Much like the term “art film,” sometimes I feel like the genre of “adventure game” gets shifted around to encompass anything that doesn't neatly fit in any other category. That's definitely the case with Australian developer Mountains' first game. Florence is like nothing I've played before. You could call it an adventure game or you could call it an “interactive graphic novel,” and I think both would be correct. It borrows far more from Alison Bechdel or Craig Thompson than from Roberta Williams or Ron Gilbert. But when it's done this well, I think that's perfectly fine. I just wish there were more of it.
The story revolves around a 25-year-old woman named Florence Yeoh. The plot will sound familiar to anyone who’s watched indie romance films from the early 2000s: A woman struggling to adjust to her mundane adult life in the mundane adult world meets her first love, Krish Hemrajani (in a meet-cute strikingly similar to the 2004 film Closer). The pair fall in love, move in together, sink into a dreary routine, and things slowly deteriorate. But through each other's influence, they discover the strength to pursue their passions and pull themselves out of the doldrums of their depressing life-paths.
The story is nothing groundbreaking, but don't misunderstand me: I don't mean to imply this experience isn't unique or special. It's definitely both of those things. What could have just been a retread of rote romance territory feels fresh by virtue of the fact that the game is making you play through it. An angsty young woman in the city ignoring her mother's phone calls isn't new, but when you're the one actually hitting the ignore button, the decision has weight. You're brushing her teeth. You're flipping through her cell phone on the subway. There are moments when the game has you move the hour-hands on a clock to drag Florence through periods of change, and it feels like you're wholly responsible for pulling her away from her grade school friends into a life of loneliness.
Probably the most effective of these occasions is a post-break-up scene in which you are compelled to literally leave your partner behind. As the distance between them grows, any action you take will cause them to halt in their tracks, pausing their separation but stopping the game from progressing any further. I willed myself to not touch the mouse while saying “NO. PLEASE.” out loud, as I had grown so attached to this relationship. And yet the game insisted on making me sit idly by while they went their own ways, knowing that I could do something to stop it, but only by preventing all three of us from moving on with our lives.
As much as I don't want to spoil every moment of this roughly 30-minute game, I'd be remiss if I didn't address one other aspect. There is no true dialogue, but it’s implied symbolically using a clever mechanic. During conversation a shape appears outside of the frame, and small jigsaw puzzle pieces appear around it. When you successfully fit the puzzle pieces together, they become word balloons within the frame itself. The game takes you through Florence and Krish's first few dates, and as the dates progress and the pair grow visibly more comfortable with each other, the puzzles become easier and easier until, just before the first kiss, the puzzle pieces, which by this point have been winnowed down to simply two halves of an oval, are almost magnetically pulled toward each other. I've never seen the sense of connection when you're just starting to click with someone represented so elegantly.
This idea is later expanded upon when an argument occurs as you, controlling Florence, compete against Krish to determine who can fit together their sentences faster and neater than the other. Later, the argument mini-game also becomes simpler, as a metaphor for the problems in their relationship becoming more pronounced and easier to conjure.
Outside of conversation there are no puzzles. No twitchy action sequences. There are no mysteries to solve, no item collecting, and no exploration. No significant choices that change the course of the narrative. The experience is simply comprised of many moments and little mini-games, each one serving as a perfect representation of not just the way an action plays out in real life, but the way each action feels. Florence's boring accounting job is conveyed by simply matching two numbers together. The couple's courtship is depicted by shaking a series of Polaroid pictures to reveal new milestones in their relationship. Every action is simple, quick, and impossible to fail at, but each serves as a metaphor for something larger, and burns the emotion of the moment deep into the player.
I mentioned earlier that the game draws inspiration from indie comic legends like Alison Bechdel and Craig Thompson. I think this holds true in terms of the story's pace and subject matter, but it's most apparent in the art style. Florence looks like a comic book, and you're largely viewing each moment as a panel on a page that you click and drag yourself through – or spin the mouse-wheel – as if navigating a document or a webcomic. Our protagonist is a 2D drawing, frequently frozen in the center of the screen. The animations are slight and atmospheric, like the moving of hands as they type on a computer or the rhythmic rocking of strangers on a crowded city subway. An interesting choice has been made with the color palette by starting it off muted and minimal, but allowing it to become brighter and more vibrant as time goes on and Florence's life begins to hold more excitement and diversity.
Another true strength of this game is its soundtrack. Accompanying each scene is a unique track by Australian composer Kevin Penkin. The light, dreamy pianos and deep cello riffs float through the game and truly pull the emotion out of each and every moment. It's nearly tone-perfect, wearing its indie-folk influences on its sleeve, but employing some serious musical chops as well. Recurring themes drift in and out of each song. More than once, I stopped playing just to enjoy the music for a bit longer before a particular scene ended. I can't say that about very many games.
If it's not clear by this point, I loved this game. I found it moving and a beautiful experience both visually and musically. While the narrative doesn't break new ground, it is incredibly relatable and through its interactivity was able to create a sense of immersion and mine emotions out of me that I thought I'd used up on these sorts of stories already. If I'm being honest, I paused for several minutes before the end of the game to have a good, deep cry. If you want some serious gameplay, Florence is not for you. But if you're looking for a simple and poignant tale in which you’re placed right in the middle, I can't recommend this short but bittersweet tale more highly.