Video Games

‘Flower’ and the Power of Games as Art

Flower

Tucked away in the hidden recesses of the PlayStation Network Store, amongst the shooter games and fighting games and puzzle games and what have you, there resides a little work of art named Flower that everyone should experience at least once. It doesn’t matter if you’re a jaded gamer with forty years of pwning n00bs under your belt or a complete neophyte who has never picked up a controller, this delightful little download—originally developed nine years ago for the PlayStation 3, but lovingly revamped in 1080p with 7.1-channel sound for PS4—has a message for you.

 

What that message may be, I’m not quite sure. Because your relationship with Flower will almost certainly be different from mine. I’ve had hours-long conversations with fellow gaming friends, trying our best to come to some consensus on its themes and central messages. But I won’t rehash any of those discussions here, because if you’ve never played Flower, the last thing in the world I want is to color your own interpretation.

 

But I will say this: It’s pretty clear that Flower was made as a reaction to the rather limited range of emotions normally evoked by video games. Much like the recently released Celeste, Flower grapples with notions of achievement and pursuit and their effects on the psyche. Whereas Celeste dealt with such issues by immersing you in a quest and them commenting upon it slyly, Flower takes an alternative approach. It drops you into a gaming world in which achievement isn’t the point at all. Where it’s downright discouraged, in point of fact.

 

In the game, you live out the dreams of a handful of potted plants, perched upon a windowsill overlooking a gray and dreary city. In these dreams, you don’t control a character or any other sort of visible avatar. What you control is the unseen wind. And you control it not with some sophisticated series of button presses, but rather the gentle motion of the video game controller itself. Lean your hands to the right and the wind blows to the right. Lift them up, and you send a gust skyward. And as the wind blows around these beautiful dreamscapes, you collect the petals of flowers strewn throughout their many hills and valleys and ridges and plateaus.

It’s as simple as that, really. But to understand the appeal of Flower, you really have to immerse yourself in it. Because it isn’t until you’re consumed in this experience that you understand something quite profound: Yes, there are hidden secrets in this game. Yes, there are achievements of a sort. But everything about the game forces you into a mental state in which these things aren’t actively sought, but simply appreciated all the more when you do come across them. The goal here isn’t necessarily pleasure, nor fun, nor excitement, but rather peaceful contentment.

 

More so than anything else, what Flower forces you to do is to be present in this moment, right here and right now, with no regard for what comes next. What it pushes you toward is an intrinsic appreciation of the beauty of every interaction, whether it leads to something extrinsically fruitful or not. What it evokes—at least in me—is some approximation of anattā or self-transcendence, the likes of which normally require years of practice in vipassanā meditation to achieve on one’s own.

 

Will it evoke the same in you? I can’t say, of course. But you owe it to yourself to spend seven bucks to find out.

Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

How Video Games Changed the Movies

video games changed movies

One of the laziest and most ubiquitous criticisms leveled at movies these days is to say they’ve been somehow corrupted by video games. It’s a dismissal based primarily on ignorance—the assumption that video games are nothing more than flashy computer graphics and frenetic action. And while it’s true that more and more movies rely on such crutches (I’m looking at you, Michael Bay), I would argue that video games aren’t to blame. Movies like Transformers are simply a result of cheaper digital-rendering effects and lazy writing.

 

If anything, the influence of gaming on movies has been a net positive, but not in the ways you might expect. The biggest change Hollywood has made in response to the overwhelming dominance of the video-game industry—it is, after all, bigger than the music and movie industries combined—is in the way movies tell stories. Specifically, the way they draw you into the narrative experience.

Video games have long had an immersive edge over movies. With games, you’re an active participant, not merely a distant spectator. Can there be any denying, for example, that the aesthetic of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down was, consciously or not, influenced by video games? And I don’t merely mean its action sequencesI mean even the film’s most pedestrian dialogue exchanges, which are often framed in such a way that the character being spoken to is so close to the camera as to spill out of the screen. The film’s over-the-shoulder cinematography sometimes so closely mimics the camera angles of third-person action games that you almost feel your hands reaching for a phantom controller.

 

It’s not just aesthetics, either. The very narrative structure of games is starting to sneak into movies in inventive ways. Contrast, for example, two very popular “time loop” films—1993’s Groundhog Day and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow. Mind you, I realize they’re different genres altogether, but that alone isn’t enough to account for the radical differences in the way these films deal with the concept of being forced to repeat the same events over and over again. In Edge of Tomorrow—which, by the way, director Doug Liman has admitted was largely influenced by the storytelling experience of games—the protagonist isn’t merely there to learn one overarching lesson from his repeated days. He literally learns from every death, much as is the case with video games.

 

I would also argue that the upward trend in the length of films has at least a little to do with games. Before you scoff, hear me out. Video games, by and large, spread their narrative over eight, ten, thirty, sometimes even hundreds of hours of gameplay. They’ve trained us to sit for longer stretches of time to absorb a story—and in a way that’s not quite like reading or like binge-watching a TV series.

 

You could argue whether or not that’s a good thing, of course. But what it boils down to is that the influence of games on the current state of cinema doesn’t simply boil down to pretty lights that hypnotize.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

REVIEWS

Wonder Woman review
Blade Runner: The Final Cut review
Lawrence of Arabia review

Gaming Is Way Better With Atmos

It’s 1989 and I’m helping my dad buy a new TV, because even at a young age I was that kid. The kid who knew things about technology. (Granted, that reputation was pretty hard-won after an incident at age seven when I dismantled the backside our then-new 25-inch solid-state Zenith console TV, fresh off the truck, and exclaimed that the delivery guy was ripping us off because the set was missing all of its vacuum tubesbut that’s a story for another day.)

 

Anyway, back to 1989. Pop and I are standing in our city’s brand-spanking-new Circuit City, right in front all of the Sonys and JVCs and Sylvanias, barking at each other like a couple of rabid mutts. The source of the conflict? I needed—needed, I tell you—a stereo TV. The old man just didn’t see the point.

 

“My Sega Genesis, though! I can route audio out of the headphone jack and into a splitter, and actually play video games with stereo sound!”

 

Long story short, I lost that fight. But it was the beginning of a complicated lifelong relationship between me, video games, and nascent AV sound formats. (Because, yes, in 1989, video + stereo audio at home was pretty cutting edge.)

 

When I acquired my first surround sound receiver (ProLogic, baby!), it was my PlayStation that drove the decision, not my Laserdisc player. On the other hand, after upgrading my sound system to support Dolby Digital and DTS DVDs, it felt like a long and torturous wait for video games to finally catch up with the times. ProLogic II’s stereo-to-surround-sound conversion capabilities had to suffice for a while.

 

Fast-forward to present day, and I find myself in a squabble just as fierce as the one I had with my dad back in 1989, and for very similar reasons. But the struggle is entirely internal. The audio innovation in question this time around? The new object-based sound formats, Dolby Atmos and DTS:X, which add overhead surround sound effects to the audio coming from in front of and behind your head.

 

I’ve reviewed any number of Atmos-equipped receivers and speaker systems for other publications. And I’ve always found the effect neat enough for movies and music. Enough so to get me to actually upgrade my reference home theater system permanently, though? Ehhhh, not so much.

Atmos video games

Video games, though? Now we’re talking! There’s nothing in the realm of cinematic audio that can quite compete with playing Overwatch, for example, and hearing Parah’s battle cry from above—actually being able to pinpoint her location as she drops rockets in the direction of your noggin. Just as effective is the Atmos mix for Star Wars Battlefront, in which the truly three-dimensional soundscape gives you an edge in locating the drop pods that rocket toward the planet from outer space with fresh supplies.

 

Sadly, for now, these experiences are all too rare. Until recently, video games with Atmos sound were pretty much limited to the aforementioned titles, along with Battlefield 1, and only on the PC. Seriously, though, how many of us have home theater sound systems attached to our PCs?

 

Thankfully, Xbox One recently joined in on the Atmos action with the release of Crackdown 3 and Gears of War 4. Sony, meanwhile, seems to be taking a wait-and-see (or I should say wait-and-hear?) approach to this most expansive of audio innovations with its PlayStation 4 console. As such, for now, so am I. But you can rest assured that as soon as the gaming industry as a whole finally embraces the first and only sound format to fully flaunt its immersive superiority over movie sound mixes, I’ll but cutting holes in my ceiling and snaking wires through the walls faster than you can scream, “Justice RAINS from above!”

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.

A Tale of Two Gamers

It’s funny how shared hobbies can both bring us together and tear us apart. I experienced this frustrating rollercoaster of emotions recently when a friend’s husband casually namedropped a rather obscure auto-racing simulator in a chat about videogames (the subject of roughly half the conversations shared in my circle of friends). It was a moment of pure serendipity. Finally, we had both found someone we could reliably race with and against online, without having to wade through lists of anonymous potty-mouthed 12 year olds and demolition-derby wannabes.

 

But that shared joy quickly turned into an argument when we discovered he plays his racing simulations on a PC, whereas I prefer to spin my wheels on PlayStation 4. Playing on different platforms means we may as well live in different universes. We can’t be online racing buddies.

 

“But why?!” he asked, with the same tone of bewildered disgust Chicagoans reserve for people who put ketchup on hot dogs. “The graphics are so much better on PC!”

 

True. But as I explained to him, my PC resides in my home office and is generally reserved for roleplaying and strategy games. For action and racing games—especially racing simulators—my media room is where it’s at. And that’s where my PS4 resides.

After all, a few lines of resolution and some blocky textures are a small price to pay in exchange for 12,800 watts of room-filling surround sound—the Doppler-shifted roar of opponents sneaking up beside me in Project CARS 2; the rumble of a virtual LT4 engine rattling the frame of my Sparco racing cockpit and pounding me right in the chest; the subtle-but-butt-puckering chirp of my pretend rear tires breaking traction as I grip my Logitech G29 steering wheel and sling a pretend Corvette Z06 around the twisting pretend turns of a pretend Mazda Raceway.

 

“Try that without dragging your big, ugly black box of a PC into the living room!”

 

“Pfft. Who cares about the sound?” he scoffed. And just like that, our budding bromance died on the vine. Because, really, how can I be gaming buddies with someone who doesn’t understand that audio is at least half of the experience?

 

Sadly, for now, I’m afraid far too many people share his opinion—his quick dismissal of the undeniably superior experience of gaming in the home theater. In my next post, I’ll explain why they’re dead wrong.

—Dennis Burger

Dennis Burger is an avid Star Wars scholar, Tolkien fanatic, and Corvette enthusiast
who somehow also manages to find time for technological passions including
high-end audio, home automation, and video gaming. He lives in the armpit of
Alabama with his wife Bethany and their four-legged child Bruno, a 75-pound
American Staffordshire Terrier who thinks he’s a Pomeranian.