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.