One of the secrets behind the Nintendo Wii’s wild success was how it was able to tap into one of the largest markets that had been largely ignored for decades: non-gamers. The games industry might eclipse other entertainment but it’s still doesn’t have the same level of penetration among the wider community. So when my non-gamer friends recommend games to me it’s always worth looking into as the design, objectives and mechanics are completely different than those I regularly play. That’s how Florence, an interactive story from the developer Moutains and published by Annapurna Interactive, made its way to me. I’m very glad it did too as the short experience is a great example of how simple mechanics, good story building and a wonderful soundtrack can come together into an emotional experience.
This review is mostly for people who’ve already played the game, so SPOILERS BELOW.
Florence follows the tale of a relationship between the protagonist (from whom the game draws its name) and Krish, a street performer. Whilst there are some bits of dialogue scattered throughout the game most of the communication is nonverbal, done through mini-games and graphic novel styled panels. The game has 20 chapters, each of which focuses on a different part of Florence’s life. You don’t have any real influence over how the story plays out, I believe, but you are able to put your own touches on some things, like a childhood painting that reappears in a couple scenes. This creates a narrative that, whilst guided by what you’re seeing on screen, is largely built out of your own imagination as you fill in the gaps between scenes. That’s what makes Florence’s story feel so personal to us all because, in the end, it’s us who’s building out her story.
The visuals are a simple, whimsical style reflective of our protagonist’s love of watercolour paints. The colours are usually solid with dark pen outlines, something that certainly felt reminiscent of a time when I used to dabble with them. Colour (and the lack of it) is also used to draw your attention to things or to reflect the mood of the characters on screen, with high tension moments taking on sharper, more aggressive tones and times of emotional lows reflected in the colour draining away. This is then all backed by an absolutely wonderful soundtrack by Kevin Penkin. This makes Florence an absolute joy to play just from an audio-visual experience which is then amplified tenfold by the narrative.
Florence starts of with a deliberately slow pace initially, reflecting the monotony of everyday life that everyone finds themselves in at some stage in their life. Then everything starts to pick up dramatically as a single event changes everything, in the case of Florence that’s meeting Krish. From there it’s a wonderful tale of seeing their young love blossom as they get to know each other at a much deeper level. The game mechanics start to come into play wonderfully at this point, like the conversations initially starting off difficult with lots of puzzle pieces but then, at its climax, turning into a single piece that just fits. Honestly I would’ve been quite happy with Florence if it just kept along that trajectory and never explored any of the more challenging aspects of being in a relationship. However I feel the developer wanted to explore relationships in a more realistic way, which is why the second half of Florence is dedicated to the breakup and how Florence recovers after.
For me personally this is where Florence started to really hit home. Not so much from the relationship perspective (although I’ve been there, but I’ve also been extremely lucky with my dear wife) but more in rediscovering something of yourself that you’d left behind and how sometimes tragedy is what leads you to rediscover that. That, I feel, is something universal to the human condition; we’re all pushed to pursue certain things in our lives and quite often a piece of ourselves might get left behind. Even when others recognise it in you and try to bring it out it can be hard to take the leap to begin the process of rebuilding yourself. The ending then is somewhat bittersweet, Florence has discovered how to be true to herself but only through gaining some emotional scars. Perhaps that’s why it’s stuck with me because it feels so true to life.
Florence is one of the best examples of a game that has universal appeal. The barrier to entry is low with it being available on iOS and Android and the mechanics being simple and easy to understand. The story it tells is one that I feel anyone can take something away from, whether it’s being stuck in a routine life, the joy of a new relationship, the pain of a breakup, rediscovering a lost passion or the process of rebuilding yourself up from your lowest point. On top of all of this it’s simply a wonderful audio visual experience with its whimsical art style and gorgeous backing soundtrack. Florence is hard to pass up because it asks so little of you yet gives so much in return, especially for lovers of a good story.
Florence is available on iOS and Android right now for $4.49. Game was played on Android with about 45 minutes of total play time.