Buddy cop stories are sort of inherently built on compromise, one character is stuffy and overbearing, the other is plays too fast and loose with the rules, and then over the course of the story the two characters influence each other and they learn to moderate themselves in order to be more effective and to become better people. I was wary of that dynamic going into The Flower Collectors, because the two main characters in this are a socially regressive ex-cop for a fascist regime and a leftist journalist trying to hold those in power accountable for their crimes and I really didn’t want this to be a case of excusing fascism.
The game is set in Barcelona in 1977, Franco has died and Spain is about to hold its first election in 40 years as it transitions from fascism to democracy. You play Jorge, a former cop in the fascist regime who is now in a wheelchair, struggling with boredom, painkillers, and his own lack of agency, sketching scenes from the plaza below to pass the time. One night he sees a man get shot and ends up hiding the young journalist Melinda in his apartment as she flees the scene. Together they start to investigate the shooting, with her on the ground and you on your balcony directing her actions as she searches for clues.
The gameplay is simple but engaging. Helping spot points of interest for Melinda to look at, people in the neighbourhood who might have clues about the murder, or helping her sneak around and eavesdrop on conversations by telling her when people are and aren’t looking. It also includes some detective work, as the pair of you meet up to discuss the clues and attempt to reconstruct the series of events that led to the murder. Along the way, you uncover the secret lives of the people in your neighbourhood, learning who are secret leftists, who are in the pockets of the people in power, and who is just caught in the middle trying to live their lives. It can be a little frustrating to be so passive in gameplay all the time, but the objectives and specific tasks you have to do are varied enough and the game is short enough that the mechanics don’t outstay their welcome.
My only real problem is when it comes to the story. I’m going to avoid spoilers, but the game deliberately portrays Jorge as a fascist reactionary from the beginning. He’s dismissive of women doing ‘men’s work’, he’s disgusted by the homeless man who lives in the neighbourhood, and he seems the cabaret across from him as a den of leftists and queers (except for the star singer, who he objectifies), he was a member of a fascist police force, and as part of that his job involved performing acts of violence often against people who didn’t deserve it. I can buy that a former fascist can come to see the error of their ways and try to make amends for the harm they’ve done in the past, what I don’t necessarily buy is that someone whose job it was to commit violence on behalf of the police will be radicalised by seeing another policeman do the same thing. Maybe his disability and the time he’s spent away from the police force has changed Jorge, but we’re never given any sense that that’s the case, nor do we ever get to see what drove him to become a police officer in general.
There’s a frustrating lack of depth when it comes to the treatment of fascism by the game’s story. It boils things down to buzzwords, tradition and order, the influence of the catholic church, but there’s no grappling with the thought of what makes a regular person adopt those ideas. There’s no interiority, and when you’re telling a story about a former fascist coming to see the error of his ways and make amends for his actions, a clear expression of those psychological processes is helpful. We can see Jorge grow as he interacts with other characters and learns about the people in the neighbourhood around him, but without that insight into his motivations and who he is as a person it’s hard to know what to make of him. Is he a lonely old man trying to cynically assimilate in order to find connection with other people? Have his views on the use of violence and the role of the police force changed since his retirement and disability? How does he feel about his disability beyond it inconveniencing him? Has it changed his self-image, and what was it like before?
These are all questions I had during my time with the game, but the game seemed vastly more interested in it’s core mystery and the mechanics by which you uncover it then exploring the depths of the characters. One pivotal scene between the two leads is where Jorge talks with Melinda about his past as a cop, but even that has to be brought immediately back to the main plot rather than as a moment to let the narrative breath and reflect on this character and his life. It feels like the game is so worried about its mechanics getting stale that it rushes through the story, the irony being that more time spent in conversation with characters would further break up the long stretches of surveillance and observation.
The thing that The Flower Collectors does best is in its atmosphere. The plaza below feels alive, tiles glowing in the sunset as you watch people below moving in the end of an era, their lives held apart from yours by three stories and a camera lens, or night-time arguments about politics and history in a room lit only by the warmth of a table lamp. The setting and the art evoke so much, but I wish the game leaned into that more.