On Valentine’s Day this year, Mountains released Florence, an interactive story about a young woman’s first love. As a game, Florence flexes the storytelling capability of the medium, and is a great example of how games can immerse you in the creator’s vision through interactive elements designed to deepen the way you experience the narrative.
The actual story contains familiar beats you may recognize from popular rom-coms: the meet cute, the euphoria of fresh love, the strain of conflict, etc. In an email exchange, Ken Wong, Florence’s creator, told me that “In my [work] I never set out to tell a story – I use story as a tool to create emotional impact.”
This would explain why the narrative serves mostly as the delicate thread that strings together the sumptuous details that make Florence such a delight. The archetypal nature of the story also helps players recall their own romantic experiences to add personal texture to their own playthrough.
Wong did, however, make a very conscious decision not to keep Florence devoid of all details, and gave the protagonists specific racial and ethnic backgrounds demonstrated through their names, appearances, conversations, and personal possessions. When I inquired about this choice, he said:
“I don’t have much experience writing, so I have to write what I know! I’m of Chinese descent, and I was born and raised in Australia. I feel a lot of tension between these identities, and I find that’s a common experience amongst Asians who grew up in Western countries. So, casting Florence as Malaysian Chinese like myself made it easier for me to get to know her, and write her.
It’s unusual for Asian men to be objects of desire in Western media, so I cast Krish as Indian. Indian culture encourages men to study hard and work hard, so the idea of an Indian guy playing cello in the streets of Melbourne felt fresh and surprising. Florence and Krish are a mixed-race couple, and neither of them are white, and this is unremarkable in the story. That felt very true to the Australia that I know and love.”
The very fact that their race is not a big deal to the story is what makes this a great case for representation. Gaming is more often known for toxic masculine culture than championing progressive themes, but works like Florence help tip the scale.
The game features 2-D hand-drawn art style that would have easily accommodated racially ambiguous characters. Most players would have assumed the characters to be white without the specific features telling them otherwise (Florence’s Cantonese phone conversations, Krish’s Ganesh statue and spice boxes). This is because most love stories WITHOUT race as a key plot point are about white people. To see two attractive young people of color deal with the universally relatable themes of emotional maturity, co-habitation, career monotony and personal growth is a breath of fresh air.
As a Chinese-American woman, when I played Florence, I didn’t have to perform the additional emotional labor of projecting myself onto a white character. The game normalizes casting people of color in nuanced roles that are centered on their individuality rather than the monolith of their ethnic background. It may not seem like much, but this actively helps retire the stale stereotypes used to label others without getting to know them.
Now that I’ve talked about what Florence represents to me, I want to discuss about how lovely it is. The art style is employs gentle hand-drawn lines, balancing negative space with lush pops of color. Kevin Penkin’s soundtrack is a dream, and you can listen to it in its entirety on Spotify. There’s one track for each of the 20 chapters in the game, and I’ve listened to it many times from end to end, sometimes remembering moments from the story and other times just losing myself to the melody. For anyone who loves the passion and emotional versatility of cello, Florence is a must for you.
The soundtrack can be enjoyed without playing the game, but I would not recommend doing that. The story enhances the songs just as the music heightens the mood and the characters’ emotions at various junctures. There’s no dialogue in this game, and in place of the traditional text-based storytelling, the instruments serve as the voices of the narrator as well as the characters.
On the construction of the sound and the game, Wong said, “We started by working out a few key themes, including Florence’s theme and Krish’s theme. This sort of established their main identities in musical form – two different melodies, with Florence’s usually played on piano, and Krish being represented (of course) by a cello.
Our approach to each chapter was different. Some chapters like ‘Adult Life’ just have a loop playing throughout. Others like ‘Inspiration’ go through a few different movements because these chapters show change. ‘First Dates’ progresses crossfades between three versions of the same song, as Florence and Krish get to know each other.
As the process went on, we came to understand that the instruments were the voices of the characters. You can really hear this in ‘Groceries’, when the couple are arguing.”
There is one magical scene where Florence and Krish meet for the first time as he played his cello, and it captures the sheer perfection and beauty of the first spark of love. It’s hard to describe, so you’ll just have to experience it for yourself.
Florence is available for download in Google Play Store or the Apple App Store.
Frankie Huang was born in Beijing and raised in New Jersey. Currently, she lives in Shanghai where she works as a strategist at an idea studio. Having lived all her life wedged between the proverbial East and West, she is interested in the ways globalization cross-pollinate cultures and lead to different new growths.