Reviews of “Art Games” – Flower, Proteus and Dear Ester

Looking at reviews of games that use minimal gameplay or promote unusual emotions, by both critics and consumers, is a good way to gauge what the demand for and public opinion of these games are. I’m using metacrtic, as it is generally the source cited when talking about video game reviews.

Flower

Critics

“In Flower, the surrounding environment, most often pushed to the background in games, is pulled to the forefront and becomes the primary “character.” The player fades from an external and stressful world in the opening of this fresh and genuine game only for PS3, and journeys through beautifully vivid landscapes, changing the his surroundings and exploring nature along the way.” Metacritic

“the floral indie favourite pushed boundaries by exploring the idea of what interactive esntertainment can be, and it flourished by offering an experience based upon emotion rather than challenging or complex gameplay.” Push Square

“Not your typical space marine shoot-a-thon, then, but outrageously empowering all the same.” – Push Square

“There’s a metaphor at play here, but the mere sense of change offers more than enough encouragement to keep you engaged – even if you aren’t willing to delve into the deeper meanings.” – Push Square

“Indeed, with no spoken dialogue or text, each dream is left up to your own interpretation using the mix of audio and visual clues. The real beauty – aside from the colourful botanical displays – is that each individual will experience the game differently, and while there is a very specific feeling that the excursion will evoke, it will take an open mind to fully appreciate the tale being told. Those willing to immerse themselves will find the final dream in particular a profoundly emotional experience that will leave you tingling as you soar towards its conclusion.” – Push Square

“The number of blades of grass has been increased and the lighting effects are jaw-dropping, with the physics of the wind cutting through the colourful meadows to make for a truly beautiful experience.” – Push Square

“Apart from its merits as a game, Flower is breathtaking, perching you atop a flowing breeze so that you may spread the vibrant colors of nature across the land. On the PlayStation 4, Flower is as lovely as ever thanks to a higher resolution, which allows the vividness to shine. Yet Flower’s significance is tied not just to its visual elegance, but also to its use of music and motion to carry you across pastoral lands on a powerful emotional arc.” – GameSpot

“This is the kind of experience some dismiss for not being a game, much as they might dismiss Journey, Gone Home, or Proteus. There is no score to achieve and no time limit obstructing progress. While there are levels that allow you some destructive powers and require you to maneuver with some care, there is no combat and no death. Reaching the end of each level is your ultimate goal, but the dividend is not place on a leaderboard; rather, your gift is the joy of watching gentle foliage radiate across the land after collecting the prescribed petals. Playing Flower is its own reward, following its narrative journey from easy existence, to conflict, to harmonious resolution. Developer thatgamecompany carefully crafted Flower’s tempo so that its lowest emotional point would be followed by an enormous sense of uplift.” – GameSpot

“You could reduce the journey’s message to a simple environmentalist one, but Flower doesn’t argue that humanity is at war with Mother Nature, instead suggests that the two can coexist. Two opposing forces collide, then merge, and that story emerges purely through gameplay and level design, putting an end to any doubt that Flower is less a game than any other systems-driven experience.” – GameSpot

“Like Flower, Journey leads you to an emotional nadir before thrusting you into a glorious awakening, and like Journey, Flower herds you back into its levels’ confines if you try to venture outside of them, though it does so with some awkwardness, in contrast to Journey’s subtle nudges.” – GameSpot

“Just as you might improperly dismiss Flower as “not a game,” you might also improperly dismiss it for its brevity: You could easily finish in an hour, and that hour progresses at a relaxed pace, lulling you into security rather than pumping adrenaline into your nerves. But value is more than a simple price-to-minutes ratio, and I’d sooner revisit Flower’s serenity than countless 50-hour grindfests. Like a snowy mountain ridge or a tranquil river valley, Flower invites introspection and inner calm, and that kind of interactive experience is almost as rare now as it was when I first surfed these winds.” – GameSpot

That gamespot review really helped me understand why I liked flower – it was an introspective experience, akin to meditation. I remember that Richard Lemarchant mentioned something to do with relaxation and mediation in games at his Dare to be Digital talk, which I’ve managed to find  online. I can’t find the small part right now, so I’ll watch it all the way though after I’m finished with the reviews.

Lowest – GameSpot – 80/100

Highest – Push Square = 10/10

Consumers

While critics loved Flower, the general game playing public has a more diverse opinion.

I really don’t understand all the fuzz about this game. How can a game that lasts 25 min, and that costs almost 10 bucks be the first game on the charts for a next gent console?? Like some other user said, it feels like it’s being awarded for it’s originality more than anything else.

Yes it has a nice combination of OK graphics with music and it’s very original and different and relaxing, but seriously, how can this game have nines and tens all over the place.” – Bastrix

the graphics and soundtrack are enough to give this stunning game a 10 out of 10. I really think the graphics in this game are sooo pretty. Especially with the soothing soundtrack. Great game!” – VGrantN

“this is a game where you can pick up, play and admire the art rather than rushing to complete stages.” – PDark2005

“This is not a game, it feels more like a screen saver. if you are into that, then I guess… spend your money. Chances are you have something more compelling on your computer already, just wait 30 minutes and you’ll see what I mean” – Trollyazow

0 – Trollyazow

6 – Bastrix

8 – PDark2005

10 – VGrantN

Consensus

What these reviews tell us is that there is a considerable amount of bias in both camps. Players have a bias of personal preference when playing, and a lack of knowledge to articulate their points well. Journalists have a bias of being invested in games beyond the average consumer, as they chose to review games for a living, meaning that they most likely care about games as an artistic medium. I of course have this bias myself.

Journalists think that this relaxing, introspective game is a thing of beauty, whilst some consumers found it incredibly boring. Its interesting to note that the consumers who did not like the game did not think that it was worth the money it costs, despite being the artistic achievement of a group of people who had to make a living and a profit. Personally, I do think that no matter how much of a wonderful artistic achievement your game is, if its what you are doing full time, it needs to make money. I wonder how players who dislike these sorts of experiences could engage with a game like this?

Proteus

Critics

“The visuals are impressionistic, seemingly rendered via 70s computer technology.” – Guardian

“And partly Proteus is about its location. Throughout the history of literature the island has been used as a liminal zone between reality and the imagination; a place of mystery and isolation, where the rules of society no longer apply, and where stranded travellers can truly discover themselves. Proteus toys with these familiar elements.” – Guardian

“But the biosphere is incredibly detailed: weird creatures prowl the undergrowth, plants rise, breezes rustle through the branches. There is a day/night cycle and by performing a certain ritual, players are able to bring about seasonal changes. Overhead, clouds crawl by, sometimes bringing rain, sometimes a heavy mist that obscures everything but the lowlands.” – Guardian

“The point? Ostensibly, the point is discovery. Every time you play the game, a new island is generated around a set of mandatory scenic features. Your role is to experience it. Sometimes, at dusk, you can stand mid-way up the island’s tallest mountain and watch as the sunlight turns to a deep violet, and the detail of the woodland below obliterates into chunky pixels of colour. In autumn, the sky seems to close in above you, and all you can make out in the distance are the tops of the hills; there, you may well see a circle of weird folkloric statues silhouetted against the nothingness. The moments you have will be your own.” – Guardian

” But Proteus is beautiful, a beautiful thing. And it makes me happy – happy because it is so intrinsically interesting and emotional; happy because we live in an age in which things like this can be made and distributed to everyone with a computer. Maybe that’s the point. Somehow, liking or disliking Proteus has become something of a political decision in the gaming community. The arguments over whether or not it is a game are doomed to fall short of anything conclusive. All games are discreet systems of pleasure – defining beyond that is folly.” – Guardian

If it must be catgorised, Proteus perhaps is best filed alongside last year’s similarly oblique but fascinating experimental games – Dear Esther and Journey. These titles will enrage some, and all have given rise to arguments about value and interaction. But they are all things worth experiencing – you will certainly take more from them than from most of the movies you absent-mindedly order from LoveFilm; even if what you take is confusion and annoyance, even if you can’t make up your mind what they are or what you believe them to be.

That’s the point, right there. We’re entering a new age of emergent, subjective gaming where what we get out is what we put in; where design is a collaborative process of interpretation and imagination. Proteus, Dear Esther and Journey all hint at that future, a Venn diagram of experience, narration and exploration – and at the centre is you.” – Guardian

“Proteus is a first-person ambient exploration title that isn’t your standard conventional game. From the moment you swim up to the island, it demands that you immerse yourself in the surroundings.” – Digital Spy

“Much of the game is minimalistic – objects are blocky and the island has nothing for you to do as such. You can chase frogs or climb mountains, but for no other reason than to make the world something more than a bunch of pleasant-looking pixels. Care enough about the island, though, and you’ll be rewarded with low-key but satisfying moments.” – Digital Spy – Art style reflects gameplay.

“Proteus is very much a niche title. Without any real objective or storytelling hook, the open-ended nature will no doubt bore some. That said, its attempts at emergent gameplay are commendable and worth experiencing if this type of game appeals to you.” – Digital Spy

Guardian – 100

Digital Spy – 60

Consumers

The goal is to immerse yourself really, put your feet up, relax take it in, and the world will introduce curious things to you that will suprise you. I haven’t had the same experience twice, and when it comes to a long stessful day, this is the perfect way to unwind. I absolutely love this game, and its truly special and unique” – Dakro

“I  really want to like this game. It has interesting visuals, it’s unlike anything I’ve ever played before, and it’s relaxing and ambient… you can explore the island through the seasons; the relaxation of spring, the hot, sometimes blindingly bright summer, the strange (and sometimes outright eerie) fall, and, finally, the sad, delicate sparseness of winter. Each season does have an effect on you, and Proteus is sometimes outright moving…t may not say much directly, but there are some definite themes going on here, and they’re quite timely, too. Proteus is certainly an “anti-game,” but that’s the point; we, as gamers, have become too open to distraction and destruction. In these respects, Proteus succeeds. What it fails at is pure and simple longevity.” – Mooker19

I was meaning to do a more pithy review, but lost my edge when I saw someone else already called Proteus an “interactive screensaver.” I agree, and I do like a lot of “art games.” Proteus, though, is extraordinarily slow-paced. It generally left me confused, which would be fine if it were going somewhere, but there didn’t appear to be any ultimate “point” or there was, but well beyond the very short 20m I gave it. For example, a ring of fireflies formed at one point and made a large pillar appear, which must have released some type of invisible sleeping gas. It was probably the coolest moment of my experience, leaving me thinking “Mm. Okay.”

I did try to like the game, but I guess I’m not nearly patient enough, nor interested in a game which doesn’t adequately present itself as more than a distraction. Ultimately, I found myself wishing there was no interactivity at all, and that the character would progress by himself while I ate a bowl of ramen noodles. And then I wondered why I don’t just eat outside before realizing I had frustration to unload here (and it’s 2am!).

It did have soothing graphics (I think “beautiful” is an exaggeration it took me a while to figure out when I arrived at the side of a graveyard [and now I’m doubting my perception], partially because some of the tombstones were swaying). The music was soothing, too kind of reminded me of some of the early music in Rotohex. Proteus is very different, and bold in that originality, but I can’t say it was refreshing. (But it is definitely thought-provoking reviews here are particularly polarized)” – Kluge

Consensus

Similar to flower, very niche, some consumers loved it, some hated it. Negitive reviews seemed less harsh here – maybe becuase of a cheaper price point and very obvious “this is an indie artsy game” when promoting?

Dear Ester

“The wonder of Dear Esther can’t be attributed completely to the narrative, but must share the credit with the game’s stunning visuals and sound. From the clusters of flora that litter the environment to the tranquil howl of wind, the game’s visuals and sound effects are truly a fundamental accomplishment in game design. Each of the game’s four sections offer their own sort of visual treat with the cave topping the list for most stunning. The slow pace of the player’s walk and overall style of the game is built for taking breaks and enjoying the vistas.” – Gaming Nexus

“There have been discussions in reviews questioning the project’s choice of medium and whether it’s a worthwhile investment for the included gameplay. These may be valid points when considering the extremely simplified gameplay and short length. However, both of these points become mute after truly experiencing the unique and mysterious world of Dear Esther. There is never direction from the game in pointing the player to a particular location. It is simply the instinct to venture forward, further toward the pulsating red light located on top the radio mast. Few games offer such an unique and emotional journey, that passing on the experience of Dear Esther is comparable to avoiding a great piece of art. In the crowded market of games, titles like Dear Esther are often ignored among the highly marketed franchises. It’s rather unfortunate that most of those games that fill store shelves and top bestselling charts contain only an ounce of the originality and awe-inspiring power of the narrative found in Dear Esther.” – Gaming Nexus

“It’s perfectly reasonable to ask why something like Dear Esther exists in the first place. Essentially a remake of a Half-Life 2 mod. Problem is, it’s not really a videogame. Critics have been struggling to attach a label to Dear Esther—experimental, interactive movie, a narrative experience—none of which really describe it accurately. Dear Esther is a game that isn’t a game.” – Thunderbolt

Dear Esther is clearly trying to be a work of art, so it’s no surprise that it carries with it a level of pretentiousness and obscurity commonly found in other ‘experimental’ titles.” – Thunderbolt

“At least the surroundings are nice to look at. Beaches, caves, and the entire island itself are rendered beautifully. Dear Esther might be the best-looking game to ever be powered by the Source engine. But with that comes the crushing realization that exploration isn’t possible given the invisible barriers that constantly show up whenever the player veers off the linear pathway.” – Visuals must support gameplay, cannot be an exuse for not having any, – Thunderbolt

“What profundities can be reached after one experiences/plays Dear Esther? After so much walking and personal reflection, what is the point of the entire experience? None, although the developers might beg to differ.” – Thunderbolt

“With no story or true narrative to latch onto, there’s no reason for players to care about what’s going on. And there’s only one thing ever going on in Dear Esther: nothing. Broken up into individual pieces—the graphics, writing, and music clearly show talent and might have led to interesting stories or games—but together they form a dull, lifeless experience that’s quickly forgotten.” – Thunderbolt. Would be interested in what they have to say on Flower’s poem like narritative. I liked the idea of using an idea rather than a narrative but this is perhaps where backlash comes from.

The same site says about flower “There’s a sense of spirituality here; it’s easy to get wrapped up in its charm and float off into another world, almost as if you’re daydreaming or even meditating. No other game I’ve played has given off this feeling. There are no punishments, no time limits, you’re free to just sit back, unwind and relieve yourself of all life’s problems…And this majestic gameplay is reflected in the visuals. To put it simply,Flower is a stunning game to look at, both in terms of graphical power and art direction. You have these massive, sweeping fields and each blade of grass is it’s own entity. It will twist and turn in the wind, parting down the middle as the petals flow through it. If the message of Flower is the beauty of nature, then they got it spot on here; even managing to intersperse the grassy fields with man-made machinery to create something visually appealing, despite the fact it goes against everything you’ve witnessed in the game up to that point.” – quite a constrast!

Gaming Nexus – 100

Thunderbolt – 30

Consumers

“It made me smile at how stunning and ethereal some of it is, it made me sad, it made me a little scared in places, it even made me shiver while sitting in a warm room because the mist blowing off the sea is so effective.” – Greid

“As a gamer I think we need more of this. A game made out of love, with attention to detail” – Greid

As it’s own game, it’s nothing worthwhile. The story could easily have been packed into 20 minutes instead of 60-90 minutes of walking through beautiful, but generally uninteresting terrain.” – CrySurfer

“Too much symbolism and not enough fact make it impossible for me to have a real emotional response. My experience is my own and you may feel differently. It’s a beautiful word of art and I recommend it on that alone. If you get something out of the narrative, then even better.” – Raynes

Conclusion
There’s a lot I could learn about constructing games like this from the Dear Ester reviews. Everything is positive about the art, but the lack of a coherent narrative driving the experience leads players to be bored. Just pretty art is not enough. There needs to be something more if the final piece is an actual game.

My focus was supposed to be more on emotional games, but I seem to be straying towards games that are classed as art games. I know that I want to explore player emotion rather than character emotion, but defining that line is difficult. After doing this I thought about talking to people in person about their views, as I have a clear bias, but all it seemed to start was a facebook argument. Its interesting how strongly people feel about these sorts of games!

FacebookWroteMyDissertatino

http://www.thunderboltgames.com/review/dear-esther

http://www.pushsquare.com/reviews/ps4/flower

http://www.gamespot.com/reviews/flower-review/1900-6415537/

http://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2013/feb/04/proteus-review

http://www.digitalspy.co.uk/gaming/levelup/a456897/downloadable-games-round-up-antichamber-proteus-more.html#~oSc9rIBunCtaSz

http://www.metacritic.com/game/pc/proteus

http://www.gamingnexus.com/Article/Dear-Esther/Item3397.aspx

http://www.thunderboltgames.com/review/flower

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