Life Could Be Simple: The Works of Thatgamecompany
On a random Saturday night, back during the cold, bleak winter months of 2007, I found myself at a friend’s house, a bottle of wine in hand. Being the classy gent I am, I uncorked it and drank straight from the bottle, catching up with fellow Theory of Gaming writer Joshua Cline. We were talking about – what else – video games. I owned an Xbox 360 and one of those new, difficult-to-find Wii consoles, and he owned one of those ultra-expensive, fancy Playstation 3 consoles. So we spent the evening comparing notes – what works on this console, what feature do you wish the other had. At the time, there wasn’t much out for the Wii or Playstation 3, and right after I downed the last drop of wine, I asked him what he was using his expensive new tech for.
“Have you heard of flOw?” he asked.
I hadn’t, and without a word he tossed me a controller. The screen turned a light, calming shade of blue, before an image gradually appeared – the only thing flOw has in regards to a tutorial. Tilt the controller to move. Push any button to get a boost.
For the next hour, I sat in a trance, navigating a weird aquatic creature-thing deeper and deeper into the abyss. I didn’t care about goals or objectives – I moved at my own pace, let the soothing music wash over me, tilting the controller around in my hands. I was relaxed, in the moment, probably the closest thing I have felt to “zen” in my entire life. After I reached the end, I tossed the controller back at him, a smile on my face. How could such a simple game move me in such a strong way?
Of course, the wine had a little part to play in that. But a couple years later, when I purchased my own Playstation 3, the first title I downloaded was flOw. The experience still affected me greatly. I would come home from a particularly stressful day of school, work, petty adult drama, and zone out, tilting the controller left and right, swimming the ocean from the bright surface to the dark, murky depths.
In the years since, developer Thatgamecompany has released two more titles, Flower and Journey, both to critical acclaim. Each game shares much in common – all three are focused more on the experience, the serenity that video games can provide, rather than the epics and intense dramas their peers often focus on. There is not a single line of dialogue found in any title, yet each game carries an emotional weight to it, and a meaning that is left to interpretation. The philosophy of Thatgamecompany can be found in each of their titles, and each one explores a concept of life, its meaning and purpose, in a dramatic, powerful way.
A Shift In Perspective
To better understand the ideas behind flOw, Flower and Journey, we need to change the way we often think about video games. There’s a concept in film criticism known as the auteur theory, which states that a film is a reflection of the director’s creative instincts, beliefs and vision, much in the same way that a novel is the work of a sole author. The auteur theory has been part of film criticism since 1954, and has provided filmmakers, critics and viewers with a way to better understand cinema, taking a director’s projects and critiquing them as one whole body of work. It may seem like common sense today, but when it was first proposed, it helped elevate the medium of film to a serious pursuit of study and worthy of critical, intellectual discussion.
Unfortunately, the auteur theory hasn’t quite made its way into the realm of video game criticism. How we think about and view video games, in regards to their artistic merit and the vision of the people behind the project, remains one of the most underdeveloped aspects of the industry. Rarely are developers or creators singled out – we think of the collective team behind the title, or often the publisher. The Division is an Ubisoft game, not a game by the trio of Magnus Jansén, Julian Gerighty and Ryan Barnard. And Ubisoft is a sterile, monolithic entity – that identity means as much to gamers as the New Line Cinema identity means to viewers.
Part of this may have something to do with the example provided – video games appear to be more of a collaborative effort than film (although that is certainly not the case). There are three directors on The Division, not to mention the countless concept artists, programmers and sound engineers. Film, on the other hand, often only has one director, who seemingly calls all the shots and is responsible for the final artistic creation. Of course the reality is that directors often collaborate with other talented artists to create their vision, just as video game directors collaborate with concept artists and programmers. The film Children of Men may be known as a film by Alfonso Cuarón, but it’s the cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki that makes it memorable. Yet Cuarón gets all the credit as the director – it becomes part of his larger body of work, and he benefits from the study of the auteur theory.
Video games are just as much of a collaborative effort as film, yet there are few examples of how ideas such as the auteur theory can be applied to a developer. It’s important to think of video games this way – not only will it elevate them in the same way film was in the mid-1950s, but it also humanizes the people behind the game. They’re not just faceless programmers, tirelessly coding on one project after another. They’re artists, auteurs, whose work demands to be critiqued and examined with the same level of respect as film.
The works of Thatgamecompany provide a perfect starting point when examining games through the lens of the auteur theory. Each title presents a part of Thatgamecompany’s larger philosophy, and explores those thoughts and emotions. More important, when stepping back and looking at all three games, it becomes clear that each game builds off the other, that each one compliments the other well. Each game can be viewed by itself as a piece of art, yet together they form something even greater.
Life Could Be Simple
The first defining aspect of Thatgamecompany is their minimalist approach. Each title can be completed within a few hours, and although they tell a story, they do so without dialogue, lengthy cutscenes or expository text. It doesn’t take long to begin to see the meaning behind each game, but story and metaphor are only a part of the larger picture. Thatgamecompany’s titles are about the experience, the journey, the emotions conjured in the moment.
The second defining aspect can be found in the tagline for flOw. Other than the tutorial, these are the only other words associated with the game – life could be simple. Each title looks at life and its many forms – in flOw, life is a variety of single and multi-cell organisms floating in the ocean; in Flower, life is the world of nature, the plants, mountains and winds that shape the land; and in Journey, life is an advanced civilization, and the machines that ushered in an era of rapid expansion, but also signaled the demise of a once grand city and its people. The many forms of life are front and center in these titles, and so is their conflict – simplicity, or the struggle to become something greater. Life could be simple, but it’s not – it’s evolving, growing and expanding, which leads to a whole host of issues that threaten that very life.
The philosophy of Thatgamecompany is the struggle of life. There is the cost inherited during progress and evolution, the struggle of life to persevere under harsh conditions, and there is the cyclical nature of existence – life, death and rebirth. Each game speaks to all of those themes, creating a larger picture, but when zooming in and dissecting them further, each game explores one of those three ideas, and does so in minimalist, creative fashion that leaves room for interpretation, speculation and, most importantly, conversation.
flOw – Life Feeds On Life
The best way to think about flOw is to look at it as the spiritual successor to Pac Man. Debuting alongside Sony’s Playstation 3 and Six-Axis controller, flOw was a modern version of an arcade classic. The goal is to move one of six creatures around a level, eating food and other advanced creatures, before diving down to the next level, where there are even more advanced and deadly creatures. Players tilt the controller to move their creature and any button can be used for an attack. As players collect food, the creature grows in size, becoming larger and larger until players reach the penultimate level, where they must defeat a creature identical in size and type to their very own. If they are defeated, players are sent back up a level, to collect more food and, potentially, grow stronger. Once they have reached the final level, players can consume a glowing egg, which brings them back to the surface and unlocks a new creature.
flOw is the most simple of Thatgamecompany’s games, but it offers some of the more intriguing ideas. The game presents the notion that, in order for life to evolve, it must consume other forms of life. At the beginning of the game, creatures start out small, but by the end they take up a sizeable portion of the screen, and in order to achieve this size they must consume a lot of food and plenty of other advanced creatures.
There’s a disconcerting calm that comes over a level when all of the food has been eaten and all of the creatures killed and consumed. When players first enter a new level, it feels alive, energetic. Tiny single-cell organisms, large in number, swim around the edges of the map, and more complex creatures lazily swim in the center. Each level feels like it has its own ecosystem, until the player devours it all. What’s left is a void, empty and motionless, save for the player character, who is now larger than before, ready to proceed to the next level.
Not only does this evolution require a lot of resources, a practice that takes a devastating toll on the environment, but the reward is to move further into the abyss and confront even graver threats. The other advanced creatures become larger as well, and will fight back when provoked. At times, the journey to the end of flOw can be surprisingly difficult, especially when the player must defeat a clone of their creature. This is where the symbolism and metaphor is at its strongest – in order for life to evolve, it not only must destroy lesser life forms, but during the process its own kind will also suffer greatly. Human evolution has led us to a place where we can construct giant skyscrapers and communicate with someone halfway around the world instantaneously, but we didn’t get here simply because we climbed higher on the food chain than other animals – we got here, partially, as the unfortunate result of human suffering. Life, in both flOw and our world, not only must feed off other life to survive, but also off itself.
When the player finally reaches the last level and is sent back to the beginning, it begs the question – what was the meaning of this? Why fight and consume so much, only to repeat the process with another creature? flOw doesn’t concern itself with answering that question, which makes the experience all the more powerful. There is no reason as to why the player must destroy so much just to evolve, just as there was no reason for humans to evolve the way we did. There are scientific explanations, just as there are gameplay mechanics in flOw, but there is no reason, yet we feel compelled. We want to reach the bottom of the ocean; to build the tallest buildings and greatest cities, no matter the cost.
In flOw, Thatgamecompany took the simple mechanics of Pac Man, stripped them down even further, and used them to present this idea of evolution via consumption, and the toll it takes on the world. By focusing on the core elements, flOw forces players to confront these ideas. We don’t greedily gobble up dots to earn a higher score – we do this for survival, costs be damned.
Flower – Life Finds A Way
If flOw is a game about progress and evolution, then Flower is the perfect follow-up. The gameplay is very similar – tilt the controller to move, pressing any button to accelerate. However, instead of moving around a 2-D plane, Flower allows players to move in all three dimensions.
Unlike flOw, Flower has a story that is told through very brief cutscenes that play before each level. They almost aren’t even cutscenes – moving photos would be a better way to describe them. Players see a city, filled with people, growing taller and taller. Cranes dot the skyline, and before long there is little color left in the world, just shades of concrete and steel. The game takes place far from that world – a series of flowers, sitting on a windowsill in an apartment, symbolize the different stages of human life and advancement. In the first level, there is just an open field, and a single flower petal. The goal of the game is to control the wind and move that flower petal toward other flowers that haven’t bloomed. Touching those flowers will cause them to bloom, and one of their petals will join the others, and before long players are using the wind to steer a large column of flowers across the land. Players advance through each level by interacting with different patterns of flowers – causing them to bloom will open a new pathway, and another stage of humanity’s own evolution.
In the first level, the player simply makes their way toward a large tree, and when they make contact with it the tree blossoms, transforming the land around it. The second level is much of the same, except this time the transformation of the world is a bit more dramatic. When enough flowers bloom, a canyon opens up, and players are whisked to a land where they can change the color of their flower petals to paint the grass, strengthening this idea that nature can be altered and manipulated. Throughout these levels, the cutscenes show a city that, while rapidly growing, is without conflict – life continues to march forward unimpeded.
Eventually, players will interact not just with natural elements, but man-made ones. The third level allows players to utilize a series of wind turbines, the first truly unnatural element in Flower. But the world is still full of light and color – there is a balance between nature and the inevitable progress of humanity. The conflict arises when that balance is lost – in the fourth level, players must use the flowers to illuminate a field at night. However, the field is too big in size for one flower to light it up, and the player must activate a series of street lights. But the amount of energy needed is too much, and suddenly the lights burn out. The world grows dark, and twisted metal spires shoot from the ground, electricity surging through them. Touching one of these will burn the flowers, creating a hostile environment where there previously wasn’t. In the cutscene that follows, the city is suddenly without power, and the flower representing the fifth level is limp, on the verge of dying.
This is the central conflict and thesis of Flower – we may not have a reason for evolution and progress, but we are compelled into it. Yet if left unchecked, the unnatural elements of our evolution could be our own undoing. But the last level of Flower ends on a positive note. Just when the city and world seem to be overcome by stormclouds and sharp, twisted metal, nature finds a way to fight back. The player controls an illuminated flower, a powerful one that can knock down the metal and survive the electricity of this twisted, unbalanced world. Players remove these unnatural elements from the world, and in their place comes the color and beauty of the natural world, along with clean, bright buildings. After collecting hundreds of flower petals, the player finally makes it to the center of the city, the largest collection of collapsed cranes and metallic abominations, and overcomes it, converting it into a large tree, one that stands in the middle of a new, modern city. The final cutscene shows a bright, clean city, and a lone flower growing out of a crack in the pavement.
The message of Flower is that evolution and progress are great things, but when left unchecked, it can create an imbalance that will threaten all life. But that struggle is what makes life so beautiful – seeing a colorful field where there once was concrete motivates the player to return life to the world. We may struggle against our own selves, our own ambitions may get the better of us, but if we can live life in balance with nature, we will survive. And if we don’t find that balance, we may die out, but nature never will. Life will always find a way.
Journey – Those Who Cannot Remember The Past
The aspect of Flower that I later grew to appreciate was that the player wasn’t in control of a person, but in control of the wind. In fact, until this point, Thatgamecompany put players in control of everything but a human, and the result was that, ultimately, the player had all the power and influence over advanced lifeforms. It’s an interesting twist on a dynamic that many gamers take for granted, that people will always be the focal point of the game. But the lessons of flOw and Flower is that life finds a way, but that way is through non-intelligent beings who ensure there is balance to the world.
But what would happen if there was no balance, no power to help guide humanity down the right path? It would create a cycle, one where life feeds on life, until it consumes too much. Nature would take over, but eventually give rise to new life who, if they didn’t understand the history that came before them, would make the same mistake. This cycle would repeat until that history would be learned and understood.
In many ways, Journey is both Thatgamecompany’s most traditional and nontraditional experience. Gamers are finally given control of a person, and the mechanics are far more in line with what we commonly expect from video games. Journey opens up with the player character, a wanderer, standing in a desert. A shooting star flies overhead, and off in the distance is a tall mountain with a brilliant light shining out of its peak. The player doesn’t know why, but they are compelled to move toward the mountain, and along the way they learn how to manipulate strange pieces of red fabric, which allow them to jump. Those are the only controls – movement and limited jumping, and with those tools players must climb towers and navigate crumbling cities to reach the mountain.
The story of Journey is a simple one, but through clever design it’s a story that needs to be experienced twice in order to be understood. At the end of each level, the wanderer enters a light, and they see a visions of an ancestor, much taller than them, adorned in white robes instead of red. A piece of their ancestor’s history is laid out before them, in the style of hieroglyphs. The player sees that the light from the mountain is a source of energy, and their ancestors learned how to harness this energy to build giant cities. However, they lost control of this energy, and the result was the creation of large, flying machines, which imprisoned and killed the player’s ancestors. These machines removed nearly every source of light and energy from the world; it’s up to the player to ascend the mountain and enter the light they’ve been drawn to. Doing so will cause just a bit more of that energy, in the form of a shooting star, to reenter the world, spreading its essence throughout the once abandoned land, waking it back up. Life will survive, but only by understanding the mistakes of the past.
Journey conveys this idea to the player not just through the hieroglyphs, but by the actions the player themselves take. The journey through the ancient civilization parallels the rise and fall of those ancestors – in the first level, players must manipulate the strange red cloth to build a bridge that sends them up and over a large expanse and closer to the mountain. This mirrors the rapid rise of the ancient civilization, who imbued the red fabric with the energy released from the mountain to allow them to create this grand civilization. After trekking through the desert, where the player sees the factories that produced the machines that would eventually signal the downfall of their ancestors, the wanderer slides on the sand down through the ruins of the city and into its depths, which leads to a temple. This section parallels the decline of the ancient civilization, and only by entering the temple and ascending it will the player learn of their ancestor’s history, and their role in this story – to climb the mountain and send more light into the world.
It’s not until the end that Journey’s story becomes clear, which is why it must be played twice in order to understand. In keeping with this theme of the cycle of life, death and rebirth, players will return to the exact same spot in the desert that they started, realizing that the shooting star above them in the sky is their previous self, entering the light at the mountain. On that second journey, the player knows what happened, and can appreciate how each level is a metaphor for this story. Being reborn with that knowledge makes each subsequent playthrough easier, and although the player never sees the world reborn anew, there is a seed of hope planted, that eventually life will find a way to break through this vicious cycle.
Journey is the culmination of the ideas presented in flOw and Flower – life constantly progresses, with no reason other than to progress, and when ignored, that progression can be lethal. But therein lies the beauty of Thatgamecompany’s collective work – these ideas may be present in Journey, but they are strengthened with the knowledge gained in Flower. And the struggle of life to persevere in Flower has an even greater impact when players are able to see the sacrifices needed for life to grow, which brings players back to flOw. And although flOw doesn’t offer any answers to the questions on the meaning of life, that process of evolution takes on a greater meaning when players reflect on the possibility and potential of life, as seen in Journey.
Thatgamecompany was able to explore some of life’s most profound questions, and they did so without a single line of dialogue. Their work, when taken as a whole, presents one of the most beautiful, tragic and inspiring stories in all of gaming. It’s a story and a series of experiences that will haunt the player, yet will provide a glimmer of hope. It’s a story that I hope Thatgamecompany builds upon – with their help, we can look at video games with the same level of respect we look at films and literature, and hopefully find answers to these big questions.