"I dreamt of a shore littered with bones. I dreamt I walked upon a mighty spine. I only have these dreams when I sleep on my own bed, so I'm staying a hotel for a while to calm my nerves."

All hail, Calunio. Last year he recommended I take a look at the intriguing Clock of Atonement and this year he’s pulled out Wither by someone with the handle ‘Rastek’.

So I’m going to talk about this one and lather up the spoilers into a nice froth. Before we enter spoiler foam, I’ll let you know the essential facts if you want to go play it first.

  • Play time can last between thirty minutes and an hour, depending on whether you get stuck anywhere.
  • It looks like a simple JRPG. It sounds like a simple JRPG. It even tastes like a simple JRPG. But it’s got David Lynch DNA.
  • If you play it once, then by God play it twice.

If you’re game, go download and play. Come back when you’re done.

The rest of you, come through the spoiler foam with me.

Spoilers Ahoy

Wither is the quintessential rough diamond. It snaps up graphics and audio from other properties and shapes them into the game the author wants to make. You don’t come here for the graphical power or the soundwork, you come to hear the garage band play in their garage and take that experience away with you.

Wither joins the long list of games that use what I call the game aesthetic counterpoint. A counterpoint is a dramatic structure where two elements that clash in tone are deliberately played together, the intention being to intensify emotional poignancy through contrast. It’s a popular device – just think of Face/Off where a fierce John Woo gun battle takes place against Over The Rainbow.

"Haha, that's the spirit! We're not allowed to smoke in here, but whatever. So, what brings you here? Just reminiscing? Or were you captivated by my beauty?"

Games of the indie variety have been doing this for some time as well, using their “happy game aesthetic” to sharpen the disconnect between the underlying narrative and gameplay, thus driving the emotional response of the player. Calunio’s Beautiful Escape: Dungeoneer casts stalking as a dating sim. Braid abuses the Mario-saving-the-princess motif to tell a darker tale. Wither draws up a story of redemption in the wake of a fatal car crash to look like a flower hunt JRPG on the Game Boy.

I’m running ahead of myself here. The storytelling in Wither is conservative and restrained. You start in a graveyard and your job is to unravel this ball of string all by yourself. The best thing? The more you unravel, the more unsure you become.

A woman is hurt when she learns the flowers you carry around aren’t for her, and she tells you she still can’t forgive you. A car outside her house implodes as soon as you go near it. Nightmares project you into a landscape of bones, and those you meet there are surprised by your early arrival. And all you seem to be interested in is collecting twelve flowers.

There’s no imagery or narrative trickery here that’s particularly new, but it’s great to see a game that, at first glance, appears upfront and obvious yet is far from the case. The story isn’t clear. And maybe none of what you witness is real. But searching for flowers pushes the player through story; it reminds me of Planescape: Torment where the player was rewarded with XP for making it through certain conversations. Only by exploring both space and narrative will you uncover every flower.

There’s also a few hidden notes in the game that you’ll only find if you’re being incredibly thorough in your explorations. I played three times, literally putting the anal into analysis. There are two notes in the forest which are not signposted; it’s also possible to try to leave town, although your conscience will prevent you from doing so.

So what does it all mean?

Here’s my personal stab but it’s certainly not the only interpretation. The protagonist was responsible for a car crash which he survived, but his brother did not. It’s hinted that he was drunk and behind a hit-and-run (the victim survived) that occurred prior to the accident. His wife or girlfriend throws him out of the house which they shared and, pushed to the brink, hangs himself in a local hotel. But suicide is insufficient to purge the guilt and he is forced to relive the experience in Purgatory through characters that embody the experience and guilt of what he has done. Thus begins a seemingly superfluous quest for twelve flowers. Once he is done, he can move on and join his brother up ahead.

Please let me know what you think in the comments. There’s much to talk about.

(Alternate reflections on the game can be found at The Artful Gamer and Meridian Dance, although note the latter is wayyyy long.)

"I promised him twelve flowers."

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11 thoughts on “Twelve Flowers

  1. Wow… you saw much more than I did! My interpretation was much simpler, and yet, inconsistent with a few events in the game, which probably means it’s wrong. Anyway, I’m glad you liked the recommendation.

  2. I’m not sure I saw enough! The other thing I noticed is that Rastek is quite talkative about meanings and themes of the game elsewhere but I think this is one of the games where the author no longer owns the artwork. I feel like saying Rastek’s explanations of the game are wrong, even though he wrote the game =)

  3. Oh and Nicolau, Facebook seemed to have locked me out of the new Electron Dance FB page. I am trying to get back in but they keep sending me confirmation codes to my mobile… which don’t turn up. So that’s why the conversation on FB stopped dead.

    Getting a bit anxious now, I can’t seem to find any way to regain access as they are not offering codes via e-mail.

  4. neato, glad to see another “dance” with a writeup on this great game.
    haha, agree about the david lynch dna, especially in the crypt.

    just curious, but where did you see it hinted that the protagonist was drunk?

  5. Welcome Melly! I was referring to the conversation in the hospital where there was a hit-and-run mentioned involving drunks (although that obviously couldn’t be verified). Considering so much of the game is implying your character’s past through who you meet and what you see, I took this on-board as a Narrative Signpost.

    However, I know Rastek says this was just a red herring – but in a game where kooky things happen, it’s tricky to distinguish between “what’s valid narrative” and “red herring”. I’ve come to the conclusion Wither is a game where you should absolutely, completely ignore what the author says. The interpretations afforded by the game’s ambiguity are so rich that we all come away with something different. Adam Smith’s write-up on RPS yesterday concluded that the game space was not real and representative of memory.

    Going back to David Lynch, Lynch often makes stuff up that just feels right and doesn’t strive for a coherent meaning in advance. The journeys he generates are great rides and give the audience a puzzle to solve, possibly a puzzle with no solution (Lost Highway, anyone?).

    I see Wither in the same way and it doesn’t need explanation because the joy is in making our own. Such explanations may disappoint and mistakes in the design are sometimes the secret of a game’s success. I wrote a short story with a deliberately paradoxical narrative a couple of year’s back which baffled some readers and impressed others- when I rewrote to reduce the confusion, those who enjoyed the original felt I’d damaged the story because it was now too explicit.

    And so when Rastek says the game’s protagonist sees the world in terms of a game, I respectfully disagree.

  6. I hadn’t read your follow-up comments until now. I definitely agree that the author’s “correct explanation” doesn’t really add anything to the game.

    There are other games with mysterious stories that are open to interpretation made in RPG Maker that got some attention. But I must say, I didn’t really like them as I liked Wither. They’re way more confusing and ambiguous. But they got their fans though.

    Just for reference:
    The Mirror Lied: http://rpgmaker.net/games/761/
    Novella: http://rpgmaker.net/games/3362/

  7. I think a Designer’s interpretention is no more valid than any other interpretation. If something gives rise to a more interesting interpretation than what the designer intended, it’s both a mistake of the designer and a good design choice. It’s a good design choice the designer made by accident.

  8. Hi Rastek and welcome! The question for a designer, then, is whether they can repeat such an accident. As mentioned above, I always struggle when writing fiction between being too explicit for the sake of clarity and putting in the right amount of ambiguity to evoke mystery and invite the reader to draw their own conclusions.

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