On one of their many company logos, Grasshopper Manufacture proudly declare themselves a ‘Video Game Band’. Indeed, CEO and head creator, Goichi Suda (under the catchy moniker Suda51), has become one of the rock stars of video game design, with his brace of crazy, quirky games that defy convention. After the successes of Killer7 (multi-platform, 2005) and No More Heroes (Wii, 2008), Grasshopper have, like The Smiths or Nirvana, decided to pause and reflect. Flower, Sun and Rain DS is a tweaked reissue of a game originally released only in Japan for the PS2 in 2001. Like Hatful of Hollow or Incesticide, this release is consciously positioned to allow new, international fans the chance of experiencing the team’s earliest steps into the gaming world.
Flower, Sun and Rain tells the story of Sumio Mondo, a ‘Searcher’ who has been tasked with unravelling the mystery of Lospass and the titular hotel. Before long, Mondo discovers the hotel is stuck in a time-loop, centered around a terrorist attack on an airplane. On one level, what ensues is a meditation on the build-up of arbitrary tasks between the player and the goal of the game. Each day begins with Mondo receiving a phone call from the front desk, reminding him of the importance of his mission. After drinking his morning cup of coffee, he sets off, energised and refreshed. Unfortunately, there always seems to be some obstruction in the character’s way, replete with a mundane task to complete. Bizarre characters set up bizarre situations: an alcoholic requests various cocktails, a football fan talks about Italian squad formations, a father loses a gift for his son.
With each day, Mondo edges slightly closer to his goal. Perhaps Suda and the developers are highlighting the convoluted methods of game designers to prolong the gaming experience, through pointless or meaningless tasks. After all, No More Heroes has inspired a vibrant culture of interpretation and criticism, based around its apparent discussion of in-game motivation (there, the player is told to kill various assassins with no reason other than to be number one in a league table). Of course, this may be giving Grasshopper more credit than they are due, as the game itself displays frustrating design choices.
In terms of game play, Flower, Sun and Rain is incredibly restrictive. Advancement is based around solving puzzles. However, due to the decision to base all solutions around strings of numbers (entered via a computer Mondo carries called ‘Catherine’), the amount of active pen-chewing is very little (and doesn’t approach the brain-training heights of, say, Professor Layton and the Curious Village). Indeed, most solutions are laid out in the ‘Guidebook’, which contains a fortuitous selection of trivia about the island and the hotel, as well as information about some of the guests. Instead, puzzle solving is based around enacting basic, linear conversations with strategically placed characters. What’s more, the game commits that sin of shackling narrative progression to an arbitrary line of events before the solution can be revealed. The astute player, who guesses what to do next, is forced to click through dialogue boxes, and walk tedious distances between characters, as opportunities to crack the code, only occur after certain triggers, or ‘flags’ are primed.
Of course, Suda’s post-modern sensibility is all over this project. The cast is quirky, the situations are mostly absurd, or are, at the very least, quite silly. The script is laden with jokes and puns. Furthermore, the game wears its backward, obstinate design choices with an anarchic grin, challenging the player to overcome frustration. Characters make reference to the procrastinatory aspect of the game (“Something strange is going on here. My goal is to stop a terrorist attack. But all I seem to be doing is helping random people… I’m sure something else will just get in my way.”) One character, a child called Shoutaro, attempts to break through the fourth wall, and points out the game’s deficiencies from the rendering (“Our polygon faces look totally different from our 2D art!”) to the sound (“The music is all ripped off from famous songs!”). At one point, most tellingly, he tells Mondo, “I don’t even want to be liked by someone who’d want to play a game like this anyway!”, and vows to “make them hate me more!” Indeed.
Despite the positive aspects of this game, especially in its transition to DS (some of the dual screen and stylus implementation is wonderful), you can’t help but feel that its stubbornness is serving its grand statement. The game is supposed to be frustrating. Players who wish to experience Suda’s cracker-box genius will find bounteous surplus in Flower, Sun and Rain. However, fitting in with another Grasshopper motto, ‘Punk is not Dead’, this game feels like a steadfast, fuck-the-system middle finger to all those looking for an engaging game.