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Florence's breezy, slice-of-life romance is a refreshing take on gaming

February 15,2018 21:29

Florence is full of these kinds of unassuming moments that use the language of games to enhance the message of the story. Swiping the screen to brush your teeth or tapping matching numbers on a spreadsheet replicates the numbing routine and tedium of ...



You can't tell from this screen, but the sounds and animation on the drapes make you almost feel the gentle summer breeze here.

Putting together conversations from puzzle pieces captures the awkwardness of a first date well.

The mundanity of brushing your teeth is captured by the mundanity of swiping your finger on your device.

Tapping on food in order to eat it doesn't really add much to the storytelling experience.

They really do make a cute couple.

The modern video game industry is overloaded with the equivalent of the epic novel—dense, intensely challenging games that can take dozens or hundreds of hours of dedication to truly absorb. That's not even counting competitive online games that functionally never end thanks to regular infusions of new content—the video game equivalent of an epic fantasy series or serialized comic book.
But every so often, it's nice to take a break with a game that manages to tell a memorable story in a much more compact form. That's why I was enamored with Florence, a tidy interactive experience released by Annapurna Interactive and Australian development house Mountains earlier this week. The $3 iOS app is a slice-of-life tale that you can run through in about half an hour, but it has a gentle beauty that will stick with you for much longer.
The basic plot of Florence doesn't seem especially exciting when written out directly. Florence, a lonely office drone in a city office building, meets street musician Krish by happenstance when she crashes her bike one day. The pair quickly move from awkward courtship to cohabitation, exploring the city together and generally being happy and cute as they go through everyday life.
Florence encourages Krish to join a music academy, while Krish pushes Florence to make time for her own hobby of painting. But the couple eventually loses the spark and settles into a routine that begins to erode into squabbling. The end provides a wistful, bittersweet twist on the "happily ever after" conclusion players might have been expecting.
Basic plot, basic interaction
While the storyline itself isn't especially original, Florence stands out for the way it tells that story, working through a series of what the developers call "bespoke gameplay vignettes." At their best, these simple interactive tasks add a layer of depth and intimacy to the game's lightly animated, largely dialogue-free comic panels and gentle, haunting music.
Throughout the game, for instance, you participate in conversations by putting puzzle pieces together into the shape of comic word balloons. What starts as multi-piece puzzles during the relationship's awkward beginnings evolves into much simpler shapes as the flow of the courtship gets more comfortable.
Later, the rounded pieces are replaced with jagged, sharp-edged jigsaws that add intensity to some intense arguments. At points, the pieces of the puzzle might not fit together at all, highlighting the difficulty of the interpersonal situation without using a single word.

Florence is full of these kinds of unassuming moments that use the language of games to enhance the message of the story. Swiping the screen to brush your teeth or tapping matching numbers on a spreadsheet replicates the numbing routine and tedium of everyday life the characters are going through. Actively putting items on shelves and placing others in storage adds a sense of intimacy to the protagonists moving in together. Even shaking the iPad to help develop a Polaroid picture is a cute little touch.
At its worst, Florence's interactivity feels like busy work. Actions like messing with focus dials to bring a scene into focus or tapping on music notes to follow their sound don't add much to the story. Nor does scratching away at pieces of paper to reveal the sketches and drawings Florence makes.
As a whole, though, I don't think Florence would work as well as a short animated film or static comic book—this hybrid proves to be the perfect medium. The interactions keep you engaged in the story, and there's enough variety and novelty to avoid ever becoming just rote tapping on the screen.
It's a light touch that stops well short of putting you in full control of the protagonists in the way so many open-world epics attempt. Instead, you're asked to join in the important moments in these characters' lives in a more intimate way.
To game or not to game?
Florence is the kind of work that seems designed to raise the tedious argument over whether it should count as a "video game" or not. While Florence is definitely interactive, it's missing any sense of difficulty or risk of failure that often constitutes a "game" in players' minds. If you can't figure out what to do at any point, Florence even provides a gentle on-screen clue for how to control the current scene.
Frankly, the specific box that Florence sits in isn't all that interesting to me. By mixing some of the best features of comics, video games, and animation, Florence tells a sweet and memorable tale that isn't belabored with a lot of fluff or busywork. In a gaming world full of immense, sprawling epics, we could use more inventive short stories like this.
The good
Simple, sweet, memorable story told well and succinctly.
Light interactive elements add intimacy to common storytelling beats.
Beautiful art and music.
The bad
Some interactive elements feel like mere busywork.
The plot isn't especially original.
The Ugly
People who will dismiss the game out of hand because it's "not really a video game."
Verdict: An inventive, short narrative treat for an idle evening. Buy it.

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