Chow, Darling

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Chow, Darling

Microscopic creatures eat to live in this experimental-indie success story

Platform: PlayStation 3

The journey of flOw from web-based flash game to PlayStation is indie gaming’s equivalent of getting picked up at Sundance. The dream-like game started as an MFA thesis in the USC film school’s Interactive Media Division. Several years later Sony launched an expanded, high-definition version for its downloadable game service. flOw plays like Pac-Man in a petri dish. Luminescent creatures, like the bizarre lifeforms that swarm around undersea vents, float in a briny, multi-layered world. Tilting the PlayStation 3’s controller steers one of the segmented swimmers. There are no instructions or on-screen health meters, but players soon learn the rules of flOw’s world: It’s eat or be eaten.

Every shimmering organism gobbled evolves the player’s avatar, adding centipede-like segments or quivers of tendrils. Once the player’s creature evolves to its fullest, it’s re-incarnated as one of the prey species, where it follows the circle of life on a parallel, albeit different path. Living in this food chain isn’t as dramatic as nature documentaries would lead us to believe. Soothing ambient chimes and the pulsing surge of the world’s all-encompassing water create an atmosphere of calm. There’s no denying that a current of violence runs just beneath flOw’s surface, but this is the violence of nature. Life feeds upon life. And if this nearly wordless game has anything to say, it can be found by considering the bigger picture. flOw isn’t about winning at all. It’s about living.

The fact that there’s a place in the dog-eat-dog video game business for a creation as unconventional and non-commercial as flOw is a great comfort. If a homegrown game, built by students, can migrate to the planet’s most expensive videogame console, there’s no telling what other curious life the gaming universe holds in store for us. Maybe being the little fish isn’t such a bad thing.

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