Everybody dreams of the day they can swim about peacefully in strange fluid and devour all in their path. This independent game from thatgamecompany was originally the master’s thesis of Jenova Chen released as a flash game in 2006 and was then expanded upon and released as a Playstation 3 download. Players take control of a microorganism in a two-dimensional field, swimming about to eat other organisms and thereby grow larger. Players eat a specific red organism to move a level deeper into the visible background, and if they are preyed upon and eaten enough, they are pushed back up a field to feed and restore their body. Aside from simply swimming around using the sixaxis motion sensor, players can also execute a special action—typically faster movement of some sort—depending on the organism they control. Colors contrast from the brightly lit organisms to the deeply colored, misty backgrounds, and particles floating about in the foreground and background really give a sense of being in fluid. flOw is very pretty in a minimalistic sort of way. The concept of the game is extremely simple, but the execution is unique.
As players eat other organisms, their organism grows larger. A light blinks down the player’s body, singing out a melodic chime as it goes. These ring over a calming, enveloping atmospheric soundtrack by Austin Wintory that operates like the fluid around the player’s organism, submerging the player in the strange organic world. Every action—eating, being eaten, dashing forward—emits a musical noise that adds to the ambiance. The sonic environment coupled with the simplistic gameplay makes flOw a unique experience easy to lose oneself in.
The game’s moniker is taken from psychology. Flow is the concept of losing oneself in an activity by being entirely focused on it. Theorized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, this complete absorption in one’s activity is comparable to immersion, the sense of acting and existing within a game and its parameters. The motion controls, simple gameplay, and aural landscape of flOw entices the player, drawing them into the strange single-celled pool of activity.
Beyond these standout qualities, however, the game is limited. Gameplay is rarely difficult, and even if a player comes up against a rough situation, the punishment for being eaten is simply being pushed back a level to feed and try again. The game has only a handful of creatures to control, and each playthrough might take up to just twenty minutes (and even less). flOw is a minimalistic, artistic experience that can be returned to every now and then for brief periods of play, but it lacks any depth of difficulty or skill that will keep players engaged for longer sessions. flOw inevitably feels like a fantastic novelty, but a novelty nonetheless.
Bottom line: A great experience for those looking for something different, quirky, and with an academic and artsy flare, but those looking for a deeper, more involved experience may be disappointed. A good game to have in the library to share with friends every now and then.