Disclaimer: the following article contains spoilers for the entirety of Florence. The game is available on the App Store and Google Play for $3, and I highly suggest you play it first before reading this article since I could never do justice to the experience.
When people who are not as interested in video games talk to me about them, I am sometimes asked why games follow certain design trends, such as the prevalence of violence and why more diplomatic solutions are not usually available. The stereotype of the violent video game, while misguided at best, does exist for a reason. Because of their nature of being run by a computer, games will always have limits on what they can do, and it just so happens that interactions such as pointing and shooting in an online multiplayer match is usually the easiest to program, making it popular with developers and by extension consumers. Even non-violent games are bound by these same restrictions, which means that all games have to render certain concepts abstract and easy to understand in order to retain that simplicity. If we suppose that we demand a game like Call of Duty to have a diplomatic solution to every encounter for players that desire it, this would blow open a door to an entire universe of complexity, as programmers will not only have to account for aggressive artificial intelligence but also each and every way they could respond to the player’s actions, which can be near infinite. Some games already do this and add a level of abstract diplomacy on top of the gameplay, but this solution will not work for every game, and not every project prioritizes player choice. So because the more a game approximates real life, the more complex it becomes, and common design wisdom discourages developers from trying to emulate it, which is why Florence is a rather interesting specimen.
Released in 2018 and developed by Mountains, Florence is a narrative-focused experience about a girl named Florence that brings the romantic story template into a game. Florence’s story may not be unique, as tales of people falling in love and how that changes their lives before and after the relationship have been told a thousand times before, but it pioneers new territory for the medium of video games with the way it tells this simple story.
First of all, Florence does not unfold like any traditional game, but rather as a kind of digital storybook, although at the same time not using a single word throughout the experience. This decision may seem odd for a romance since the genre relies on intelligent dialogue to stay engaging, typically lacking in much action or in a twisting plot, but it helps it remain simple and approachable as well as reinforcing its attempts to abstract real life in the form of a game.
As for the actual gameplay side of Florence, minigames, or smaller games within the game, form its backbone. For example, the first chapter takes the player through Florence’s daily routine and turns each part into its own small game. Brushing teeth becomes swiping a toothbrush in a box from side to side until a bar fills up, commuting to work in the morning becomes absent-mindedly scrolling through social media, working at a nine-to-five office job becomes matching numbers, and so on. If this sounds boring to play, it is boring by design because real-life routines tend to be boring and requiring little to no thought. However, things begin to get interesting when Florence meets a cello player named Krish. From this point, her routine starts to change and the minigames reflect this change by involving more thought and care on the player’s part to complete. Her rigid routine slowly begins to fade into the background as Krish becomes more involved in her life and her focus, and the minigames reflect this change. For example, the focus of what the player does eventually shifts more heavily towards conversations between the two, where the player has to assemble blank speech bubbles out of puzzle pieces. When they first get to know each other, each speech bubble is composed of many pieces which take some time to arrange, but eventually the puzzles become simpler. The content of each conversation does not matter at all in these moments, only recreating the experience of having a conversation with another person, and how it becomes more natural as time progresses. Even the shapes of the puzzle pieces matter later in the story, as their relationship becomes increasingly strained due to stress at work and at college. The rounded pieces start to get blunter until they turn sharp in arguments, and conversations devolve into who can produce as many speech bubbles as possible. The old boring routine comes back once again after the honeymoon phase of the relationship, and the couple eventually breaks up. Then the minigames gain a more somber tone, one involving the player not doing anything at all as Florence walks away from Krish so she can finally let him go.
In terms of what Florence does, not much about it is particularly groundbreaking, as narrative-focused games about dating have been done before, but the way Mountains delivers this story reveals an interesting design ethos that games after it could follow. Instead of focusing most on the content of verisimilitude, games could leverage the emotional reactions produced by the boring beats of reality. Florence shows that games do not have to be bombastic or present a radical fantasy for the player to live out just to hold their attention, and that maybe games can be boring sometimes too, just like reality.
Thumbnail. Florence. https://rtrfm.com.au/story/new-game-florence-moves-mountains/
Fig. 1. Kleis, Samuel. Yellow note.
Fig. 2. Kleis, Samuel. Storybook.
Fig. 3. Kleis, Samuel. Work minigame.
Fig. 4. Kleis, Samuel. Conversation minigame.