Reviews

Florence – Game Review

Thoughtful interactive design supports a distinctly modern tale of love in a way only a mobile game can.

Reviewed on iPhone.
(Caution: filled with spoilers.)


By Justin Russell →


mo·bile
adjective
/ˈmōbəl,ˈmōˌbīl/
        1. able to move or be moved freely or easily.

It is easy to be moved by Florence, an emotional espresso-shot of a game that you can play on your phone (in fact, only on your phone.)  Its roughly 40-minute playtime, $2.99 price-tag, and palm-sized screen shouldn’t fool you—this mobile game is an experience that lingered substantially in heart and mind.  The simple, yet thoughtfully designed, interactions of Florence contain a deceptively nuanced portrayal of romance and growth in a new age, and its self-aware recognition of its medium—and the baggage that accompanies it—strengthens its critique of the precarious nature of intimacy, habit, and our relationship with technology.

Florence is a story of young love between Florence, an accountant who finds she is stuck in a passionless rut and spends a little too much time on social media, and Krish, a street-performing musician who lacks the discipline and motivation to pursue his dreams.

There exists a clear challenge of making Florence and Krish worthy of emotional investment within the confines of 40 minutes.  The successes of Florence, in this regard, lie in its simplicity.  Chat bubbles signify conversation, while recurring musical cues from a swelling cello and a tinkling piano serve as character motifs, injecting this wordless tale with lyricism.  Meanwhile, a structural rhythm is formed by the recurrence of small, universal experiences: Florence brushing her teeth while half-awake, zoned-out commutes to work, eating alone in a dark room illuminated by a TV screen.  Florence’s ability to generalize its narrative mechanisms allows us to approach its simple structure with our own specific experiences, imbuing it with a more implicit emotional depth.  This established structure rhymes with itself in the latter half, as parts of her routine are reprised and modified within a romantic context, conjuring an even more intimate, and sometimes harder-to-touch, set of memories.

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The interactive aspects of Florence also strive to support its story.  The first time I noticed this is during one of our couple’s first conversations over a date.  Colored chat bubbles, like you’d see in your text messaging app of choice, stand in, wordlessly, for a back and forth between Florence and Krish.  These chat bubbles are broken up into several puzzle pieces while you reconstruct Florence’s chat bubbles to respond to Krish’s.  The puzzles took me a few seconds of thinking, distinguishing rounded corners from jagged edges.  As their initially awkward date grows gradually more effortless, these puzzles wane in difficulty: what was once an eight piece puzzle is now six, six pieces becomes three, which then becomes one.  Feeling the flow of these puzzles mirror the flow of their conversation is so simple, yet far more expressive than just being shown.

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Later on, this mechanic is reprised during their first fight in a supermarket.  The conversation flows just as freely, but the context in which it is presented colors its established cadence with a darker tinge.  Eventually, Florence and Krish’s speech bubbles form at the same time as they talk over one another. As the couple’s argument grows increasingly heated, the verbal tug-of-war is accentuated by their bodily stance, each standing taller with every verbal dig.  The back and forth contrasts strongly with the largely introspective nature of the game’s interactions and feels more like a competitive fighting game, with each party one-upping the other until one emerges victorious. In the end, we see that this kind of game has no victor.

Florence passes the time on her dull commute by mindlessly liking and retweeting pictures of dogs, wine bottles, and salads.  As a 21st century human with Twitter installed on my phone, this gesture felt eerily second-nature to me, and the hollowness of the act accompanied it.  In fact, Florence is a tale of two romances: one between humans and the other concerning our relationship with the technologies which we have grown ever dependent upon.   Many interactions you are tasked with in Florence are things we already do everyday on our phones: snoozing alarm clocks, fending off annoying calls from concerned parents, drowning out the outside world with a playlist and a pair of headphones.  The commentary is clear—it is no coincidence that Florence is seduced by a lush, acoustic cello on a bustling street just as her electronic beats are cut short from a dead phone battery.

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This self-awareness of the mobile medium can lead to some extraordinary moments.  In one chapter about dreams, Krish shares his aspirations of becoming a musician with Florence.  This uplifting chapter ends in a darker moment of reflection, as Florence sees herself in a fogged standing mirror.  Florence’s narrative unfolds with a visual language akin to a graphic novel, but instead of traditional comic book panels, you scroll up or down like a Twitter feed or mobile website in order to progress.  As my thumb automatically, as if by habit, scrolled up the images to progress the narrative, I abruptly met the bottom of the scene and the scroll stopped. My brain, however, did not expect this, and the last swipe of my thumb defogged a bit of this dark mirror, like a barely scratched lottery ticket, revealing splashes of yellow and purple beneath the smudged layer.  Proceeding to defog the entire mirror reveals a bright and smiling Florence, with a paint-stained smock, brush, and palette in hand—a theoretical Florence who followed her dreams. It is an image that contrasts strongly against the real Florence in front of the mirror.

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Florence, a creature of habit, has found herself in a rut; the automatic actions and inactions of every passing day—every alarm-snooze, teeth-brushing, and commute to work—seems to extinguish the possibility of the Florence in the mirror.  My surprise at abruptly touching this mirror made me realize that the automatic motions of my thumb swipes progressing the narrative are just as habitual, mindlessly performing an action ingrained from years of phone-scrolling. Our 21st century craving for narrative is satiated everyday, simply by scrolling and tapping through Twitter feeds, Reddit front-pages, and Instagram stories, but rarely do we reflect on whether this consumptive force of habit is one of nourishment or gluttony.  Mom told us what happens when you eat junk food instead of broccoli and milk: your growth can be stunted, but we—as individuals, as well as a society—seem content with the nutritionless buffet of stimulus that technology conveniently serves us. The mirror scene is a recognition of the unconscious effect that habit can have on selfhood, and how habit can inhibit our growth into who we want to become. This is expressed not only through Florence’s personal story, but through thoughtful manipulation of the mobile medium.

Another powerful moment occurs during a chapter titled ‘Let Go.’  Florence sullenly walks, followed closely by a ghostly image of Krish, who looms heavily in her heart following their split.  Tapping the screen yields no apparent effect—I tried several taps in an attempt to discern the effects of my actions, as well as probe for a possible solution to the game’s puzzle in order to progress the story.  Regardless of what I did, however, the figures on screen kept walking, unmoved by my efforts. After a while, I noticed Krish’s ghost lagging behind Florence, and that my tapping the screen would halt Florence in place, giving Krish an opportunity to catch up before the couple started up again.  Only when I heeded the advice to ‘let go’ was I (as well as Florence) able to move on. Leaving the screen untouched for an extended amount of time allowed the spectre to recede out of frame, freeing Florence and allowing her to accept the end of her first love.

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The movie, Her (2013), came to mind during this sequence.  The comparison to Florence is quite obvious—both contextualize the anthro-techno relationship through the lens of an intimate romance.  One of many themes in Her describes the instinctive and, often times, unhealthy desire for control and agency in a relationship.  This desire manifests itself in emotional domination, burdensome expectation, and feelings of inadequacy, and eventually spells disaster for many of the relationships portrayed in the film.

Biologically, we are predisposed to action because of our self-preservation instinct, honed through many thousands of years of trial-and-error.  From fire and stone tools to air-conditioning, agency has allowed us to exert our will onto our environment, shaping it to better fit our needs.  Today, this instinct can be felt strongly in a relationship, especially after a hard break-up, as well as during any other one of the countless problems modern life generously offers.  Kicking into overdrive, our minds can go full on conspiratorial, posthumously looking for the warning signs, trying to dissect every fight, every wrong word. We might obsess over how to fix it, if texting them would make it work again, if going to the bar would make it go down easier.  How does one control a bad situation?

As a gamer who, over the years, has been conditioned to the agency I am allowed to exert onto these virtual worlds (more so than any book, movie, or any other medium), my immediate instinct, when presented with a vague situation, was to aimlessly prod at the screen, measuring my influence, looking for problems to solve, and searching for solutions to those problems.  We see this Wienerian cybernetic instinct elsewhere in environments like Twitter or Facebook.  We browse for and share small stories of triumph, or stories of why ‘x’ thing or ‘x’ people are ruining society. We like, favorite, and retweet. We vent about the latest thing that stupid celebrity said, because these small acts represent as much agency as we can muster in a scary, unwieldy, and rapidly accelerating world—a world in which we feel our presence increasingly diminished.

‘Let Go’ is a call-to-disarm, a recognition that patience and acceptance are sometimes better alternatives to acting out of blind Darwinian instinct.

I can’t full-throatedly say, however, that a complete emotional shutdown is any healthier than lashing out.  Florence acknowledges the ambivalence within the spectrum.  The denouement sees Florence, armed with the same confidence she inspired in Krish, working tirelessly on developing her skill in painting, her true passion.  This opens up a new world for her as she meets like-minded painters, finds success selling her art online, and sees her online presence (as well as bank account) grow as people continue to support her art.  She eventually quits her accounting job to pursue painting full-time.

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Initially, I felt a bit off-put by the resolution of Florence’s story.  Images of Florence counting both the metrics of her viral tweets as well as her stacks of cash felt like superficial representations of her increasing self-worth that had me worried about the message delivered by the ending, particularly because they seemed to be at odds with the messages shown thus far.  After some thought, however, I realized that these metrics, which are presented as hollow in the beginning of the story, are finally imbued with meaning. Instead of a tool to fend off the malaise of modern life, technology has become a tool that allows Florence to express her actualized self. Like any tool, Florence recognizes, technology can be used positively and negatively.  You can bludgeon someone in the head with a hammer, or you can build a house with it—the result ultimately depends on the kind of person wielding it.  This ambivalent portrayal gave me hope that, with enough dedication and circumspection, we, too, can develop a responsible, constructive relationship with technology as individuals, as well as a society at large.

→ The Nutshell
Florence is much bigger than its package suggests.  Self-aware of its platform, it combines the mobile medium with thoughtful interactive design to deliver both a charming story of a romantic relationship, as well as a nuanced critique of intimacy, habit, and our relationship with technology.  The beautiful sights and sounds of Florence suggest an effortless simplicity, but after looking deeper, I found that there is also a lot to chew on long after the experience is over.


Florence earns about four stars on a scale of five.

 Florence wins the heart and mind in equal measure, as thoughtful game design and clever use of the mobile medium elevates a simply charming game to an astute commentary on humanity and technology.


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You can buy Florence for $2.99 on Apple’s App Store and Google Play.

Florence was developed by Mountains.  It is the studio’s debut game, which was published by Annapurna Interactive.

You can listen to the music of Florence below.  The original soundtrack was written by Kevin Penkin.

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