Estimated reading time — 8 minutes
The trailer always gets me. This one showed a child with brown skin and blond hair dressed in blue, sleeping under a tree.
You won’t wake up, the caption reads.
The child is walking, growing and shrinking. Several flowers approach it, mainly lilies. The only aggressive one is a tiger lily, with orange flares of petals.
They don’t want you to wake up, the caption continues.
The child tries to get into a too-small door. The door won’t open. The child looks at the camera with baleful looks as snow covers its body.
Don’t listen to them.
Flowers for Fiends. Coming out soon.
I was nineteen when I saw the trailer, late at night after drinking some cider. It was post-exam time, and I was celebrating my inevitable straight A’s. Then I went to YouTube and looked it up on a whim.
To this day, I’m not sure what entranced me. Was it the eerie soundtrack, played out on a harpsichord that seemed to be drowning in a bathtub? Was it the bright colors of the garden, contrasting with the monotones of the sleeping child?
Perhaps it was the look that the child gives the readers. The eyes are slightly glazed, like doll eyes, and swaying from side to side. Its hair is blowing in the wind, and gathering around its shoulders. Its lips part in a plea, perhaps to beg for help and an escape. Flower vines curl around its legs, tangling and trapping them. Sharp thorns adorn the vines, and cut into the child’s flesh.
“Poor little girl,” I added in the YouTube comments. “She reminds me of Alice in Wonderland.”
I learned this lesson the next morning, after seeing a bunch of angry notifications: never call the blond child a girl or a boy. They were to remain genderless, and for the moment, nameless. Naming them would pin them to the wall, like a living butterfly that would struggle against the fumes of chloroform and manifest display. When you start a new game, you can name the blond child anything.
I can tell you the true name now, since the game came out: Dandy. The name whispers into my ear. I still hear it, hot breath against my shivering neck and the rustle of thorns against bedsheets.
Flowers for Fiends was one of those indie RPG games about a world where you could gain intelligence and knowledge by sacrificing others. You play a small child that wakes up in a garden full of sentient flowers. You find out that your body is sleeping outside the garden, and you have to get back before an evening frost hits and freezes you to death. In the garden, you can grow and shrink, depending on the items you find, the flowers you meet. All the plants have faces, and they try to hinder you.
With an unknown release date, you’d expect that people would badger the creator Little Bonny if they cared, and turn their virtual backs if they didn’t. Little Bonny might have earned less notoriety if others hadn’t seen the defaced Confederate flag on her profile. The racists and Confederate loyalists complained. Steam made her change the profile, for fear of offending people loyal to causing the Civil War and whipping black people. Little Bonny decided to put up a new flag, showing a flower eating a star. That was deemed acceptable for originality.
Motherbound played it first. She’s one of the cool gamers who has a lucky cap to adorn her dyed silicon red hair. She put on her cat headphones and her cap, and went out to try and do the first level. Her eyeshadow was silver gold that night, with kohl to match. She named her player character Alice.
The whole playthrough takes about twenty hours; Motherbound made it through about four hours before she ended that stream. At the end of the video, Motherbound started talking about how precious life is, and how every little action has consequences. She was crying about how much the story had affected her so far, and it wasn’t even half done. Tears muddled with her makeup and made the black and gold run down her face. With her dyed hair and the sparkling tank top that she was wearing, Motherbound looked utterly gorgeous.
Soon after Motherbound started donating more money to plant-based charities. She also mentioned organizing a local recycling group, and gardening when not gaming. Not even the deepest manicures could clean the dirt from under her fingernails. Soon she stopped gaming except for the money, so she could keep giving to the plants. That’s how she put it.
Not all gamers were as noble. RighthandPerson decided to go through and kill as many flowers as possible. She didn’t have makeup to ruin, or tears to shed. The backstory didn’t move her stony, flushed face.
RighthandPerson isn’t online anymore. She got arrested for attempting to burn down an arboretum. We found out because her fiance, a short Indian guy with a buzz cut, made a video to explain the situation. He did cry, with his nose running and his face bright red.
“I can’t explain this,” he said. “She doesn’t even like lighting matches!”
Fullmoon decided to explore the game for hints, and started a campaign to try and find the happiest ending, all without revealing the makeup that ran down her face. Eventually she created a giant Wikipedia of everything she could find in Flowers for Fiends, including the secret rooms and the bonus soundtracks revealed if you bought the optional music on Steam. People started arguing if the battle theme for Belladonna’s fight was better than for the other bosses. “Tigerlily Sunbathing” was also a popular music theme.
Belladonna was a tall, slim flower with a pink petal crown. Her face had heavyset eyes with white stars in them. Whenever Belladonna attacked, the stars would vanish. So would her smile. She’d turn into a stiff queen that could crush you. You would pray for the runs where she would go soft and leave you alone. She would also entertain you with anecdotes about the garden. Belladonna would only appear at random points, and on the rare playthrough would remain a shadow, lurking in the distance. She was mysterious, and had no answers to offer. She would fight if you wanted to access certain areas, but she would back down on seeing that she was losing.
Most mysterious of all was the spoiler character, Doll’s Eye. Doll’s Eye, a tiny flower with white eyeball berries, would only appear as an ally if you left the flowers alone and skimped on the bread-and-butterflies. Everyone agreed that Doll’s Eye was the real hero of the game, and the most tragic one as a result. Doll’s Eye knows that if you leave the garden and kill in self-defense, then you will allow for the garden to be destroyed, by the snow or by humans. If you decide to leave without hurting a single flower, then there is hope for you to save everyone. If you decide to bring out the weed killer and massacre everyone for their healing items, then Doll’s Eye will make a last stand for the flowers. Then their true face is revealed, a monstrosity that hadn’t fazed Righthand Person.
Doll’s Eye had an inverted pyramid figure. She was white with a dress that had red and white berries blooming out of her. When she refused to fight, she was no bigger than the blond child. When she did battle, however, she would grow three times her size and her berries would swell. Her petals were thin and sparse green, the color of grass on a dried soccer field. Many players died more than once trying to dodge her attacks. Doll’s Eye face when dying resembled a melting wax statue. The colors would swirl, and she’d collapse onto the ground. But she would keep attacking. If you wanted to defeat her, you had to beat her to death.
Little Bonny never revealed her true identity. We only had the flag with the star-eating flower to go by, and it was clear she wanted her privacy, if she was even a woman. It could have been a man, or a genderfluid person that used “she/her” pronouns. She didn’t even want to do merchandise, not until the commissioned fanart came out, as did the amount of toys and costumes for sale. Then she put her foot down, and said you could only sell art but NOT toys or costumes in mass production. It all had to be personalized.
I decided to make plushies of Belladonna, of Doll’s Eye, and of Angel’s Trumpet. My friend Sean had gotten into the game had just moved across the country, and he was having a hard time adjusting to a new city, a new job, and a new life. I decided to recreate the creepy flowers with faces, and give Sean characters to keep him company.
Sean liked Belladonna and Doll’s Eye. He said they defined the polar opposites of the game. Belladonna would do what she pleased and would come and go, and you could learn more about her. Doll’s Eye would stay and fight, but the player knew next to nothing about her. It made for quite a contrast.
To start with, there were no available patterns online. People did make toys of the characters, don’t get me wrong, but they weren’t eager to share their asymmetrical designs. A few did time lapse videos of sewing Doll’s Eye on a Singer and then embroidering in her berries. No one even tried Belladonna, apart from making clay figurines of her.
I was nothing but stubborn, however. Still in university, I printed up large sprites of the characters at the campus library. Studying Doll’s Eye and Belladonna, I observed them and made niches for the imperfectly mirrored designs. My blue marker estimated a shape as I drew a pattern. Belladonna could be made with regular felt and stuffing. Doll’s Eye in contrast required satin, with how her body shimmered in battle. Silk would be too delicate, and too expensive to boot. For her berries, I would need to use the largest beads and buttons that I could find.
In the fabric store, I studied all the cloths in the remnants pile and the ones shimmering on display. A cut of glistening white satin stood on top of the other remnants, and I stroked it to see if it met my needs.
This will do, something told me. I looked up. No one was near me in the store, but the voice had been whispering in my ear. Then I shrugged, pulled out my phone, and compared the satin to Doll’s Eye sprite. It seemed to match.
I deserve better, another thought intruded. I looked around again. That thought made me ignore the pink felt that was available and going for a cut of pink satin that rippled against the air. It was a display, so I had to take it to the fabric cutting counter, grab a number, and wait for the uniformed lady behind it to cut.
“This isn’t on sale,” she warned me.
“I know,” I replied.
The pattern went online, along with my fabric recommendations. I added notes about how satin would be ideal but to iron it so that the sensitive fabric wouldn’t fray. I added the images of the satin I used. These satin cuts I held up to show how they could billow so gracefully, like petticoats.
I felt leaves against my arms and legs, and a thorn against my throat.
Once the pattern was done, I had to decide what would make up the doll filling. Metal beads or beans were out of the question; they were too hard and heavy, and unfitting for a proper pillow. So I used the leftover material. In addition, I dried rose petals from flowers that grew by our house. The bushes ran wild. I cut them and hung them upside down.
I do not smell like roses, a thought came in as I added a pink satin fringe around her face to mimic the petal crown. I frowned at the fringe.
She’s not going to dry a real belladonna for you, another thought retorted. Where would she even FIND a belladonna plant? I’m not expecting an actual Doll’s Eye.
I blinked and dug a finger into my ear. My eardrums felt normal.
You wouldn’t, the first thought replied. You sacrifice everything for the garden. do you never think about what you want, Dolly? You deserve better. Much better than this.
I used batting in addition to store-bought stuffing. The green-white material was fluffy and sheeded easily. It was quite wonderful and made for a squishy texture.
Sean said that he liked the progress that I sent to him via pictures. I didn’t know how he was going to react to the finished product, however. Doll’s Eye was the hardest because the largest beads couldn’t make up for her actual sprite. She looked lifeless in contrast. He didn’t notice that my eyes had gone bloodshot, because we only talked via text. My fingers felt constantly pricked, as if I’d been handling roses all day. I wouldn’t even see him in person to deliver the dolls.
In time, the hand-stitching was done. I had finished Belladonna first because Doll’s Eye needed more beads. I wrapped her in bubble wrap and used a leftover Amazon box to mail her to my friend’s dorm.
Tell me when it arrives, I texted him.
Will do! I can’t wait, he replied.
Days passed. I went to my campus’s counseling center. A therapist taught me coping strategies for intrusive thoughts. The whispers into my ear didn’t vanish, but I learned to live with it.
Sean responded. He sent several pictures. One showed him opening the box, where bubblewrap protected the flower plushies. Another showed vines growing out of the secondhand Amazon box. The last one showed a building wall covered in flowers, strangling the doorknobs and windows. The plants were coating the entire building, and stretching onto the parking lot. Some even wrapped around cars, crushing them in green and white.
Smells like roses, he wrote. Endless roses.
Credit: Priya Sridhar