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Florence: A Story of Love, Life, and Letting Go

Florence is a game about love, life, and learning to let go. It’s a game I’d describe as a bite-size experience that’s also a vital life lesson regardless of gender, age, or ethnicity. It’s by far my favorite mobile game of all time and one that sold criminally just ok, which is why I wanted to do this deep dive into it and show you what you’re missing.

Florence

Now throughout this article, I’ll be talking about the game’s development and its inner message that dives into spoilers. If you haven’t played the game, go play it and come back to this. It’s only $3 on iOS and Android and worth every dollar.

Florence is the first project to come from Mountain Studio, a small indie team that at the time of developing Florence, only consisted of 4 members. Since the release of Florence, the team has continued to grow with now 10 fully employed employees. The head of the Mountains, Ken Wong, previously came from working at UsTwo. You might know them as the studio behind Monument Valley. Needless to say, the success of that game help give Ken Wong the credibility to go on and create his own studio.

Ken had always been a fan of short experiences that didn’t overstay their welcome. They were long enough as they needed to be to leave a remarkable experience for the player. He wanted his next project to tailor this and so after securing funding from Annapurna Interactive, he began early development of what would become Florence.

Florence didn’t always look like Florence though. It started off with the simple concept of “manipulation of 3D objects on a touch screen”. The only problem was that this wasn’t a simple concept at all. Early iterations messed around with the idea of using pieces of a head like a puzzle that would explore identity and psychology. However, this didn’t land the emotional impact Ken was going after. He further tried to explore the experience of relationships with 3d puzzles but alas, the studio couldn’t crack it.

After 6 months of brainstorming ideas, Mountain Studio finally decided that they’d have to use 2D to correctly land their vision of a 2D puzzle game about relationships. That’s when Florence really started to take shape. Through the ups and downs of early chapter creations, Florence started to find its footing. While the mechanics of the Florence wouldn’t stick to just solely puzzles as originally intended, they would still play a big role in the theme of the game.

Early designs for Florence

Florence adopted an art style that’s comparable to something like Wario Ware, minimal in design but lovely to look at. Like an animated TV show, chapters used a storyboard design to map out the game’s story and mechanics. Considering that Florence would most likely be played on mobile phones, a comic book style was adapted for the gameplay.

Florence had gone from a 3D puzzle game used to strike emotions to a 2d interactive story about relationships. Ironically, Ken Wong didn’t personally enjoy narrative-driven names much. However, that also meant that he knew what he didn’t enjoy about the genre and could do different approaches to it.

Wanting to be as inclusive as possible, the early designs of Florence and her partner were as blank as possible. No specific traits, names, or even ethnicity. The aim was to let the player see themselves at the game. The issue was that it didn’t help deliver the emotional impact of the story without having these characters you slowly get to know and care about. Ken Wong thought of a quote he heard from actress Constance Wu, regarding the importance of honoring specificity with her primarily Asian American show, Fresh Off The Boat.

“You honor the universality of Fresh Off The Boat by honoring the specificity. You can’t please everybody, and you don’t want to, because that’s when things become watered-down.”

Ken didn’t want to water down Florence for the sake of it being widely adopted. Instead, he focused on telling a story he could tell from his own background. Being the primary writer of the story, Ken wrote Florence with his own life details and those around him. Like Ken, Florence was born in Australia but is ethically Chinese with parents that emigrated from Malaysia. Her surname Yeoh, is Ken’s mother’s maiden name. Florence’s partner Krish is Indian-Australian. He’s based on an old high school friend with a surname that comes from a producer at publisher Annapurna Interactive.

The details of the characters are further based on the lives of those they were inspired by. Krish for example, is incredibly close to his family, introducing Florence to them early on. Florence on the other hand, is very distant with her mother, only speaking Cantonese to her and keeping Krish a secret from her. The specific minor details in their personality and character, keep them feeling distinguishable yet relatable.

That thought process would be brought back when Annapurna asked if other genders could later be added to the game. Though inclusivity is important, Mountain Studios had already crafted and created their characters, watching them grow through the game’s development, they didn’t want to change Florence and so the design stayed.

When it came to mechanics, Florence would act as a narrative experience. A bite-size game that told a straight forward story with simple mechanics that translated to the emotions of players and the characters. When you first start Florence, your first task is to brush your teeth. It’s a mundane task that has you tapping the screen for a few seconds to get on to the next thing. That mechanic though trivial in practice is boring on purpose, used to replicate that feeling of having to brush your teeth. Feeling like it’s a chore. It’s a feeling that not only the player feels, but Florence too.

The speech bubbles used for conversations in Florence, are literal puzzle pieces that start off complex and get simpler over time. That’s used to replicate the feelings of not knowing what to say on a first date though like in real relationships, those conversations get easier over time, and thus so do the puzzles. When those conversations become arguments, those speech bubbles lose their soft round look and become rough and sharp, replicating the harsh tones of the conversation.

Ironically for a game that doesn’t feature any actual dialogue, it nails the messages of those conversations without any words. In addition to the mechanics, music plays a vital role in the emotions of the characters and experiences. Florence’s theme is composed primarily with the piano while Krish’s theme is with the cello. You can hear the two meetings in the song titled music, like a beautiful symphony of these two instruments. In the song Fight, the two instruments play separately from each other, at a harsher tone meant to mimic the back and forth arguments of the couple. It’s a beautiful touch that can easily be lost to those not looking deeper behind Florence.

Through the use of its story, simple but creative mechanics, and music, Florence truly represented the highs and lows of a relationship, including learning to let go at the end of it. Florence ends with the end of her relationship and like with any breakup, it’s sometimes hard to let go. Even Mountain Studios had trouble with an early version of the story having an extra chapter that showed Florence reuniting with her old love 30 years later. This was scrapped and rightfully so. It would undo the message of letting go and like Florence, the developers too had to let go. It’s with the message in mind that Krish’s part of the story ends with Florence finding an old photograph of her time with Krish. She looks fondly at it, smiles at the thought of it, and keeps it as a cherished memory. Despite her relationship ending and letting go, she doesn’t regret her time spent with Krish, it’s made her a better person.

I strongly believe Florence is a game everyone should play. Despite everyone’s cultural backgrounds, there’s something everyone can relate to, love. For those that have experienced it, are experiencing it, or will experience it, here’s a meaningful takeaway lesson for children, teens, and adults alike.

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