My first thought when I began playing Grasshopper Manufacture’s “Flower, Sun and Rain” was that it reminded me a bit of Killer 7. This isn’t any sort of surprise, considering Grasshopper (and it’s rebellious leader Suda51) was behind both games. It was, however, an informative revelation; Killer 7 is often praised for it’s unique audio and visual design, but as it turns out, these concepts were already being played with in FSR. The game features a well dressed protagonist, a mysterious briefcases, and character voices that sound like garbled computer voices. You could even argue that the the primitive visuals are an attempt at basic cell shading.
Flower, Sun and Rain, then, is indicative of our awkwardly evolving awareness of Japanese entertainment. These days, Western audiences still don’t get every game, anime or album that comes out of Japan, but at the very least, people will know of their existence. And when we do get a product, all parties assume that this familiarity traces back to the nineties or later, even though this is hardly the case. With Suda’s games, it turns out that both FSR and Killer 7 are in some way linked to one of his earlier works, a Playstation game called The Silver Case (or just Silver Case, depending on what fan translation you go by. We’re already off to a unsure start). This means that we are getting these related works in backwards order (Silver Case is currently being ported to DS, so it may see the light of day over here), and that some of the potency in Flower, Sun and Rain’s narrative will be lost on us, since only an obsessive Wikipedia hunter will realize that some of FSR’s most important characters were introduced in Silver Case. To get an idea of what this all means, imagine if Metal Gear Solid came out in the West without the supplemental material explaining what happened in Metal Gear 2 (which we never got until much later). That’s pretty much the case with FSR, and if you’re the type who needs closure and cohesion in their stories, then this might instantly damn the game for you. If instead you can will yourself to enjoy something for the sake of metaphor, and a story in the style of Kafka, then Flower, Sun and Rain will appeal in a way few other games can.
FSR is the story of Sumio Mondo, a man who makes his living as a Searcher, finding lost items and memories for people who can no longer find them on their own. His job takes him to the Hotel Flower, Sun, and Rain on the island of Los Pass. The hotel manager has tasked him with finding a terrorist bomb hidden on a plane. Right off the bat, this assignment is contradictory. It is suggested that Mondo’s role as a Searcher would have him be the one who finds that the bomb is on the plane, not the one who tears it apart to find where it was stashed. It is as if Mondo’s job has been done for him, but as his client explains, he himself cannot leave the hotel to get it, which is why he decided to hire a Searcher. Oh, and by the way, the island is home to a powerful magnetic field which causes the events of a single day to repeat over and over again.
Even Mondo doesn’t know what the hell to think of his game.
And so the weirdness begins. Each chapter of the game plays out the same. Mondo wakes up, attempts to reach the airport, and is stopped in his tracks by one of the hotel’s many colorful guests, each of whom needs to borrow his talents as Searcher in order to help them find a missing item of their own. In some cases, it is an actual tangible object. Other times it is something more ethereal, like inspiration, or a lost memory. In every case, they take up so much of his time that he ends up solving the dilemma right when the plane takes off and explodes, which starts the daily cycle anew. In the next chapter, he will wake up, get a little closer to the airport, and be stopped again. This pattern repeats until plot twists occur, mysteries are revealed, and the airport is finally reached.
The actual mechanics of the game are almost as bizarre, but also shockingly simple. Flower, Sun and Rain is an adventure game; Mondo can explore areas of the island and talk to different characters, and puzzles are solved by using his special briefcase to (literally and/or figuratively) “jack-in” into people or objects, allowing him to punch in numeric codes which unlock either more clues or the missing item itself. These codes (every single one of them) are hidden away in a tourist’s guidebook given to Mondo at the start of the game. When I say “hidden”, however, I really mean “hidden in plain sight”. All you have to do is determine the theme or person who is central to a particular chapter, open to the corresponding article in the guidebook, and figure out which string of numbers is the right one to pick. Occasionally, simple arithmetic is involved. FSR is an incredibly simple game, one with little to no learning curve for seasoned gamers. This is a far cry from Killer 7, and yet I find it just as dividing. On one hand, the idea of the guidebook makes you wonder why you ever spent time running around solving absurd puzzles in old adventure games. On the other hand, the game still makes you run around a lot, as the events of each chapter are tightly scripted. You can’t simply go straight to the final puzzle, not until you’ve talked to everyone you need to talk to and have triggered certain events. So there’s still a lot of legwork and backtracking to be done, which gets frustrating near the end, when you are no longer confined to the hotel itself and the distances you must travel increase in magnitude.
I talked to fellow staffer Pat about the game’s penchant for travel, and he made the interesting observation that these parts of the game are supposed to be chances to meditate on the plot and the situation at hand. For the most part, I agree with him on this; the sheer absurdity on display in some chapters requires some time to interpret and digest, and by trying to do so, you will find that even the longer treks can go by in a blink. The problem I have with it is the same problem I come to have with every one of Suda’s games. He has a fondness for pointing out the more unfortunate elements of game design that have popped up over time, but he does so by either implementing something which is just as annoying, or by taking the concept in question, and doing it poorly. Think back to No More Heroes, which addressed the vapidity of open world environment by including a vapid open world environment. It is bad enough that you start to look beyond the people who say “that’s the point” and start to wonder whether Suda simply hasn’t figured out the finer points of game design. Intentional or not, these mechanical hiccups make it difficult to recommend his games to a general audience, as not everyone has a tolerance for bullshit for the sake of education or revelation, especially when you can’t be sure whether you are concerning yourself with something that was entirely accidental.
Regardless of intentions, however, I found myself enjoying the overall experience that is Flower, Sun and Rain. Most of the chapters have a certain dependability and rhythm to them. You know when they will end, and about how long they will take. I knew the puzzles wouldn’t be difficult, but this gave me the opportunity to delight in the expertly localized dialogue, which spends different amounts of time commenting on the nature of life, insulting Mondo’s (and player’s) character, shattering the fourth wall, and being just plain out there. The script dives into themes and ideas which run the risk of coming off as cutesy and goofy for the sake of it, but I believe it avoids this pitfall thanks to Suda’s genuine interest in being “Kafkaesque”. The cast of Flower, Sun, and Rain does everything it can to confuse and alienate Mondo, and by extension, the player. It constantly makes you doubt who he really is working for, who is pulling the strings, and the reasons they may wish to do so in the first place. Just who is the villain, and what are they trying to do? Is Mondo really that pathetic a character, or is the hotel populated by a bunch of psychopaths? At one point, the definition of “Kafkaesque” found on Wikipedia describes the style as being
“anything suggestive of Kafka, especially his nightmarish style of narration, in which characters lack a clear course of action, the ability to see beyond immediate events, and the possibility of escape. The term’s meaning has transcended the literary realm to apply to real-life occurrences and situations that are incomprehensibly complex, bizarre, or illogical.”
All of these descriptions fit the story of Flower, Sun, and Rain in some way, and even the fact that Kafka’s work was often left unfinished and unresolved fits with the idea that the game’s conflict feels unfinished without having played through Silver Case. It is for these reasons why, despite the poor design choices, I cannot in good faith claim that Suda51 has no idea what he is doing. We live in an era when any so-called auteur or entertainer can become an object of worship simply by claiming to have tried to achieve something, even if they failed in executing their vision. Suda could have easily written a story that was “weird” in name only, called it Kafkaesque, and have everyone in the press nod in agreement. Instead he tried to honestly explore the style, and the attempt is evident via its nature. His games may frustrate me at times, but when they end, they always manage to succeed in achieving something, even if that “something” isn’t a fully resolved story. That puts it in a better position than a lot of other works in a sea of modern entertainment which tend to use the phrase “postmodern” as an excuse to be creatively lazy.