‘Flower, Sun and Rain’: In Search of Lost Time

Warning: Doesn’t contain murder, mystery or rain.

Every game is entertainment, a way of killing time. Every game is, by definition, unproductive, the fruit of leisure. A way to distract us. In today’s times, where even our hobbies are monetized — without going any further, this blog — the idea of dedicating time to something non-productive seems a problem. We want something we can justify as an investment of our time, and we want it now.

Flower, Sun and Rain (2001) goes in the opposite direction. It is the cure to this evil.

The story places us in the role of Sumio Mondo, a “professional searcher” who arrives on the paradise island of Lospass, Micronesia. There he stays at the “Flower, Sun and Rain” hotel where his owner, Edo, has hired him for a very important job: to find a bomb on a plane in time before it explodes.

Here we have the first contradiction: the idyllic, touristy and calm landscape of Lospass contradicts the urgency of our objective. It is very important that we stop that bomb, but… we are not told that from the beginning. In fact, it’s better to have a coffee first and contemplate our options. If that, later we can go down to the lobby and talk to Edo to remind us of our objective.

Low poly and low resolution: the perfect combo.

On the way to the airport we will encounter a whole series of obstacles. Mondo comes out of his room every morning to meet a new character who has a request for him and who acts as a barrier. Until Mondo solves the problem of most of the characters that populate the hotel, the island will not open. Meanwhile, in the sky, a plane takes off and explodes again and again, returning Mondo to his bedroom to wake up, this time with the possibility of taking a few more steps. Closer and closer to the airport every day.

This time loop is not without the particular humor of its famous developer, Suda51. A distant sequel to The Silver Case (1999) and part of the “saga” Kill The Past (a sort of shared universe that connects all his games), the story of Mondo is the story of a character constantly forced to perform innocuous and secondary tasks, distracted from his main and most important goal to end up intertwined with the lives of eccentric characters who, at times, do not hesitate to break the fourth wall and make clear what this is: a mockery of the very concept of how we understand the missions in video games.

The way to solve all the troubles in which we are forced to get into is through Catherine, a computer in a briefcase that we can connect to literally everything and solve numerical “puzzles”. And I say “puzzles” because the simplicity of some of these codes that we must unlock hardly constitute a challenge: from the beginning we have a long guide of activities and news from the island of Lospass that gives us all the information we need to solve these problems. Some broken gears of a bicycle? Just read the appropriate page to discover that there is a division ratio between the number of teeth on the large gear and those on the small gear. We do this simple division, enter the number and that’s it.

Plug your briefcase to a luchador’s head.

All these codes require more attention to the dialogues and context, with the clues they leave and remembering which page of the guide has the information we need. They are not a big problem. The enemy of this game is not the mathematical operations, nor the inhabitants of Lospass interrupting at every moment, not even the time to disconnect the bomb. The enemy is our own impatience that is not able to enjoy the classical music arrangements that accompany the game or the environmental designs inspired by the art of Hiroshi Nagai. There is nothing coincidental in that one of the first written references we encounter is to the work of Paul Gauguin: this is a game to behold for its colorful characters and environments.

The game is dedicated to doing its part to increase our frustrations, to unsuspected points. You can’t use vehicles on the island (even though we arrive at the hotel in one) which forces us to constantly walk through long, empty spaces once we manage to leave the hotel. These walks are accompanied by a pedometer that, depending on the number of steps we take, unlock small rewards, inciting us to move more and take long routes. At one point, a character provokes us by talking about how we must not be too smart if we solve all the problems with “a guide” and, later, we discover that a character has literally been tripping us up during our entire stay on the island.

Locked in a Groundhog Day where, however, the other inhabitants seem to remember previous interactions with them, there is no better metaphor for the perpetually immobile state of video games. Our main progress is in the relationships we establish, maintaining the aggressive and rude tone typical of Suda51’s characters where a hostile tone towards the player abounds. The eccentricity that accompanies these characters has a clear link to Twin Peaks but, if we go back to a more current video game like Paradise Killer (2020) — another story of searching for clues on a tourist island full of strange people — then it is more accessible. What’s more, with that exploding plane, time repetition, magnetism and some other details you discover about the island’s secrets, it’s very close to the tv show Lost (2004–2010) or, rather, to its precedent, The Prisoner (1967).

“Breaking the fourth wall, you uneducated swine!”

Originally released on PS2, it made its way to the West in a Nintendo DS port where, despite the poor quality of the graphics, it seems to fit the console like a glove. Just as many popular DS games for the casual gamer relied on mathematical puzzles or mystery visual novels, Flower, Sun and Rain looks like a deconstruction of the same… that predated them all. Suda51 would not reach his current fame until the memorable Killer7 (2005), where his punk and iconoclastic facet would make him one of the most daring voices of the medium, but everything was already here, ready to kick our asses.

The DS version includes a long collection of optional puzzles where the difficulty is much higher. It consists in that every day you have a list of three lost objects in your room and you must find, anywhere on the map, places to interact (almost never obvious) in which to solve the numerical riddle, this time with much more complex arithmetic operations. It has a certain logic that if the original version and its main plot has a very simple difficulty, any addition goes in the opposite direction to remain just as frustrating.

The final resolution further doubles the frustration: it’s anticlimactic by design but, moreover, being a sort of sequel to The Silver Case (which at the time had not been localized outside of Japan) with which it bears a very close relationship in terms of story, the way everything is resolved is straight up obtuse to anyone unfamiliar with Suda51’s work. The identity of certain characters, their role and the function we have fulfilled is obfuscated. We are denied a solution to the mystery.

The game starts with a live-action video that feels like a karaoke music video.

Or perhaps not? In a way, the game’s ability to speak in metalinguistic terms puts us in that precise emotion. We are thrown into the world of the island (described as an “out-of-this-world” paradise), an environment we cannot interact with except with an electronic device and by entering codes we get from a guidebook. Each “failure” in our main mission leads to a new awakening as if nothing had happened, a new “life”. Our impulse is to solve the mystery but the mystery is just an excuse to join the puzzles and distract us for a few hours.

A common discussion in recent times with video games is whether a game needs to be “fun”. Reggie Fils-Aime had made popular the phrase “If it’s not fun, why bother?” and recently Neil Druckman was heavily criticized for referring to the development process of The Last of Us 2 (2020) as “We don’t use the world ‘fun’”. I recently read Jordi de Paco of Deconstructeam in an interview, put this debate in a much more eloquent way:

“Any kind of media, like books and literature or whatever can pose questions, but it is only video games that force you to answer them or to act on them. So I think that’s the powerful part of our medium and it doesn’t need to be fun. By the classic definition of the word, they need to be stimulating. They need to make you feel something and think about stuff.”

Feels like homework.

So Flower, Sun & Rain embraces the idea of being stimulating and, at the same time, being an irritating and unfun game to play. “Fun” on the progress part, shall we say, as there are just enough touches of humor to make the experience something I recommend to everyone though with the caveat that they’re going to hate me for it while playing it.

The mystery doesn’t matter. The end is the abandonment of the island, the abandonment of that world in which we have been, literally, wasting “time”. And now another adventure awaits us, with another identity and in another world, another video game. The island, trapped in its own The Invention of Morel (1940), ceases to exist when we shut down the console. It does not mean that what we have done is worthless: the island continues to exist in our memories, in the experiences we have lived. The island, like the video games we finish, becomes part of us.

Self-aware gaming.

If you like these and other blog posts and want them to continue, please consider donating via https://ko-fi.com/henriquelage or contributing as a Patreon at https://www.patreon.com/henriquelage where you can get early access to the texts and vote for upcoming posts.

Writing essays. Writing games. Writing essays about games. Narrative Design Teacher.