FlOwing Amoebas: The game?

For this second blog, I’ve been playing flOw, a game developed by thatgamecompany. FlOw is a very unique “game”. The reason I have game in quotations is because it’s not necessarily all that clear that flOw is actually a game.

First of all, flOw is about… Well, nothing really. There are 5 different creatures that you eventually have access to, and the goal is to… Well, there is no goal either. I played on the PS4 version, and the “instructions” tell you how to move your creature (by tilting the controller), press any button to boost, and the option button is the pause “menu” except it’s not really a menu and more of just a way to pause the game. It has no save button, but it allows you to continue from where you left off if you already unlocked the next creature.

The creatures that you control get bigger upon eating smaller amoeba-looking things, but they can also eat larger creatures if they target the right area on the creature. As I played, I figured out that the red glowing cells on the other creatures could be eaten, making them smaller until they eventually exploded into a bunch of small amoebas and a few red amoebas. Eating these amoebas made my creature bigger.

Jesper Juul points out the difference between play and game; “Play is mostly taken to be a free-form activity, whereas game is a rule-based activity” (p. 28). Based on this distinction between play and game alone, flOw is not a game. There are no rules. There is no final objective. It is eat or be eaten. Get bigger, and move on to the next “level”. There are no set rules in the game other than how to control the creature. I believe the goal is to get as big as you can until you can eat the next “egg” to unlock the next creature. It’s not all that clear as to what everything in the game is. With this in mind, the set of rules are nonexistent. Everything must be figured out on your own. This makes flOw more of a wishy-washy game than an actual game itself.

Juul proposes an all encompassing definition for a game using 6 different features:

  1. Rules: Games are rule-based
  2. Variable, quantifiable outcome: There are different potential outcomes
  3. Valorization of outcome: Each potential outcome has its own value, some positive some negative)
  4. Player effort: The player exerts some sort of effort in order to influence what happens at the end
  5. Player attached to outcome: The player is attached to the outcome of the game in that they will be “happy” in a positive outcome, or “unhappy” in a negative outcome
  6. Negotiable consequences: The game can be played with or without real-world consequences

Lets look at the first feature: Rules. Does flOw have rules? No. There are no rules. At least, not in the normal sense of rules. For all intents and purposes, the game has no exact set of rules and the player is basically free to do whatever they please. They can swim around, and not eat anything or eat the red “fish” to continue on to the next level without eating anything else and getting bigger. It’s almost like an open-world game, except even those types of games have a set of rules that must be followed in order to get to the next objective. With flOw, it seems like there is no set of rules that must be followed. It’s easy for the player to make their own set of rules, however: Eat as much as you can, take out the enemies and move on to the next level until you unlock the next creature. This is, in its own sense, a set of rules in its interactive environment.

The second feature is variable, quantifiable outcome. The problem with flOw is that there is no variation in the outcome, nor is it quantifiable. There is no objective to the game other than get to the next level and unlock the next creature. However, there are only 5 creatures. Once you complete all 5, you get a 6th creature that lets you eat through the end credits until you are right back where you started, only this time you have every creature unlocked.There is no variation in this outcome. You always end up right back to where you started. The creatures you play as well as the enemies you interact with when playing each creature remain the same.

The third feature is valorization of outcome. FlOw literally has no outcome. It is not quantifiable, nor can a positive or negative value be assigned to it. You make it to the end eventually. Then, that’s it. No positive, no negative.

Fourth, player effort. I did not exude much, if any effort to play this game. At first, I struggled with the controls as I wasn’t all that used to tilting a controller back and forth. But I got used to it, and it became almost second nature. It was easy for me to go back to playing after leaving it alone for several days. The controls are simplistic. The “game” is simplistic. In any case, I can’t really influence what happens at the end, as there is no variation in what happens. You literally cannot lose in this game. It does not let you. There is no “Game Over” screen, or a “You died” screen. If you are eaten by a creature, you go back up to the previous “level” without any real consequence. You are easily able to continue on.

Was I attached to the outcome? Not really. I wasn’t really attached to the outcome, I just wanted to get to the end. I also wasn’t attached the creatures I played, and I didn’t really understand what was happening for most of the game. Each creature had it’s own form of boost, which was interesting, but it wasn’t until the last creature that just darted back and forth specifically targeting the red cells on other creatures that I really enjoyed it. Most of the time I was bored and tired of the game because the other creatures would counter me when I tried to eat them. When I got to the end, I didn’t particularly care either way, and when I unlocked the first creature, I didn’t know that I had finished the level. I wasn’t entirely sure what happened, until I was controlling another creature.

The sixth and final feature Juul focuses on is negotiable consequences. FlOw doesn’t really have consequences. I can be eaten by a creature and go back one level, but that doesn’t negatively effect the outcome. I only need to gather more amoeba things, or completely avoid the creature that ate me on that level and move on to the next, as generally each level has different “enemies” that you encounter. It’s easy to move on, or move back. They made it easy to move from each level, going back and forth between them if you want to. The only real-world consequence that I can see is time lost. I spent about 2-3 hours on this game, what with figuring out the controls and how each creature moved. But it wasn’t all that difficult and I didn’t really struggle once I understood what I had to do. So there wasn’t really any consequences in the first place.

Juul shortens his 6 features of a game to one sentence: “A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable” (p. 36). Using this definition of a game, flOw is not really a game.

juulJuul points out that there are borderline cases of games, however I’m not sure that flOw can even be classified in that sense. The only thing I can really see as flOw being part of the definition Juul provides is that it has some set of rules, and the player exerts effort to an extent. However, the rules of flOw are subjective in that it’s up to the player to make them. They can do whatever they please in the parameter of the game. The effort exerted is mostly figuring out how the game works in the beginning and what to do in order to move on. After that, it becomes more of an endless repeat of the same thing, just with some minor variation between enemies and creatures.

Academic Source:

Juul, Jesper. “Video Games and the Classic Game Model.” Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005. 23-54.

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6 thoughts on “FlOwing Amoebas: The game?

  1. It kinda bothers me when a game has no apparent goal. Like. What am I actually playing this for then? The way you describe this game, it kind of reminds me of snake with how you eat something small or get larger or longer. I know you don’t think flow is really a game but are you sure that you aren’t emotionally attached to the outcome of you growing bigger by eating other things? I would be devastated if I wasn’t able to get bigger… Nah not really.

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    • Yeah, it bothers me too. There is no point to play this game, other than the fact that I’m required to play it for this class. I feel like if it were to actually have a goal or a time limit or something, something more along the lines of Spore, where you get bigger and evolve, eventually creating a society. Then I would actually be attached to the goal. I didn’t particularly care either way if I got bigger or not.

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  2. It’s interesting that in the post and comments the lack of goal is brought up as a problem. You tried to get to the bottom, you succeeded. That’s a goal that you attained. You did it six times, getting a new creature each time. That’s a goal, even if it has no narrative accompaniment like Spore’s creation of a society. Similarly, rules are everywhere if you think about it. You can eat certain things, you cannot eat others. If you eat a certain thing you go down, and another takes you up. Getting hit takes you up. If you get to the bottom you ‘win.’ Even the idea that certain creatures have certain actions (stealth creature) is a part of the rule set. All of these are the coded things that drive the game forward. Can you jump down two screens in one movement? No, because that is against the (coded) rules. And finally, think about what effort here means. It’s not ‘difficulty,’ but thought/action. Compare pulling the handle of a slot machine (no effort) vs. negotiating your way through Flow (effort).

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    • That is a good point. I didn’t really think of it in that way. I feel like if I had more time to really think about the game in terms what makes it a game, I could’ve come up with a better argument. In any case, your point about the gameplay does make it seem like it could be considered a game, or at least a borderline game according to Juul.

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  3. I found this to be very academically crafted. You cited well and organized your argument beautifully. This was a very educational piece and with that I sincerely look forward to reading and learning more from you in the near future.

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    • Thanks! With my writing, I always want to have my own voice, especially with this. Being able to write in Blog format gives me a lot of freedom to really say what I think, while “academically” writing and providing my own perspective. I really like being able to write in this way.

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