Special Topics In Gameology is an in-depth look at a specific corner of the gaming world in miniseries form. For this edition of the feature—Empty Spaces—we’re examining games’ most fascinating realms of desolation. This is the final piece in the Empty Spaces series.
As the expression goes, wherever you go, there you are. It’s supposed to be a Zen thing: Searching for joy and purpose outside yourself is fruitless, since you always have your own baggage with you. The idea, if I’ve got this right, is to seek a life where you’re satisfied with yourself, at which point you’ll find happiness in all your endeavors. That’s a nice thought, but this idiom also has the advantage of being literally true. Tiptoe through an abandoned house or walk through the streets alone at night, and there you are doing it. Head out into the otherwise empty woods on the outskirts of town, and you’ll still have yourself for company. When someone talks about going to an “empty” place, they mean that nobody was there—except for them.
This is generally the case for video games as well. Games, often with an emphasis on exploration and player-controlled pacing, are the perfect venue for exploring so-called “empty spaces.” Atmospheric single-player games are especially infatuated with the image of a lone explorer striking out into virgin territory, whether it’s the Viking-helmeted Dragonborn of The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim cutting a path through the mountains or the cloaked pilgrims of Journey gliding through ancient ruins. But even as players explore these desolate environments, we almost always do it through some kind of avatar. Thus we ensure that even the most forgotten corners of a world have a population of at least one by the time we see them on-screen. The axiom holds: Wherever you go, there you are.
But not in Flower. In thatgamecompany’s 2009 sophomore effort, there is no character through which you experience the game’s events. You don’t play as flower petals but as the wind on which they travel. Holding any button on the controller causes the wind to blow, and tilting the controller influences the direction of the breeze. There is no avatar—no Dragonborn or Journeyer to experience the game’s scenes for us and to populate the otherwise empty spaces they inhabit. In Flower, there is only the wind, and if you put the controller down, there isn’t even that. Flower is a window into unadulterated emptiness, and it treats that emptiness as preferable to the overstuffed city.
Flower splits its minimalist story between depictions of washed-out urban misery and the picturesque countryside. In the scenes that precede each level, city life is noisy, ugly, and unfulfilling. The city is characterized by impersonal buildings, omnipresent construction cranes, and an oppressive darkness barely kept at bay with harsh artificial lighting. The city is created by and for people. There are no specific human characters in Flower—instead, humanity exists as an unseen herd whose presence is felt through the surroundings.
The pastoral stages of Flower are a contrast to the city-slicking scenes that precede them. As opposed to urban streets’ claustrophobia, the playable levels are open-air environments in which exploration and experimentation are encouraged. Unlike the dull city, the valleys and mountains are vibrant. The tinkling pianos and pizzicato strings of the countryside replace the city’s sorrowful minor-key strings and squeaking horns. Humanity, technology, and our accretion of miscellaneous stuff are compared unfavorably to the emptiness of the natural world. In later levels, twisted transmission towers and power lines invade the fields, dragging nature’s serenity into darkness and scorching some of your flower petals if they come into contact with the structures. The only technologies the game doesn’t hold in contempt are those that coexist with their natural surroundings, like wind turbines. On the whole, though, humanity and our inventions are stifling and malignant.
Funnily enough, many games that indulge in the exploration of empty spaces accidentally send the same message that Flower sends deliberately. For every Journey pilgrim on a respectful odyssey across a ruined land, there are a dozen Links or Lara Crofts pillaging and destroying their way through ancient locations (and killing every endangered animal that crosses their path). In many of these games, there is no way to appreciate the emptiness of these places without treating them like big treasure chests to be plundered or obstacles to be circumvented or destroyed. By forcing players to experience these spaces through a character, we are forced to act like Flower’s humans: greedy and destructive. In most cases, wherever you go, there you are—bringing your character’s disastrous human impulses with you.
In Flower, though, the goal is to enjoy and proliferate the uncorrupted natural world. There isn’t a character whose goals need to be met. There are no treasure chests to open. It’s an opportunity to experience genuine emptiness—impossible by our nature in real life and impossible by design in most games. There is only the wind and the grass, population zero. No matter where you go, there you aren’t.
Previously in the Empty Spaces series:
- Myst uses emptiness to calm you; its sequel uses emptiness to provoke
- There’s hidden beauty in abandoned World Of Warcraft cities
- Gone Home’s barren mansion doesn’t need monsters to unnerve you
- The isolation of Metroid Prime reflects its hero’s sense of loss
- Final Fantasy VI explores human pain through its shattered geography