Designing Florence to convey the ineffable feeling of being in love

"I learned a lot about storytelling during this," says creative director Ken Wong. "So much of it is about making the characters relatable, getting [players] to feel like they've been in this moment."

Florence is like a map of a whole relationship," says dev Ken Wong, creative director at Mountains. "Being able to find yourself on that map, or remembering that you once walked the same path and made it through, is reassuring.”

Released earlier this month on iOS and Android to critical acclaim, Florence is Mountains' debut game: a striking interactive narrative that aims to capture the heady experience of first love through minimalist moments captured with no dialogue.

The story of Florence and Krish, moving through their first meetings to dating to moving in together to the erosion of their feelings for one another. are all conveyed with very specific beats and times, using the mundane to show things that many will remember from their first relationship.

Can you recall the first time you spent the night together? Held each other's hands? Brushed your teeth side-by-side? Started putting your things together on your shared shelves? Florence is designed to use these moments to connect with the player, perhaps reminding them of things they’ve felt before, or that they hope to feel, or reassuring them that others have also gone through it.

Capturing these beats was a challenge for Wong, but for Florence to resonate as powerfully with other first loves, he would have to work capture those feelings with just the right moments and interactions.

Putting the pieces together

Wong struggled, for a time, to figure out what to do for his first project with his new studio. The inspiration, which may not seem all that surprising to anyone who’s spent a winter’s night completing a puzzle with a loved one, would come from connecting jigsaw puzzles and relationships, telling a story through that connection.

"There's intentionally not much animation in the game. The color palette is very simple. Perhaps this simplicity allows players to imagine more, and fill in the gaps with their own experiences."

“Finding our studio's first project was a long journey!" Wong says. "We had been experimenting with jigsaw puzzles and we knew we could do something exciting with them. Amongst the ideas we discussed was telling the story of a relationship between two people, with the variations on the puzzles serving as metaphors for the different emotional beats. The team gravitated towards this idea.”

Admittedly, doing a puzzle with a loved one doesn’t quite convey the passion and excitement of a first relationship, but there is something quieter – more subdued – yet just as powerful, about such a moment. It’s the comfortable part of the relationship, conveying a warmth that comes in time, and is an important piece of showing a whole relationship. In this way, the developer saw the strength of the quiet moment and the small interaction. 

Through conveying these kinds of moments, Wong sought to create a connection with the player through shared feelings over similar moments in their own relationships. “We realized small interactions could have a lot of emotional impact, as players would draw from their own experiences. As we wanted to make this story as relatable as possible, we started talking about this being the protagonist's first love, and all the highs and lows that come along with that.”

What tiny moments should one capture to convey that feeling of first love, though? The obvious ones all carry large feelings with them, but lack the subtlety of the quieter moment. This meant a lot of iteration for Wong and his team as they sought to capture just the right feelings and interactions.

“We tried so many different levels, and more than half of them didn't work," says Wong. "For a level to work, it needs to have an interesting interaction that evokes a feeling or tells a story. The feeling or story has to come from the interactions, not from the images -- and there's no dialogue in Florence.”

“Eventually, we had a string of major beats - meeting Florence as a single adult, Florence meeting Krish, their first dates, moving in together. We then had to fill in the gaps to strengthen their story," he adds. "One of the major revelations was realizing that we hadn't shown why these characters are good for each other - we had to go back and create scenes that showed that.”

These connections, and many other important parts of their lives, would show them together through quieter times together. Something as simple as shared breakfast or sitting together on the couch could convey their comfort with one another, helping draw the player in to their time together.

Breathing life into characters via art, music, and mechanics

Another important aspect beyond choice of beats was in choosing how these beats would be conveyed. Player interaction, music, and art would all work together to strengthen that sense of familiarity within the player, and of making them a part of Florence and Krish’s relationship.

“One way is we look for metaphors - how can a touch screen interaction (dragging pieces, tapping on objects to get rid of them) suggest an event in a relationship, or a feeling?” Wong says. “We depict an event in their relationship quite literally, like choosing what objects to put on a shelf, or shaking Polaroids. These are simple, mundane activities, but they carry powerful associations for players.”

According to Wong, these interactions -- like moving and placing objects on a shared shelf (or, in a sad turn, taking them off) -- help tie the player in to the moment. It makes the player take on a role in the game, rather than just tapping dialogue to advance or playing a minigame with thin ties to the narrative. For Wong, it was important for the player to act out and participate in what was happening on-screen, to both drum up memories as well as carry them through the emotions of a scene.

Of course, the dev team also used visual cues to convey the emotional tenor of scenes. The character's speech bubbles, for example, shift to emphasize how the characters' way of speaking with each other changes over time. “Using speech bubble shapes as metaphors for dialogue was a powerful discovery," says Wong. "When we had to depict the characters arguing we revisited this metaphor, showing that the characters now talk to each other differently.” 

And while the light, comic strip look of the game is a key part of its design, it didn't come easy -- Wong says he had to iterate on it multiple times before landing on an aesthetic that resonated with the game's themes.

“The art style wasn't really an intentional decision! I was trying different art styles, but all of them were trying to say too much," Wong says. This comes from my background as an illustrator rather than a comics artist. Tired and frustrated, I just started sketching in a more relaxed way, and I found the style. It's designed to be quite 'naive' and unassuming, and not demanding too much of my poor drawing skills!”

"Perhaps the interactions are so simple and naked and not about 'winning', that the player has to give them meaning in their own mind."

According to Wong, it was important for Florence's art style to give players room to be a part of the story. Too much detail would have drowned the player’s need to use their imagination, giving them a game about a relationship rather than one where they were expected to put a bit of themselves in the story. The simple, yet evocative art style allows the player a little room to think of themselves within it, or to interpret a scene through the lens of their own experiences.

“The music on the other hand, I had strong feelings on," Wong continues. "I listen to film music and game music all the time. The initial feeling I wanted to evoke was intimacy - to portray the deepest feelings between two people."

To heighten that sense of growing familiar with someone over time, the Mountain team scored the game in such a way that each of the main characters is represented by a signature instrument.

"We knew early on that Krish was a musician, and I decided on the cello because it felt like an instrument that could make you instantly fall in love with someone," says Wong. "The cello became a voice for Krish, and the piano a voice for Florence.”

The music gives players a sense of the emotion of the scene, and it also gave the dev team room to give the characters a voice -- without having to rely on actual text that might get in the way of the player's own feelings. Looking back, Wong notes there was no way to write words in a scene that would resonate every person who would ever play it. Through this musical mechanic, though, the team felt they could more effectively convey the emotional tone that players could get from a scene.

"Simplicity allows players to imagine more, and fill in the gaps"

Intriguingly, despite putting in all this work to try and make players feel connected to the story of Florence, Wong isn’t entirely sure why it works so well.

“Even after making the game, I still think I need some time to fully understand why the interactions work as they do," he admits. "Perhaps the interactions are so simple and naked and not about 'winning', that the player has to give them meaning in their own mind.”

Looking back, Wong chalks up a lot of the game's critical success to its light touch and emphasis on evocation, rather than direct communication.

“When people read books without pictures, they have to imagine sound and imagery for themselves. The author is harnessing the reader's imagination," says Wong. "There's intentionally not much animation in the game. The color palette is very simple. Perhaps this simplicity allows players to imagine more, and fill in the gaps with their own experiences.”

By portraying quieter moments of love alongside all the grand times, Florence tells a full story of first love, through good times and bad. It’s the entire experience, conveyed in particular moments chosen by the dev team to make the player part of a story that would evoke their own experiences.

In doing so, Wong hopes it helps the player feel a bit of what they had before, or what they hope to feel some day. It convinces the player to unlock that part of their heart and look in on the feelings there. Through brushing teeth and eating breakfast and sharing quiet times, it calls up that warmth of having someone to care about; it convinces the player to feel that warmth, sharing in what once was or what is to come.

“I learned a lot about storytelling during this game. So much of it is about making the characters relatable, getting the audience to feel like they've been in this moment before, or they'd like to be," concludes Wong. "Romance and relationships and almost universal experiences. We feel connected when we feel like we have shared experiences. Maybe that's one of the reasons we seek out stories: because we want to not feel alone in what we're feeling.”

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