Playing flOw

March 11, 2021

This is a series of blog posts written for the Digital Games course at OCAD University as a way to document my game research/making process. To see all blog posts related to this, filter by ‘games’ on the main journal page. 

flOw is a game made by the developer thatgamecompany in 2006. Originally developed as a flash game by thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen along with Nicholas Clark to accompany Chen's master thesis. In 2007, flOw was reworked into a Playstation 3 game.

thatgamecompany's vision for creating games was to design based on inspiring emotion in players and not on gameplay mechanics. This can be seen in the intuitive, experimental and athmospheric predecessors to flOw: Cloud.

flOw's gameplay experience sets the tone for all of thatgamecompany's future work. Game instructions and backstory are minimal, allowing the gamer to experience it in a way that makes sense for her. The player starts out as an abstract orb and its goal is to eat the other organisms in the space in order to morph into a different shape, signifying the next level.

As its name suggests, the concept of flOw is inspired by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's research on the flow state, also commonly known as 'being in the zone'. Csikszentmihalyi describes this feeling as:

“a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience is so enjoyable that people will continue to do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (1990).

To achieve a flow state in the gaming, the challenges must be hard enough to make the gamer put all her focus in, but shouldn't be too hard as to stress her out. Achieving this perfect balance of skill and challenge is crucial according to Nakamara et al. (2009). In flOw, challenge is dampened because the player cannot die. Additionally, there aren’t really any threats to the player besides adapting to the game controls at first, and eating the ‘wrong’ red organisms. If a player eats too many red organisms, they move slightly back in the game to a previous form. The game story if very linear, but besides being impressed by beautiful visuals in each progressive level, there’s not much more to be discovered.

As such, the game’s dreamy visuals and soundtrack may contribute to a feeling of relaxation, but after giving it a try I’m not convinced that it achieves Csikszentmihalyi‘s idea of ‘flow state’. Maybe I prefer the feeling of progression or working towards something bigger, like in Cities: Skylines︎︎︎. We can see more this in thatgamecompany’s later games, Flower and Journey.