It’ll be impossible for me to express my admiration for Florence as eloquently as Emma Wilder did in her charming critique, but I’ll shoot for the stars nonetheless. The debut release from Mountains, a new studio headed up by Monument Valley‘s Ken Wong, is a beautiful visual novel that encapsulates the rollercoaster ride that is young love, breaking free of routine and the pursuit of happiness.
The game’s opening chapter has us wrestling with the banalities of everyday life — the daily grind. It all rings true. Hitting snooze, the sleepy-eyed brushing of teeth and the morning commute. Through a series of mind-numbing prompts, Florence perfectly captures a life without love. It’s bleak with a distinct absence of colour. It’s only thanks to a flat phone battery that protagonist Florence Yeoh disconnects from this rut she’s caught in and takes in the life that has, until now, been passing her by. On cue, a busking cellist, Krish, whisks Florence off of her feet in a fantastical scene that is one of the game’s most pleasing.
It’s love at first sight, that old cliché. This love is characterised by the welcome wash of the colour yellow which is symbolic of hope and happiness, it creates a sense that everything is okay.
As a visual novel, Florence is astounding in the ways it keeps interaction varied and evergreen. One-digit is all you’ll ever need throughout Florence‘s 40-minute runtime, whether you’re piecing together a fractured childhood memory in the form of a butterfly drawing or you’re just phoning home to confide in your once overbearing mother about your failing relationship.
As a game built for a more casual audience, these prompts aren’t ever difficult to execute. That said, some of the game’s choices can be stressful, despite not impacting the story whatsoever. Florence is like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, its storytelling is so wonderful and complex that even this illusion of choice can lead to emotionally taxing results. There’s a scene midway through the game when Krish packs up his things and moves into Florence’s small apartment. Due to the limited space, you’re tasked with sweating over who’s keepsakes are more worthy of shelf-space. Relationships are like unlit, winding roads. If you lapse and lose interest in what’s around the bend, it’s likely that it’s going to be all over. Florence illustrates this in a profound way, even going so far as to demonstrate how the smallest things, like decor, can be tough.
Florence isn’t about Hollywood love and happily ever afters, it’s real and grounded and it knows that, for most people, that first love isn’t the last. It seems inevitable that you’ll love, endure heartbreak and, if you’re game, love again. That’s life and Florence manages to capture these formative experiences better than most films could hope to. I couldn’t help but recall Damien Chazelle’s La La Land which also refused to subscribe to the archetypal happy ending. I’d personally argue that it was happy, though protagonists Seb and Mia don’t end up together they each realise their dream. It’s a bigger picture ending that showcased that while letting go can feel like the hardest thing in the world, it invariably leads to better things, just as it does for Florence Yeoh.
Kevin Penkin’s score reaches lofty heights and was high on a long list of things I adored about Florence. Regardless of mood, it commands your undivided attention, its soaring themes slipping past the bone to warm the cockles of your heart. It works hand-in-hand with the game’s lovely illustrated art style. Were it a graphic novel, I’d define it as a page-turner.
Florence was developed in Melbourne, Australia and is the debut release of Mountains. It’s available now on iOS.
I haven't been touched by a love story like this since reading Scott McCloud's The Sculptor, a wonderful and affecting graphic novel. Fullbright is probably the only other developer that could claim to do love right with Gone Home, but Mountains can stand proudly alongside them. In a medium so fixated on hurting others, it's refreshing to enjoy a slice of life story about the complexities of love, romance and life itself.