Notes on Flamingo Quest: Squawking with the Best of Them

I won’t mince words; Flamingo Quest by TheWaether is extremely my shit. It’s a short, standalone game set in “Top-Secret Neon-Pink Planet Universe” a domain created by the developer made of chunky, low-poly graphics and contrasting pink and blue pastel colours. Flamingo Quest looks like an old PlayStation game, and sort of feels like one too, but it’s also an essentially contemporary alternative game in tone, imagery and level design. It’s not a ponderously intellectual game, nor a particularly dramatic one, but it still offers up a compelling world that is a delight to travel through.

Flamingo Quest follows the tale of Flamingo, a young girl who was raised by pink flamingos and is now setting out on her own. Like her large, pink brethren, Flamingo floats airly atop the water (an unmoving blue carpet that only really resembles water when a character moves, causing it to displace in a trail behind them). She moves through the world with one leg upraised, gliding along the water and squawking (triggered by hitting the spacebar), and the pink flamingos squawk back.

It’s not clear, when the player is first dropped into Flamingo Pond, what the ultimate goal is. But a few things are clear right away: there are empty slots in the top left of the screen where items must go, meaning there are things to collect. All of these items perform various functions in the world, like the turbo item the player collects in the wakeboarding portion of  the game that allows them to move quickly, or the mirror that allows the player to see hidden messages that tell them how to complete puzzles to enter new areas or obtain certain items. In one case, to obtain a key, the player must hit the spacebar with the correct timing to prove that Flamingo belongs in a secret elite flamingo clique.

Besides items, the player collects tokens that resemble a monstrous representation of Flamingo’s head—although to be honest one of them escaped me, despite my best efforts. As a result I’m not sure that they do anything other than make Flamingo Quest feel even more like a WIpeout game. Flamingo also encounters individuals other than, well, flamingos in this world, including the fellow who runs the wakeboarding course, the staff and patrons of a burger joint containing some important items, and, eventually, denizens waiting at a train platform that connects (through plumbing, I assume) to the waterway Flamingo must ultimately travel down.

Now, when I mentioned that the player is “dropped” into Flamingo Pond, what I meant was that it is very clear from the visuals that this whole area is recessed and largely inescapable. The pink terrain forms a huge wall around the player, and the only things connecting areas of the map to one another are waterfall-like entrances that, altogether, allow the player to loop around the world until they reach the end of the game. This suggests that escape means leaving these valleys, and joining the world of humans above.

Slowly, things start to take shape. As soon as the player has become accustomed to the world, zooming downstream or exploring the caverns upriver, that’s when the plan to leave becomes really clear. As soon as Flamingo finds out that she can only board the train if she has a ticket, there is very little left of the game’s small map to explore. Things get interesting here, too: endless pink walls and blue carpet flow into a dam keeping the water away from the burger joint. These monuments of human civilization—foreshadowed by the wakeboarding zone that, more than anything else, recalls the Wipeout series—designate a break from how things have been, opening up the final chapters of the game to the player. Even the waterfall flowing into the train platform is a brown-grey sewage colour, in contrast to the bright blues Flamingo has been accustomed to. If I really wanted to pick this thing apart, I might say that this break, this introduction to industry and pollution, marks a loss of innocence for the protagonist. This suggests an environmental subtext delivered with a sort of wry, ironic detachment detectable in many single-author alt games like (Lilith Zone immediately comes to mind), 

Flamingo Quest deftly weaves the player through the world, presenting them with an enigmatic if claustrophobic place that begs to be explored and expanded upon. Safe, friendly flamingos—the player’s family—give way to strange green men lounging in inner tubes and all manner of creature gorging on fast food or waiting for the train. The game isn’t particularly challenging—in many ways it holds the player’s hand, in some cases literally telling them what to do through hints posted on signs throughout the world, but generally only readable through use of the mirror. (I should mention that around halfway through the game, I encountered a game-breaking bug in a cavern in the “upriver” area, which caused poor Flamingo to become permanently stuck. I was forced to restart, but the game is short enough that I regained my position quickly). 

That said, these hints can be ignored for a slightly more challenging experience, but I don’t think Flamingo Quest is really meant to be hard. A short game, playable in under an hour, Flamingo Quest wants you to explore it. It wants you to see all there is to see, and to charm and beguile you with its vaporwave-ish aesthetic. It wants you to bop along to its jaunty music while Flamingo glides along the water, collecting random refuse and tokens that look suspiciously like her.

When Flamingo finally boards the train, during the denouement we see her staring out the window at the only world she knows. Finally, we can see what these deeply-recessed valleys look like from the top. It looks as though giant worms bore massive holes through a brick made of cotton candy. There’s a certain monotony to it, seeing it all from the top. Flamingo is saying goodbye to a series of holes in the ground, to a place made of simple parts, which is a times disorienting because of it. Still, the place is as weird as it is compact, and more development time and resources could surely yield a more richly populated world with the amount of imagination that’s clearly on display.

As upbeat as the game is, the end is bittersweet. One is left wondering, in the end, if Flamingo can make it in the great, wide world. Can she get by on squawking and gliding outside of Flamingo Pond and its adjoining lakes and tributaries? I actually felt a little bit sad to be leaving, but I also like to imagine that Flamingo will make it back home sometime, to squawk and glide again.