Originally released as a Flash game in early 2006, flOw was written by Jenova Chen and Nicholas Clark as a part of Chen’s thesis research at the USC Interactive Media Division. In the game, the player controls a simple aquatic microorganism whose goal is to consume other creatures and descend to deeper and more difficult levels of an oceanic environment. The creature has a modular structure that becomes longer or more complex as it consumes other life forms. After Chen formed That Game Company in May 2006, flOw was released for the Playstation 3 in 2007 as a flagship example of Sony’s initiative to support independent developers through their PSN network. flOw is notable for being one of the first unconventional indie titles successfully published in the console space.
flOw is a dreamy and simple world, with richly colored environments, glowing, stylized creatures, and the occasional wash of illuminating refractions. There are six creatures available to play, each with their own distinctly-colored environment. The stratas that serve as different “levels” are filled with bizarre enemies, power ups, and ambient floating particulates, and each subsequent strata is just clear enough in the background to vaguely make out what monsters lurk in the next layer:
Visually, it stood out at the time as a boldly unique title in a sea of “next-gen” mainstream games that were squeezing as much gritty realism out of the Unreal Engine 3 as they could. flOw was the anti-next-gen game, a heroic little microcosm that never even tried to enter the conversation of the day about real-time physics, hyper-realistic facial animation, and high dynamic range lighting. In short: console titles weren’t supposed to look like flOw.
It was a beautifully idealistic representation of sea life wrapped in an refreshingly simple gameplay mechanic… and came to fame at the advent of the independent game development boom that today is creating the most innovative and unconventional games ever made.
What I love most about the game is how stylized and inorganic the components that make up the creatures are. They seem more like figures in a music score or letters in a strange alphabet, though they undoubtedly become living creatures through their actions. Playing flOw always reminds me of an old book I found in a thrift store a few years ago called The Manual of Phonography. Phonography is the practice of transcribing speech by means of symbols representing elements of sound… basically a phonetic shorthand. It’s loaded with an exhaustive alphabet of letter-like symbols:
(Entire text can be seen on Google Books.)
Games like this remind me that often, innovation comes not from grueling and painstaking effort and exhaustive experimentation, but simple re-envisioning and re-purposing of the normally forgettable minutia around us. The curves of a letter, the dust illuminated in a beam of light, the graceful movement of a fish. The universe is as infinitely small as it is infinitely large, and there is much inspiration to glean from both.
flOw is currently available via digital download for the Playstation 3 and PSP on the Playstation Network, at quite a reasonable price. Find out more about the game on Playstation.com.