Review: “Florence” by @mountainsgames #videogaming #interactive #storytelling


Florence (2018), by Australian studio Mountains, is one of the most innovative narratives I have ever encountered. Here I see it as a digital book, a great example of interactive storytelling, rather than a video game. It opens my eyes on how stories can be conveyed and further enriched with reader input, without giving away author control over plot and character design. Reading Florence is an amazing and inspiring experience, revealing how user participation can help create a sense of intimacy that is seldom found in ordinary print books and text-based digital titles.

The digital book was introduced to me by a 13-year-old friend who enjoys web-based illustrations, comics and arts. Together we embarked on a journey through the world of Florence, a young woman living her daily routine, finding love, and eventually discovering and fulfilling the meaning of her life. Instead of written dialogue, readers are accompanied by music throughout the story that perfectly captures the characters’ mood and the atmosphere of each scene. The use of piano for Florence and cello for her love interest Krish very much reminds me of Invitation to the Dance (1819) by German composer Carl Maria von Weber.

Initially skeptical about the use of mini-games in storytelling, I was surprised by the delightful ways in which they help reveal the emotions, thoughts and actions of the characters. Sometimes the tasks are simple, such as tapping, swiping and scrolling to help Florence brush her teeth, browse social media on public transport, do her accounting work, get through phone conversations with her mother, eat her meals, clean her house, etc. These trivial, repetitive tasks reflect the mundane nature of Florence’s life, allowing readers to experience it first-hand.

As Florence meets and falls in love with Krish, we as readers help bring her life into focus – literally. We piece together the couple’s conversations, clarify their dreams, develop polaroid photos of their outings and social gatherings, and even arrange their personal belongings when they start living together. The process enables readers to access the couple’s life. It is an incredibly empowering feeling, which soon turns heart-wrenching when the couple breaks up and readers have to help sort out their stuff. Memories of the relationship are now drifting pieces of a vague image that readers try to capture on behalf of Florence. The emotional and psychological transition from the observer to the participant is thus complete.

In the words of Ken Wong, lead designer of Florence: “I wanted to explore what kind of stories and what kind of dynamics we can get without resorting to violence… It plays out a bit like comic without words, which I’m a fan of, but also a bit like a silent movie or a music video, where you’re going to be reading a lot into body language and how these characters move throughout the world and looking through their possessions.” Perhaps this is why Florence can and should be seen as a digital book – it builds in chapters and utilises the format of a graphic novel. It encourages reader contribution, NOT to achieve goals, win prizes, advance to higher levels, or experience thrills. Instead, readers are invited to participate in processes of decision-making and, as a result, to experience how simple and complex decisions can impact on one’s life.

Suffice to say that, much like reading a book, in Florence, there is no “right” or “wrong” choices that will let you “win” or “lose”. Similar to a book, but through interaction, it seeks to “evoke more personal connections and empathy from users”. I guess this is what makes storytelling magical as well as universal, no matter what form it takes.


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