through a variety of colorful gardens by having him leap from plant to plant or swing his way to where he needs to go via looping aerobatics accomplished while attached to a thread of silk. The Grimp’s mad web-slinging skills would make Spidey jealous and give the whole thing a rather hypnotic feel.

But the ultimate goal is to seek out Spectra — pulsing orbs that help you grow the foliage in your home base Garden of Eden and thus reach portals to more gardens (there are ten in all and each one offers a new landscape and new surprises). To reach the Spectra, you have to burst open pollen-bearing creatures, capture the falling pollen and then make your way to lofty seeds where, much like a bee, your very touch helps the plants spring forth and carry your Grimp to formerly unreachable heights.

Cuthbert calls “Eden” “a modern ‘Mario,’ but original, organic and with more jumping than running around.” But I would add that it’s “Mario” for grown-ups. Forget the cartoony play time, this is sophisticated art and sophisticated gameplay fused into one fun package.

Flower child
Meanwhile, though the gameplay may be completely different, “Eden” feels very much like a spiritual cousin to last year’s indie organic hit “flOw.” 

With gorgeous, high-def graphics and lovely, ethereal music, "flOw" weaves a gaming experience that, like “Eden” manages to be both calming and thrilling at the same time and one that plumbs the depths of nature’s underpinnings.

"FlOw" puts players in control of a simple aquatic organism that evolves as you play. Tilting the PS3's motion-sensitive controller back and forth, you pilot your creature deep into a blue abyss. As it flits and floats through its watery world, you help it consume as many creatures as possible. And as it feeds, it grows and changes.

Created by That Game Company, "flOw" started out as a MFA thesis project but was so innovative and beloved, Sony had the developers gussie it up high-def style and bring it the PlayStation Network. Sony clearly hopes That Game Company will be able to reproduce the organic magic — it has partnered with them to bring “Flower” to the network later this year.

Until then, check out what a 17-year-old independent game developer has cooked up: “Phyta,” Abraham Parangi’s exploration of a dark plant’s dark needs, recently earned him attention among indie gaming followers.

In this free PC game, you maneuver a black sun about the screen, guiding the growth of a twisting, ever-moving plant, trying to help it ensnare golden creatures flitting through the air. The music is moody and haunting and the game is a simple-yet-entrancing take on the natural world’s relentless appetite.

Says Parangi, “I feel like there is a lot of inspiration to be had in nature, especially for game designers because dynamics and aesthetics can be lifted straight from nature and put into games.”