Before you even launch Flower you've read everything you're going to be told in words about how to play it: "Tilt Controller to Soar. Press Any Button to Blow. Relax, Enjoy." It might not be quite so concise as Pong's "Avoid Missing Ball for High Score", but Flower's instructions are still unusually succinct and, like those displayed on the side of Nolan Bushnell's arcade cabinet, they are given outside of the game experience, in the PlayStation 3 XMB.
Once you land inside the game, you learn only by doing. For that reason, at first glance Flower appears to be the most beautiful tech demo in the world: no more, no less. You soar over Elysian fields, wheeling down through Zelda-green tall grass and then back up again into a SEGA blue sky. The camera fisheyes to take in a perfect pastoral world in glorious widescreen, one without evidence of man or animal.
It's the experience of a dream, a game in which you play not as a space marine or a plumber or a busty archaeologist, but as a gust of wind. Your disembodiment is profound because this is a game played almost without touch. Rather, you tilt the controller to direct yourself around the scene, the only clue to your presence the petals that are swept up into the air with your passing. The control of movement is as sublime as any we've felt on PS3, and, free of a character to move and all the messy physics that a body imposes, the result is the purest of interactions between gamer and game.
But once you've grown accustomed to the bright, hyper-real idyllic environment, and once you've satisfied your appetite for flying around unfettered, loop-de-looping unseen beneath the clouds without so much as a reticule in sight, a single question dominates: um, so what now?
Then you start to notice the results of your actions: the particle effects and whooshes that fire every time you fly close to a flower and sweep up its petals. And then you notice the arrangement of those flowers on the ground, their placement not random enough for nature; as purposeful and ordered as crop circles. And then, when you trigger all of the flowers in that formation you see the bursts of energy and change that tear across the ground, sprouting new life and colour below. Ah. So there is a game in here after all.
It is, in fact, a game of vibrant cause and effect: you start small, scooping up a single petal into your breeze before scooping up more and more into your conga line of confetti, until it flutters back tens of metres. In one level each group of flowers you open triggers a new gust of wind, one that powers a wind turbine high above. Trigger all of the interactive spots in a field and you might tear off down a gulley, snaking through rock formations while desperately trying to steer over new petals and pollen to add to your train. Each petal you collect triggers a sound sample, notes fluttering over the sparse piano to create a intertwining soundtrack, a freeform marriage of sound and interaction just as mesmerising as that first heard in Rez.
The three stages we've played so far, despite their lack of a HUD or scores or gauges or explicitly defined goals - all of the things we've come to expect from the medium - do have a game-like structure. There are inputs you must make, actions that you must trigger and a path of interactions that must be followed to progress and so, underneath the sparse top layer there is still a traditional, if slight, game arrangement. Viewed unfairly this sparseness will be seen as a lack of content and ideas as much as a stripping away of the medium's tropes: style over style over substance. And viewed too generously, it will result in the kind of exultant prose and breathless recommendation from critics that will put too much burden on its delicate shoulders, ensuring a backlash hits before the game's even out.
It is also a game with aspirations to Art, something that will no doubt count against it. Despite the textless, subdued presentation, the message of the game rings loud, clear and also a little unsubtle. The game opens in a dreary urban scene, a wilted flower standing on grey, miserable window ledge looking out across wet streets, traffic lights smearing colour in rain droplets in the middle distance. Centre the camera on the flower, and you'll be transported to a level, the implication that you're playing inside the flower's dream of its former life in the countryside. Complete the stage and, when you return to the sepia shop window, the flower has now straightened its stem, the further implication being that it has taken strength from this memory.
You'll already know whether that's the kind of meta-narrative that makes you weak at the knees or weak at the stomach: Flower's divisiveness is assured. Many will accuse the game of pretentiousness, which is a word that's now irritatingly synonymous with anything that's ambitious, unusual and different. Flower is not pretentious: it is ambitious, unusual and different.
The strength of videogames - their glorious, wonderful, compelling strength - is in providing us access to impossible experiences. Flower presents an impossible experience: something that could never be felt outside of a videogame. It's wonderfully abstract and yet wholly tactile at the same time.
The strength of the game is in its wholesale embrace of its fragility: the confidence to be an art game without apology, the courage to be textless, the strength in focusing on a subject matter with such feminine overtones and association on a platform that has neither. This is interesting. This is unusual. Only a bonehead would deny its existence is a good thing for videogames. But whether the result makes for a good videogame is another question. And whether that question even matters here is yet another.
Flower is due out exclusively for PS3 on 12th February.