What We Can Learn From ‘The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe’

Super Mario Brothers. The Legend of Zelda. Doom. Metal Gear Solid: throughout the history of video games, certain titles have risen to the top as the titans of the field, champions who will be immortalized forevermore by history. But one title has long been forgotten, one that deserves to be remembered among the likes of Super Mario 64, Duke Nukem, and Grand Theft Auto:

The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe.

Released for the Philips CD-i in 1992, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe is a boring, barely-interactive wondrous experience that catalogs Robert Mapplethorpe’s flower photography, allowing us, the unlucky viewers, to admire them at our leisure. After all, after a long, hard, day at work in a soul-crushing job, who wouldn’t want to come home, turn on a video game console, and watch pictures of flowers for hours on end?

So relax, settle down, and join me as we contemplate and admire the virtues of one of the greatest video games ever created by mankind, and what its blessings can do to enrich our efforts to craft stories of beauty and wisdom.

What does the story do well?

It’s simple and focused

The mark of a great story is that it can be summed up in one sentence. The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe can be described as, “Enter a virtual museum to learn about and admire a collection of flower photographs.” It’s not flashy, it’s not complex, but it’s a streamlined story that’s easy to understand follow with no fat or unnecessary subplots that need to be trimmed.

It shows the timeless partnership of rock and elegant music

There are many different types of museums around the world – bare ones, colorful ones, and ones decorated to match a certain period in history. The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe takes the timeless combination of grey rock with the eternal grace of classical music. If we, as writers, are looking to create a memorable museum for our characters to wander through, we should remember that a simple venue of stone and music can be the most effective, rather than something over-designed that takes away from the priceless art and artifacts on display.

It takes a comedic subject with the utmost seriousness

The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe’s greatest virtue is that treats photographs of flowers with the utmost seriousness. From the classical music to the curator trying his hardest to make photographs of flowers interesting instructing us in Mapplethorpe’s use of color and light, the whole game is insane a delight. Yet, this formula of a museum, classical music, and serious curators can be applied to any number of silly subjects to great effect. Consider the sequels we never got:

The mops of Robert Mapplethorpe

The toilet plungers of Robert Mapplethorpe

The flaming oil drums of Robert Mapplethorpe

Now, visualize people in a story wandering the sacred halls of exhibits and admiring these subjects with Beethoven playing softly through the speakers. The image is delightfully absurd and plays with the cliched-but-fun trope of fine art being incomprehensible and/or ludicrous.

What could have been done to improve the story?

Mention Mapplethorpe’s extensive BDSM photography

If you’ve never heard of Mr. Mapplethorpe, you’d be forgiven for thinking that his career consisted entirely of flower photographs. But in reality, most of his work was focused on BDSM pictures, many of which included himself. For obvious reasons, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe doesn’t mention this, but it makes the whole game funnier when you think that the photographer spent most of his time photographing gay men wearing bondage gear. The contrast between such different subjects (with classical music, no less) is hilarious. Too bad the Phillips CD-i was never blessed with The BDSM photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe

Include some sort of action involving the flowers

While the elegance, beauty, and grace of the game cannot be denied, it also cannot be denied that it’s… well, not the most engrossing of video games to play as you click from one photograph to the next. This could have been avoided if there had been a campaign mode where you sent Mr. Mapplethorpe’s flowers into battle against giant robots, or something. That alone would have turned this into the greatest video game ever.

Conclusion

Though it is one of the most ludicrous videogames ever made not the most exciting videogame, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe is a shining example of how taking the most boring mundane subjects with the respect and seriousness you’d find in a fine art gallery is comedic gold. Yet, we must not also forget there there needs to be some sort of context or reason for people to pursue instead of the simple pleasure of looking at pictures when playing a videogame. If the game was about, say, a highly-trained operative traveling the world to rescue the stolen photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe from North Korea, Al-Qaeda, escaped Nazis, and other nefarious forces to return them to the museum, it would have been much more interesting to play.

Perhaps one day, The Flowers of Robert Mapplethorpe will be given a high-definition treatment to upgrade the graphics, the presentation, and finally allow a new generation of gamers to experience the beauty of flowers. But until that day comes, we can be content with the lessons it teaches storytellers… and admire the flowers, too.

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