Florence is a 2018 interactive visual novel developed by Mountains and published by Annapurna Interactive, who are perhaps most known for making Journey. Florence was Mountain Studio’s first game, and rather incredibly achieved two awards for mobile games, including a BAFTA.
The game is simple, with a simple art style, simple soundtrack, and simple storyline, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s in any way bad. The way in which all these elements have been crafted together creates the most unique experience and offers a whole new way of making and playing visual novels.
You follow Florence’s story, a twenty five year old woman who’s life appears to be dragging. You begin the game by playing through her routine, where you brush her teeth and match up numbers for work and eat some sushi. It’s a great introduction into Florence’s character and life, and there is a scene where her mother calls and you immediately understand the role her mother plays in the story: annoying. It’s comical, if not a little cliché, and telling, but you have a choice between a few dialogue options, and they offer insight into your relationship. For example, at one point, you can choose for Florence to tell her mother that she doesn’t need to find her a boyfriend. This first chapter both starts and ends with Florence brushing her teeth which really drives home the monotony of her daily life.
Florence then finds a box of her childhood things in her home, and you find a photograh of Florence and her two childhood friends. Here, a minigame takes place that comes up at key moments throughout the game. You must turn a clock face forward and watch how things change. The photo shows them aging and drifting apart until Florence is left alone, her head buried in her phone, headphones on, and isolated. Then, back in the present, Florence’s phone loses power and so she is able to hear some music coming from the park. The animation here beautifully depicts Florence floating towards the sound, where she comes across a cello player called Krish, who’s cello is bright yellow against the otherwise plain background. As you could probably guess, the two become love interests.
You then play through Krish and Florence’s first dates, where you must piece together Florence’s speech bubbles. As time goes on, the pieces get bigger and therefore the puzzles become easier. This is such a clever piece of game design and really effectively shows how Krish became much easier for Florence to talk to. It also sets up the next part of the game wonderfully. These small details make such a massive difference in gameplay and make the experience so much smoother for the player, and you really get those “OH” moments. Krish and Florence encourage each other’s dreams. Krish wants to be a musician, and Florence wants to start painting again, so Krish buys her some supplies.
Later on in the game, Krish moves into Florence’s place, and you unpack his things. You have to do some rearranging, and you can choose whose things go into storage. Perhaps annoyingly, this has no effect on the way the story plays out, however, it still makes you the player carry immense feelings of guilt with every item you place in the storage box, no matter who’s thing it is. You also have to choose amongst some very personal items, with religious or even family ties. They managed to create a minigame where the mechanics are incredibly easy, but it’s still very challenging just because of the emotional investment you have for the characters. I will say though, when I had to unpack Krish’s things for the bathroom and found out he only had one singular toothbrush, I did question his character somewhat. I mean, come on, at least bring some toothpaste? A razor? Something?!
After a year of so of living together, you watch as their morning routine goes from waking up intertwined, enjoying breakfast together, and messaging eachother throughout the day, to them waking up apart, and at work, Florence is overwhelmed once more. The art supplies Krish bought her become buried under things at her desk. Then Krish and Florence fight, and it’s here that the speech bubble puzzles get really interesting. They go from typical looking puzzle pieces, to more jagged edges, and the music builds and follows each rise and fall in their frustrations. It’s actually a very cinematic moment and it can be hard to be the one dragging those puzzle pieces into place. Krish then moves out, and you watch Florence’s life feel empty once again. You must re-pack Krish’s things, and quite literally let her walk away from him. It’s rough and it’s a moment that you wouldn’t necessarily see coming. The realism of it all really hits you here.
After they breakup, there’s a frame where Florence is curled up on the sofa, with rain hammering on the window and a black and white colour scheme to really bring it home. This scene did make me stop and think, because you do have to question the appropriateness of romanticising a moment like this. Is this something that should have looked so beautiful? Perhaps it would have been better to have a bright day outside, and really show that contrast, that feeling of numbness when the world around you is still carrying on. I do think Mountains missed something here. They made a beautiful game, there’s no doubt about that, but to have had a moment of ugliness could have really been something powerful.
Interestingly, Florence is the one to call her Mum after this, and their relationship actually begins to better, which is something I would have loved to have known more about. You play through Florence finding herself, moving on and up, and really doing something with her life. With her mum’s help, Florence begins to really throw herself into her art and even sets up her own business. She eventually leaves her job to run her business full-time, and she has her own art exhibition, and a cat! The game ends just after, zooming out of Florence in her studio, looking out of the window hopeful. It may just be because the game is so short, but the ending did feel quite out of nowhere, and I think I was expecting something a little more, but it was still very sweet to watch.
With a wonderful soundtrack, bittersweet storyline, and carefully thought-out narrative, Florence is really the embodiment of ‘simple, yet effective’. Especially since it’s so short, there’s really no reason not to play it.