Florence Tells A Love Story With Actions, Not Words

Developed by Mountains and published by Annapurna Interactive, Florence is the story of the heartracing highs and heartbreaking lows of a young woman’s very first love.
Developed by Mountains and published by Annapurna Interactive, Florence is the story of the heartracing highs and heartbreaking lows of a young woman’s very first love. Mountains / Annapurna Interactive

Love is everywhere this week, whether you’re celebrating with a special sweetie or patiently waiting for the drugstore candy to get marked down 75 percent. It’s even on your mobile phone (no, not there). Florence, an interactive story which places you in the role of a shy twenty-something navigating her first grown-up romance, is out for iOS on Wednesday. It’s the latest work from Ken Wong, best known for the critically-acclaimed Monument Valley. Through bespoke interactions (many of which are spoilers, so forgive the vagueness), Florence takes players through the growth of a new relationship. For example, the game articulates the anxious excitement of a first date by asking you to solve small jigsaw puzzles to fill colorful dialogue bubbles.

"The thing that we started off with was a feeling. The feeling that we wanted to portray is nervousness, when they met,” Wong told Player.One. “At the time, we were experimenting a lot with puzzles and I thought: what if her speaking is a puzzle, of sorts, and it gets easier over time? Once we had this jigsaw puzzle paradigm, it felt really strong.”

In the opening scenes, you take Florence Yeoh through a typical day: brushing her teeth, browsing social media, plowing through spreadsheets at work, chatting on the phone with her mother and eating takeout in front of the TV. It’s a relatable humdrum routine that changes the moment Florence crashes -- quite literally -- into an outgoing musician named Krish. The game has very little text; you’re left to fill in the blanks regarding the specifics of Florence and Krish’s conversations.

Florence uses interaction metaphors like the jigsaw puzzle conversation to drive the story and let develop characters, rather than “winning” or triggering certain consequences. It’s a departure from the typical mindset with which we approach games, and that was part of the appeal of the project to Wong and the Mountains team.

“In the history of games, it's been easier to tackle things that have finite results: things that you can attribute a score to. Emotions and relationships are a lot more fluid and have a lot more gray in them. That's made them a little harder to simulate. Once we figured out we would want to use these interaction metaphors, it started coming together,” he said.

Putting your thoughts together in Florence.
Putting your thoughts together in Florence. Mountains / Annapurna Interactive

Wong wanted Florence to be an accurate representation of his native Melbourne. Like him, Florence is Malaysian-Chinese-Australian. Krish has South Asian roots. “I wanted to portray Australia as I know it, which is a very diverse country. I don't know if that image is communicated to the rest of the world enough. There's a lot of Australian media going out with white faces, but when I was growing up here, I had friends of all different types of backgrounds,” Wong explained. “I wanted to explore that kind of identity, shades of cultural identity, what it means to be a second-generation immigrant.”

At the same time, Wong aimed to tell a story that could appeal to a broad spectrum of players. “You have to like these characters equally. We don't Krish to be a manic pixie dream guy that solves all of her problems. There has to be a bit of give and take. All of these very nuanced things, it’s easier to shape with dialogue. For us, it just took a lot of iterations. Many, many revisions and trying lots of things that didn't work out, then slimming down to these core beats we feel are going to resonate for the widest possible audience,” he said.

Florence and Krish enjoy a meal.
Florence and Krish enjoy a meal. Mountains / Annapurna Interactive

Among the ideas that didn’t work out was a greater focus on more ‘adult’ aspects of Florence and Krish’s relationship. “The original idea was that you were going to get really intimate with these characters’ bodies and have them be quite bare: in their underwear, naked. I still think that's a really interesting idea, but by the time we got down this path in Florence, that wasn't as important as the emotional connection between the characters and all the other stuff that happens in a relationship. We dabbled a bit with trying to portray their most intimate moments, and what we had just didn't get a good reaction,” he laughed. “You're familiar with the concept of uncanny valley? I think touching on the screen to suggest intimate contact kind of fell in that area.”

While the slice-of-life, graphic novel approach of Florence appears to be a departure from Monument Valley, the two games have more in common than it may seem at first glance. "There's a lot of connective tissue, and a lot of it is below the surface. They're both short, linear games that aren't very difficult. They're more about walking through an experience and having empathy for the characters, rather than trying to solve challenges or gain skill. Monument Valley has slightly more of a puzzle element, somewhere along the way we stopped calling them puzzles. interactions is the better word for what Florence has. They both focus on visual art and great music, sound design, interaction design,” said Wong.

“It's just two people having a relationship in Melbourne. We tried to bring out the magic in that, we try to use all of our techniques to reveal what's beautiful and magical about it,” he said.

Florence comes to iOS devices Feb. 14 for $2.99.

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