There is a wide selection of genres when it comes to video games. From first person shooters, like Modern Warfare, for the adrenaline seekers, to exploration games, like Mist, for the curious and adventurous, there is a game for every personality and interest. Recently there has been a surge in relaxation games and applications, usually employing tranquil sounds and mesmerizing visuals in order to distract and calm the mind. With this large variation of genres in the gaming realm comes the recent impulse for mash-ups, the act of combining different styles to create unique work. Games are becoming increasingly more complex as they are employing multiple themes using a variety of techniques.
The game flOw, created in 2006 by Jenova Chen, was one of the first of its kind to merge an explorative puzzle game with an addictive meditation simulator. The player controls a small, circular segmented organism, with a half-circle mouth on one end. The player moves her curser around the screen to guide the organism where to swim, and clicks to give it a boost of speed. The simulation begins in a light blue aquatic environment, and as the player explores, they will see two radiating circles on edges of the screen, one blue and the other red. If they choose to approach one, their organism will encounter a smaller circular creature with a little tail. The new critter will correspond to the color in which the player decided to swim toward, so blue or red. The player can then choose to consume the organism, which acts as a portal to a slightly varying environment dependent upon which color the player chose to eat.
If the player chose to consume only the red organisms, the environment will progressively get darker. The darker the screen the more dangerous the surroundings become, as the most treacherous creatures live in the dark depths of the ocean. Much larger creatures may appear, and the player will be confronted by their flight or fight response. The musical atmosphere grows ominous as predators approach. If the approaching creature turns orange, this conveys that it will attack the player’s organism. At this moment the player can resolve to strike at the attacking creature by eating the segments of the opponents body; if successful the creature will turn blue and the player’s organism will light up white. The creature is defeated when most of its larger segments are consumed, and then the organism will burst into sections for the player’s creature to polish off. When the player consumes these white organic segments, their creature grows larger and eventually evolves. To evade the encounter they can search and then consume the circular blue entity, mentioned earlier, to bring them upward toward a safer depth. Though if they cannot escape in time, and the player’s creature is overpowered, they may loose a segment, and will be forced to move upward toward a brighter, safer environment. On the contrary, if they defeat most of the creatures on their current occupied level, they may choose to pursue larger and more dangerous creatures by traveling to a lower depth, which is done by consuming more of the red circular life forms. If the player continues to eat enough of the red, they will reach an entirely black environment; everything is consumed in the darkness except for their glowing creature. There seems to be two directions the player can travel, to the mysterious deep by consuming the red creatures, and to the lustrous surface by eating the blue.
If the player pursues the blue radiating circle and consumes the blue organisms, the environment will become a brighter, lighter blue. The habitat grows safer as the player seems to move toward the water’s surface. Opposite of consuming the red organisms, if they consume only blue creatures they will eventually reach a lustrous blue screen, with the lightest hue, hymn music echoes through the speakers, and the flOw title script floats in the water. There are no dangerous creatures lurking for a surprise attack, and smaller white organisms swim freely that the player can consume.
Each layer in the game has sonic tonal changes, and offers random exposure to other organisms, larger and smaller than the player’s. The longer they play the game and the more they consume, the larger and longer their organism will grow. This exploration game is highly addictive as it evokes the player’s curiosity. They are never entirely sure what’s going to happen next, and with no instructions they are forced to experiment and investigate to discover how the game functions. According to the Wall Street Journal it is,
“a player's instinctual urge (when controlling an avatar with such prominent jaws) to pull a Pac-Man and swallow everything in sight. Each time the creature consumes another organism it grows, first adding orbs to its tail and eventually sprouting leg-like appendages. Evolution allows the creature to swim faster and withstand greater damage from hungry deep-sea rivals” (https://www.wsj.com/articles/SB116460570723333343).
This makes the game extremely addicting and enjoyable, because the consumption of other organisms rewards the player by giving their organism more powerful traits.
This game evokes the Matrix’s red pill, blue pill symbols. The red represents knowledge, freedom, and in flOw exploration, however this comes with danger; while the blue represents blissful ignorance and safety without much adventure, in this case your organism can find security in consuming the blue organism, but never encounter other organisms to evolve. flOw is representative of life. As organic entities, we are faced with difficult, life altering choices on a daily basis. Usually, the more risky or challenging opportunities lead to higher reward. The known offers security and the safety of living day-to-day routine without falter, it offers consistency. However, one’s knowledge will never grow without pursuit or without some sacrifice of security for risk to achieve knowledge and life experiences. The game’s simplicity surprisingly captures the complexity of the decision making process. It forces the player to choose paths, using instinct and intelligence to make a final decision.
flOw initially began as Jenova Chen’s graduate school thesis on “flow theory”. The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi’s theory is that,
“Flow is an optimal psychological state that people experience when engaged in an activity that is both appropriately challenging to one’s skill level, often resulting in immersion and concentrated focus on a task. This can result in deep learning and high levels of personal and work satisfaction” (https://www.learning-theories.com/flow-csikszentmihalyi.html).
So the game flOw attempts to capture this by creating a calming environment and a game play that changes difficulty depending on the player, to entice the player to continue their involvement with the program. Eventually the game evolved into a PlayStation 3 game, and Chen was offered an opportunity to work with Sony. This explains why the game Spore actually begins with such a similar sequence as flOw. You start as a microbial organism and consume other organisms to evolve, eventually to a point where you can walk on land in Spore. This specific game play was directly inspired by Chen’s flOw.
There are now other games out there that are also reminiscent of flOw, such as LandShark Game’s Zen Koi (2015), where the player maneuvers a koi fish through a pound to feast on smaller fish and algae in order to grow and become a dragon. There are many different types of koi that the player can discover and accumulate in order to complete collections of fish. The purpose of the game is to distract the mind, as it takes the tranquility of watching a koi pond, and puts in the palm of the player's hand. It creates an effortless way to escape from hectic reality. Both Zen Koi and flOw simulate meditation using calming water environments, classical atmospheric noise, and the consistency of game play using this never ending cycle of consumption. flOw was extremely unique as it was the first of its kind, and inspired so many different games that followed. It is still extremely addictive, and though gaming technology has advanced, the way the brain interacts with its gameplay is unaltered.
Chen created another game, called Flower, that focuses on relaxation. The premise is that the player explores the dreams and inner imagination of a flower whose home is a big city, and it contrasts the motion and rush of city life with the tranquility of nature. This piece very much relates to flOw as it expands on Chen’s earlier ideas of tranquility. It is contextually more relatable as it takes place in a city, as opposed to under water, and most people at some point have cared for a houseplant, and maybe even personified it. City life can be overwhelming, trying to balance work, play, family, friends, and living in an urban environment that never seems to sleep. Games like Flower and flOw offer an escape, using the imagination and curiosity of the mind to take the player’s consciousness to another realm. Flower in particular takes the player to their houseplant’s imaginary world of lush forests and open fields, distracting and calming the mind.
Meditation and relaxation are essential for a healthy mind, and a new gaming environment is making it easier for people to take relaxation possibilities with them throughout their daily life. With phone apps, such as Zen Koi, and immersive video games, such as Flower and flOw, people are given the option to transport their mind to new environments whenever and wherever they please, finding a brief mental escape from any overwhelming situation. However, one should keep in mind what is fiction and what is reality.
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