Anyone who’s ever played video games knows the feeling. Maybe you’ve got bullets whizzing past your head, maybe a clock is counting down. Either way, you’ve got a controller gripped so tightly in your hands that your knuckles have gone white from the loss of blood flow. Teetering on the edge of your couch, you lean toward your television like it’s some kind of industrial-grade magnet. Your shoulders sit tied up in knots around your neck.
Our video game experiences may be virtual, but our physical reactions to them are as real as they get.
This we know: Video games can really get the blood pumping. And sometimes it’s cathartic, this explosion of action, competition and stress. But sometimes it’s just, well, stressful. (Remember that time you pitched your controller across the room in a fit of frustration?)
But while so much of gaming is rooted in these intense emotions — the fear of death, the fight for survival, the desire to dominate — more and more these days it seems games are offering the exact opposite kind of experience.
Some games just want to help us chill out and relax. They want to help us find our happy place. They come offering us our moment of Zen.
Game Factory recently launched the first in its “Zenses” series of games – games that promise the kind of “active relaxation” that “allows the player to transcend the stresses of everyday life” in the form of nature-themed puzzles. Meanwhile, “Zen Bound” — forthcoming for — promises a “calm and meditative” game of wrapping rope around wooden statues. And all kinds of casual games now offer “Zen mode,” modes that allow us to play without the standard stresses of a timer or the threat of losing if we don’t make the right move.
But can a game truly help us chillax?
Jenova Chen thinks so. He’s the creator of "Flower,” the game most likely to chill you out … when it’s not busy blowing your mind.
Relaxation without the cheese
“This is a video game version of a poem dealing with the contrast and the harmony between the urban and the nature,” Chen says. He calls “Flower” — a game that just launched on the PlayStation Network — “interactive therapy.”
Chen, co-founder of ThatGameCompany,also knows exactly what you’re thinking right now. “It is very lame to describe this game with words because it sounds cheesy,” he says.
Yes. Games that offer mellower pursuits tend to come off like some new age guru hawking the latest self-help fad. Just check out Aimed squarely at women, it sounds like the cheesiest tampon commercial ever invented.
But I’ve played “Flower,” and I promise: It isn’t cheesy.
Yes, as the name suggests, it is a game about flowers, and more importantly it’s a game about the dreams flowers have when they’re trapped in the gray confines of an urban apartment.
A game that you download directly to your PlayStation 3, “Flower” begins with a single petal. Riding on a breeze, you sail across grassy meadows, collecting petals from other flowers until you’ve become a swirling trail of petals with the power to affect the environment around you. Sometimes you bring light to the landscape, sometimes you bring color. But no matter what you’re doing, you soar through the air with an unparalleled feeling of grace and lightness.
OK, sure, it still sounds cheesy. But truly, “Flower” — the follow-up to ThatGameCompany’s award-winning underwater game “Flow” — is as artful and artfully implemented a game as I’ve ever seen. Its dazzling graphics drop you into the middle of a magical-yet-familiar place that comes alive with music as you swoop through it. And the controls are as intuitive as they come. Tilt the PS3’s motion-sensitive controller to steer your petals where you want them to go. Push any button you like to propel them forward on the breeze. It’s that simple.
Meanwhile, there is no ticking clock or ever-shrinking health bar to threaten you … and with none of these pressures you’re soon delightfully absorbed in sailing through the grass, hunting for flowers and leaving your mark on the world around you.
What’s that over yonder?
The thing is, there’s a fundamental problem with trying to mix relaxation and video gaming. That is, video games are interactive entertainment. You don’t just sit there and absorb them like you would a movie. You grab the steering wheel, you drive the action forward. But in order to keep you glued to the driver’s seat, games must find a way to motivate you.
Many games do this by hurling bullets at players, because there’s nothing that keeps us snapped at attention like the instinct to survive. But even games that claim to be relaxing seldom are — subtly pressuring us to accumulate points or beat a clock or solve puzzles that tax our brain in less-than soothing ways. (Ian Bogost, a game designer and Georgia Tech associate professor, penned on just how difficult it is for games to deliver on the promise of Zen.)
And that’s what makes “Flower” such a stunning success. It sinks its hooks into us without threatening us. But how do you keep people engaged in a game when you aren’t putting their (virtual) lives at risk?
“I think there is another very big instinct for humans and that is curiosity,” Chen says. “When you are in this open field of endless waving grass and flowers, you just want to know what’s out there, what’s behind the little hill.”
He’s right. “Flower” is a game so beautifully and cunningly presented, you can’t help but want to peek behind every bucolic nook and cranny. By appealing to our adventurous spirit, it gently draws us in, leaving us focused but calm, even when it takes a turn into darker territory.
But more important than offering a relaxing experience, Chen says he wanted to offer gamers a different experience.
“Right now if you look at what kind of emotional experience a game can offer in the mainstream market it’s very limited to those primal feelings — excitement, thrills, competitions and surprises,” he says. “I hope by making these games that evoke different emotions we can preserve and bring back some of those gamers who used to love games but later found the games too shallow and naive and not worth playing.”
But the question remains: After years of getting juiced on adrenaline, will seasoned players take to a game about flowers (a game that seems more like grandma’s speed)? Do veteran gamers really want to chill in waving fields of green?
Chen believes that if movies can appeal to many different kinds of viewers, then why not games?
“I think there is a way to design an interactive system so that different players can play the game in a different way,” he says. “Like with a Pixar movie, the child and the adult look at different depths of the film, but they can both enjoy it. I think a good game should also be like that.”
While “Flower” may not appeal to everyone, it is capable of satisfying different players on different levels. Those addicted to the rush can careen through “Flower” at top speed, buzzing the tops of the flowers like a fighter pilot buzzing enemy rooftops. But those of us who’d like to mellow out for once in our stress-filled lives, we can sit back and absorb the visual splendor laid out before us. We can meander through the landscape at our leisure. We can stop and smell the flowers … almost.
Hello my happy place. At last I have found you.