“I didn’t know what the game was when ?we went to Sony,” explains Chen. “I knew that flowers are something everyone has an emotional response to. Flowers are one of the top uploaded photos on Flickr, next to babies and weddings.” ?It was, it has to be said, a pretty unusual proposal for a videogame.
“When we pitched it to Sony, we didn’t just say: ‘Hey, we’re making a flower field simulation here.’ I said: ‘I want to create a game where the people who play this game feel like they’re spreading love and positive energy to its surroundings,’” Chen explains. “Sometimes ?when I drive cars after playing GTA I feel like driving recklessly. So I thought, maybe we could make a game that would make you spread positive energy. After you finish playing it you want to do something good to the world. I was pitching it as a game about spreading peace ?and love.”
The irony of pitching such an outré game philosophy to this huge corporate publisher wasn’t lost on Chen. But to its credit, Sony instantly got the appeal of this hippie-sounding prospect. Phil Harrison, then head of SCE Worldwide Studios, was looking for innovative games that would ?push PS3 sales. “He really had a taste for something different,” says Chen.
A prototype deal was signed, and thatgamecompany put together a demo of emerald grass fields. Lead engineer John Edwards boldly used the PlayStation 3 hardware to render 200,000 individual blades of grass. The effect was incredible to witness, convincing Sony that even if the gameplay disappointed it would work as a tech demo. “The 200,000 grass blades got us pretty far into Sony,” Chen chuckles. “Nobody was asking technology to do this. Usually, grass is the background. But when you put all the computing power on grass, it looks pretty impressive. Especially on a Sony HDTV.”
Early concept art tried to capture his experience of standing in a California grass field. Unnerved by the rural loneliness, city dweller Chen found himself painting in huts, and later even cities
Turning the air blue
The air in thatgamecompany’s LA offices in 2007 was filled with curses. Playing Flower, or ?at least playing the prototype games that would evolve into Flower, was a truly frustrating experience. You’d die, you’d get angry, you’d throw the controller across the room. It wasn’t exactly the chilled-out game Chen had envisioned.
One of the earliest iterations of Flower ?asked you to blow seeds into the wind, like an interactive version of Eric Carle’s famous children’s book The Tiny Seed. You were tasked with guiding them to fertile soil: landing on concrete ?or in water would lead to sudden death.
“The problem was that every time you failed ?– and you would fail a couple of times – you would curse,” Chen laughs. “I started to hear ‘fuck!’, ‘shit!’ when people were playing the game. I was thinking this is definitely not what ?I’m looking for. Basically, the traditional idea ?of gameplay that provides challenge doesn’t provide the feeling of serenity and relaxation [I wanted to achieve]. Getting rid of those curses took a long time.”
The cursing wasn’t just limited to gameplay. Flower was a frustrating development experience too, filled with a surprising amount of tension. Despite the game’s harmonious intent of spreading peace and love, strife was endemic.