How to tell an ordinary story in an extraordinary way?

Spoiler Alert: The following article contains spoilers of the game Florence.

Florence, the Best Mobile Game of TGA 2018, is an interactive visual novel designed by Monument Valley designer Ken Wong. It takes less than an hour to finish the linear story. The main characters are average people struggling for their life and dream. Florence (the female main character) meets Krish (the male main character). They fall in love with each other. They encourage each other to pursue their dreams. No superpower and no drama is involved. And as a love story, it doesn’t have a desirable ending — Florence and Krish break up in the end. However, I was so touched and even cried when I was playing even though I haven’t been through similar heartbreaking experiences. The game definitely creates strong emotional resonance with its excellent storytelling. How does Florence tell its ordinary story in an extraordinary way?


USE OF AUDIOVISUAL METAPHORS

The story itself is ordinary, but the game takes full advantage of the medium and tells the story well to its audience. In the game, a lot of audiovisual metaphors are used to reinforce the emotions and messages that the designer tries to convey.

Krish and Florence’s first meeting happens when Florence falls off her bike and Krish helps her up. Pictures are distorted, layered and out of focus to simulate Florence’s double vision, and the background music is also quiet and obscure. The player has to turn the focus rings to sharpen and align images to see Krish clearly, and the music becomes clear and loud as the player turns to the right mark.

Another metaphor I really like is the dialogue bubbles. There are no words in their dialogue but only color bubbles. The player as the female character needs to assemble jigsaw puzzle pieces into complete dialogue bubbles in order to talk to Krish. The number of puzzle pieces, the shape and the color are all indicative of the status of the relationship and their moods.
For example, on Florence and Krish’s first date, the player has to put 8 pieces together at the beginning. As they talk more, the number of pieces goes down to 6, 4, 3, 2 and finally 1. The puzzle is getting easier for the player, so you know it’s also the case that Florence feels more comfortable and easier talking to Krish.

Similarly, when Florence and Krish have their first argument, the interlocking part of the pieces change from round shapes to squares and then to triangles, indicating the argument is getting intense. 

In the last fight they have before breaking up, all bubbles are fierce red with the implication that they have passed the point of no return and the harm is irreparable. Krish’s blank for bubbles is automatically and quickly filled out, so if the player doesn’t react immediately, the picture of Florence and Krish facing each other quarreling will tilt towards Florence because of the imbalance.

Seeing Florence at a disadvantage provokes the player to fight back and win, and I guess this is what happens in a relationship in real life that the game designer wants us to realize: we don’t want to lose, thus we fight back and hurt our partner without even thinking about who is right and who is wrong. The designer successfully conveys the message through the well-designed metaphors.

 

INTERACTION BEYOND COLD TEXT BUTTONS

Usually, interactive romance novels branch their stories with different choices. You read the dialogue, watch the cutscenes, and click/tap on one of the text buttons. This kind of game attracts its players with a wonderful romance fantasy and multiple endings but often lacks variety in terms of interaction. In contrast, the Florence team wants to tell an ordinary but relatable love story. To make it equally appealing, the designer really put effort into interaction design so as to unify the explicit story and the player story and enhance the latter.

The reason why I love this game so much is that it truly immerses you in the story and creates empathetic connection between you and Florence by letting you do everything she does every day in the game. 

The first two chapters are Florence’s daily routine (such as brushing teeth, browsing social media, working and calling her mom) and her childhood. Frankly speaking, it’s just the background story that doesn’t have much to do with the core romance and can be explained with cutscenes. However, you have to drag and move the toothbrush around for several seconds, tap retweet or like button for every single post to finish each task and move on. These interactions let you immediately get a sense of  how tedious Florence’s life is. 

Later when Florence and Krish are in love, Krish moves to live with Florence. In this chapter, you need to place Krish’s personal items in Florence’s apartment. Starting from shoe organizers to kitchen and living room, you will realize that the space is full already and the only way you can put Krish’s stuff in is to put some of Florence’s stuff back in storage. 

Again, the designer’s message that a good relationship needs compromise is powerfully conveyed through the interaction. The golden rule of storytelling is “show, don’t tell”, and the golden rule of interactive storytelling that Florence teaches us is “interact, don’t tell”.

YOU HAVE A CHOICE, BUT YOU ACTUALLY DON’T

As I mentioned before, Florence is a linear story. There are some moments in the game where you have choices to make, but they don’t change the story. When answering phone calls from Florence’s mom, all the sentences are vague and repetitive answers like “I’m busy”, “Talk to you later”. It shows that Florence takes a perfunctory attitude toward her mom.

 I first thought phone call choices were redundant compared to other interactions, but later I changed my mind because I realized sometimes I would say the same thing to my mom. The seemingly useless choices recall my memory and make me reflect on my life.

My favorite chapter is “Let go”. The chapter starts with the title and Florence and Krish walking side by side. Krish walks more slowly than Florence, and as he falls behind, his image along with the chapter title starts fading out. No instruction or goals given, tapping is the most intuitive interaction. However, when you tap the screen, Florence will stop to wait for Krish and both Krish and the chapter title “Let go” become visible again. 

I suddenly understood what I should do: do nothing. Don’t tap, and just wait for Florence to go far enough that Krish disappears in the scene. Having seen how sweet and happy they used to be, this was such a reluctant choice to make that I couldn’t help myself tapping again and again, but every time I tapped, the title “Let go” showed up and reminded me of what I should do. 

Giving the player choices that don’t make a difference is really a compelling design to evoke the player’s feeling and empathy (especially when it’s a distressing story).

Ken Wong defined “traditionalist game design” as follows:

    1. game mechanics should be about challenge and skill
    2. games should be about choice and agency
    3. games should be at least a few hours long

However, from the success of Florence, we learned that a good game can be a non-traditional one. Florence is a short game with a great number of audiovisual metaphors reinforcing the emotions. It utilizes whatever simple but effective game mechanics to help tell the story. It doesn’t give you freedom to make a choice and alter the story. It goes against the traditions, but it tells the ordinary story in an extraordinary way.

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