Florence: A Powerful Story in Gameplay

No other medium ever feels quite as deeply involving to me as video games. It is hard for me to divorce myself entirely from characters in books, even written in first person, when their actions don't quite fall in line with ones I believe I'd be making in such situations. The motivations are the character's alone, I'm along only for the ride. While the same is true in video games, it is true more literally that I am along for the ride. While the decisions are predestined by the story and character, the inciting action is my own. The game does not progress, the story does not move one, unless I physically fulfill certain requirements -- I dragged the dirty dishes into the sink to clean them, I computed simple (and yet hard) math problems for work, and I completed the language bubble puzzle to speak to another human being. I was not Florence, but I was acting with her and thus I felt her struggle as my own, her triumphs warmed my heart, and her sorrow made me gasp and my heart twist. 

Young adult Florence Yeoh is stuck in a very familiar rut when we meet her at the beginning of Mountains and Annapurna's mobile game. Stuck feeling unfulfilled, she goes through her daily routine by rote, until she opens up after a chance meeting and begins to find happiness in love. The game charts the ups and downs of a relationship through a style somewhere between a visual novel and a narrative game, inviting the player to step into Florence's shoes by offering short mini-games to play out her daily life. There's a lifeless, colorless matching game of numbers at work, there's swiping to reveal her true thoughts and dreams, and there's puzzles that get easier and easier to put together the more comfortable Florence is talking.

A short game, one I finished in one sitting on a plane, Florence nevertheless packs an intense, emotional punch. The entire game is beautiful, from start to finish, from art direction to the accompanying soundtrack, and it weaves an intricate story of discovering yourself, opening yourself up to another person, the cost of dreams, and the price of inaction. It's a story about life as much as it is without love -- and it accomplishes all this with minimal, if any, text. 

Video games have an edge for showing over telling, and that edge is on full display in Florence. Every person has had the experience of having trouble talking, self-doubt nagging at you as you try and piece together sentences, stories, even just words themselves while navigating the minefield that is getting to know someone. The game shines as it gets easier and easier to talk to someone, showcasing the connection being formed and then breaking it again as it becomes easier to piece together sharp words than the softer edges of before. The game plays more like a silent movie or a slice-of-life wordless graphic novel, encapsulating the feeling more acutely for having drawn the player into the story. 

When asked about my favorite thing about video games, my answer is without hesitation the storytelling. I get odd looks. I understand the reputation games have, as well as the fact that not every game is (nor should be!) about telling stories alone, but there is such potential there, and such opportunity to connect to people like fiction never has before, that I simply cannot look away. When I am responsible for a character, and I truly do feel responsible and take to heart shortcomings or failings as my fault, the story takes on a new life. It feels adoptive, it feels close, it feels personal, and at last I have a good, quick, introductory game to point people to when I am asked that question again. What do I like about video game stories? Play Florence, and I think you'll start to understand why. 

Particle Mace: A MagFest Review

Just last weekend, my boyfriend and I attended MagFest 13 in National Harbor. We very much enjoyed our time at the Music and Gaming Festival, attending panels and autograph sessions and spending too much money on merch, but no where did we have as much fun as in the arcade. There I learned that there is no such thing as finesse when handling a Commodore 64 controller, that I'm rather good at Dig Dug, and Galaga (my father's favorite arcade game from his day) is harder than advertised. However, our favorite machine was the one that was typically the most crowded: Particle Mace, a game by Andy Wallace that has been making the festival rounds for a while now and which was just released on Steam

Particle Mace is self-described as "a game about trying not to die, but that's impossible." Rather than the more traditional means of shooting, your only weapons are the tiny maces you are dragging along behind your ship. Knocking those into things will cause them to explode, sometimes into much smaller versions of themselves, whereas knocking your ship into things will cause you to die. First impressions of the game were that it was some version of the legendary Asteroids meets Geometry Wars, but with a truly inventive mechanic the game leaves those comparisons to the merely aesthetic and reminiscent game modes. Particle Mace is fast paced, exciting, and filled with close calls and moments wherein your utter surprise at your survival  leads to your imminent death. A sort of "I shouldn't be alive -- oh wait, I'm not" vicious cycle in the style of many of yesteryear's best arcade games. 

The game offers solo missions, arcade types, as well as 1 - 4 player co-op, deathmatch, and other mission-based game types. Playing with others is both exciting and frustrating. In co-op mode, so long as one ship lives, the rest float by in little crosses waiting to respawn. You must hit them with your tail to bring them back to life in a flash of color, and there is nothing like the hysterical laughter inducing frustration that comes from chasing your friend across the screen, trying to avoid enemies and asteroids on the way to save them, only to have them slip from your reach. There is also a barrier surrounding the field of play, you see. It can be a hexagon or a star or a claustrophobic clover, and it changes shape depending on how long you play. Oh, and it starts to spin around and move, adding to the frenetic pace of the game. 

The game does take some getting used to, the bright colors and the jarring nature of the score popping up each time you kill an enemy seem to be reinforcing the game's ultimate professed goal of killing you. There are a number of different ships to unlock as well, each suited to a different play style. My favorite ship was Cascade playing at MagFest, but each ship is suited to different people and even game types. 

Either playing alone or with friends, Particle Mace is a fun, fast-paced indie game that is well worth a look. It even has that wonderful indie game great soundtrack as well.  

Particle Mace has been collecting a series of well deserved awards from the festival circuit. Set up in the back of the room at MagFest, the arcade machine holding this new indie game was never not crowded. I was very pleased to have discovered such a fun, exciting game at MagFest and am happy to report that it is just as much fun to play on Steam. I would recommend playing with a gamepad though, given the speed of the game. Or, perhaps I should invest in a mouse rather than trying to play off of my trackpad. Either way, Particle Mace is a fun game and I am in admiration of the smart marketing strategy behind putting a new indie game in an old fashioned arcade machine, then showing it off at cons and festivals. 

Particle Mace is currently 25% off on Steam