By TwoLines 5 Comments
Playing Florence was an interesting experience.
If you haven't already heard about it, Florence is a mobile game (available on Apple stuff and also on Android) which focuses on telling a story about a young woman named… Florence. I had a few thoughts about it, so I decided to write them down. Mostly it'll be a rundown of the interesting bits in the game, so if you have not played it, be warned, you will be spoiled! Just go buy the dang game, it's like 3 bucks and it's about 30 minutes long.
Florence uses game mechanics as a way of communicating with the player, but many of the interactive elements, so to speak, do not expect you to do “well.” They're there to show you how the characters are feeling. To draw you in through interaction. Through role-play. It's definitely more interactive than a visual novel since there's a lot of objective-based mini-games here, but it's not about performing them well. They're not here to challenge you on a skill-based level, they're here to resonate with you.
The game starts with a menial, routine task of brushing your teeth. This is a good setup for a later payoff. Then we're tasked with liking or sharing photos on social media while in public transport. Now, this is the first challenge we're presented with. There's not a win state, but we're tasked with interacting with the game. It asks us to role-play, more than to win. The photos are very generic. A party, a trip, a dog. Share or like, share or like. Another menial task, but we're getting drawn in.
Next, we're tasked with a “work” activity. It's supposed to emulate adding numbers, we're roleplaying an office worker, but this time it's more objective focused. Find matching numbers. It's simple, but it's also a nice setup for later.
After that, we're in a flashback, and we're creating simple artwork by placing stickers onto a canvass in a shape of a boat, and then a butterfly. This is where the game breaks a little bit in an interesting way. There's a dissonance between what the player wants to do, and what the designer had in mind for a later payoff.
We're expected to make our own artwork, but here's the catch- if we place too few stickers we won't be able to advance. See, in order for the payoff to work, the artwork has to be recognizable, so there's a minimum requirement for the number of stickers to be placed on the canvass. However, when I saw my sister play the game, she wanted to place less than is required, because that's how she liked the picture. The game refused and made her keep adding things until it was satisfied. You're free to design these however you want, but not really, because the game wants it to be more emotionally affecting later on (as it presents this picture to you a couple of times through the game), but by placing these restrictions on you, they're shooting themselves in the foot a little bit here. It's a strange limitation placed on what should have been a more enjoyable moment.
Either way, we move on to the next vignette. This time our character is swept away by the music that she hears from afar, played on a cello by Krish, our romantic interest. We're tasked with touching the notes in order to progress, but the sequence goes on for a little bit too long. Long enough for my sister to ask me if she's doing it right. The game doesn't have a fail state, but you still “win” by progressing the story. Interestingly, it wants you to engage with its mechanics on an emotional level, more than focus on doing them well. By touching the notes, our character starts soaring through the air, draw to the music. The closer she gets to the source, the more notes appear, and the easier it is to fly through the street.
The thing is though, we still want to get it right. In a strange way, I was still treating it like a competition with myself. I wanted to press these notes as quickly as I could, even though this wasn't the point of the scene. It felt wrong somehow. I was losing at the game because I didn't focus on the delight of the main character. I was speedrunning Gone Home. I decided to ease off, and focus more on what the game wanted to present with its gameplay, more than doing well.
Next scene, we arrive on a date. This is another interesting mechanic. We're putting together puzzle pieces into speech bubbles. At first they're very complicated, and it's difficult to quickly assemble them, but later on, they get easier and easier, which is meant to show us how our character is opening up to Krish. It's a fun scene, usually, games get harder, present you with a challenge, but Florence isn't about doing well and challenging yourself. It's about understanding what these characters are going through. And it definitely gets the point across in this scene.
The date culminates with a kiss, which is a sweet moment, but more importantly, it's teaching us a mechanic that it will use later on in fun ways.
Quite a bit of that in the game.
Are you ready for the first payoff? I sure am! First fight as a couple! Our main character and Krish have a fight, and you're putting together speech bubble puzzles again, but this time it's a competition. The puzzle pieces are getting sharper signifying the harsh words. The faster you put them together, the more likely you're to “win.” Winning a fight, however, is not really a success though. But you still really want to do it when you're playing, because you're competing. And when you're competing, you want to succeed. But it's pointless. You're still angry at each other at the end of the day.
Dang, I really thought it would feel good to win that fight.
Either way, soon you make up, and all's well.
Six months have passed and you're moving in together! You're tasked with Putting Krish's things on your shelves and into your cupboards, but there's not enough space, so you have to move some of the things into the closet. They can be your things, or Krish's. It's about compromises, and by this point, the game has hopefully drawn you in enough to role play this scene in a fun way (it did that to me and my sister). Besides, it's a game, and you want to do well, even though you don't have to, since there are no points, and it doesn't matter which things you put into the closet. It's not a puzzle, there are no good solutions. Something compels you to get it right though. You're having fun by playing pretend.
Oh, one thing to note here is that all of the items you move around have fun colorful designs, a very clever setup.
Another gameplay payoff! After moving in together, we're quite happy in our relationship, and our daunting, boring office work of adding numbers together is going smoother. The game automatically moves us through this scene without our interaction. Now, some of you will ask the question here, is not playing the game more fun than playing it? Again, the point of this game is not to do well. It's to understand the characters through gameplay. And this scene does that really well.
So, to answer your question, yes.
We get to a chapter called “routine.” It's been a year and we're back to the daunting boring task of brushing our teeth. We feel like we have been here before. After many chapters of fun stuff, we're also back to adding numbers at our office job. Looks like the excitement of a new relationship is now long gone and we're back to the crushing reality of our life.
Time for a fight, this time it's even easier to dish out harsh words. Evidently, some bad feelings have been piling up, and we're letting it all out. We don't even have puzzle pieces at this point, just ready-made speech bubbles that we fling into place. It's not challenging at all, but again, that's the point. Those arguments were not made on the spot, they were bubbling under the surface, ready to explode.
There's another nice sequence after that where we're putting together puzzle pieces of Krish and Florence laying in bed. At first, it looks like they're facing each other, but then we realize that they're facing opposite directions. Clever placement of the puzzle pieces. More than that though, the puzzles between Krish and Florence do not fit together showing a growing divide between them. You can't fully complete the puzzle. They don't seem to fit together anymore. It would seem this problem cannot be fixed. Can't be won.
After that, we're tasked with putting together a torn picture of Krish and our main character in an embrace, but the pieces are slowly drifting apart, making it very difficult to put this one together. Infuriating, but again, interesting, and very evocative of what is happening in the relationship.
Payoff time! This is a good one, even though it's a bit of a bummer. Krish is moving out, and we have to pack up the things that we previously placed around the house. Here's a nice twist though- remember how all of those things were nice and colorful and that's how your brain categorized them? Well, the color has been sucked out of the scene, evoking the sadness of a breakup, and also making it more difficult to figure out which things were yours, and which are Krish's. It's been a year, so it's natural that these would get mixed up. It's a really clever payoff, and a nice bit of role-playing as you make the best choices given the limited information.
Again, there are no win conditions here. If you screw up, you just take something that wasn't yours. No penalty. It's about feeling what these characters feel. It's clever and relatable, and you want to do well, to understand, and to empathize. Because that's how you win.
And a very nice gameplay mechanic here. The game presents you with a scene- Florence and the “ghost” of Krish walking together. If you don't do anything, Florence speeds up, and Krish slowly disappears. At first, it seems like a fail state, usually you have to play to win. But the chapter title hovers above you at all times giving you a hint- “let go.” It's hard to let go. Feels like losing something. But in order to progress, you have to do it. Without your input, Florence slowly leaves Krish behind and moves on.
Now, there are many more interesting parts with your art and your relationship with your mom, but this is way longer than I intended it to be, so play the game for yourself, and check all of that out.
Simple but effective
Florence is a game that pretty much everyone will be able to play. It's not about winning, or high skill or quick reaction times. Much like the games in the “Walking Simulators” genre. Games like Gone Home, or even more of an apt example, Edith Finch (even though the barrier of entry is higher with Edith, because of the FPS controls). Edith Finch and Florence are similar in many ways. The vignettes both games present you with are not ones you have to conquer. They're not challenging, they're there so that you understand what the characters are feeling. They convey emotion through gameplay. It definitely helps that in both of these games those vignettes are frequently quite abstract, as this allows for more freedom in the mechanics, like the cannery scene in Edith, or various visualizations of dreams and aspirations in Florence.
By visualizing thoughts and abstract ideas Florence is able to present almost all of its story without uttering a single word (there are a few words present in dialogue choices in two scenes), which I greatly appreciate. It focuses on the strengths of the medium, which is… well, the game part. And as simple as those mechanics are, they're used in very clever ways.
It's a fantastic game. There are some snags here and there, and some things could be better visualized than others, but this isn't a review (if it was I would also focus on the soundtrack and art, both of which are great). What I wanted to show here is a game that isn't skill based, isn't based on your reaction times, has absolutely no barrier of entry, and yet it presents a relatable, emotionally resonant story using its game mechanics.