‘Florence’ is a superb meditation on love from the designer of ‘Monument Valley’

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Video games rarely capture the act of falling in love with any degree of authenticity. Most of the time, two characters are simply deemed destined for one another. Their love exists because it has to (see: Mario/Princess Peach, Link/Princess Zelda, etc.). We don’t see the beautiful mess that is falling in love unfold organically very much at all in games. Since games are an interactive medium, that blind spot is particularly upsetting. This week’s app, Florence, fills that void and then some, offering one of the most thoughtful and heartfelt experiences I’ve experienced on a mobile device.

The debut title from Mountains, designed by the man behind Monument Valley, can be finished in less than an hour. Within that brief span, though, Florence delivers a razor sharp tale that, on the surface, is about falling in and out of love. But beneath the surface, Florence illuminates an even more universal and critical theme: loving yourself. Clever little puzzles connect you with the story in small, but meaningful ways to elevate the experience.

At the start, the titular character is 25. A typical day for Florence: she hits the snooze button on her alarm multiple times, rides the bus to work with her face glued to her phone, spends her day balancing company numbers in a cubicle, eats dinner in front of her TV, watches more TV, and then goes to bed. The game quickly conveys that Florence, like many people, feels alone. Her most intimate interactions come in the form of phone calls with her mother that never end well.

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Soon Florence comes across Krish, a cellist playing a gorgeous tune in the park. And almost immediately, the makings of a relationship begin to bloom. We see their first date, the first time Florence has him over to her apartment, we see them push each other to reach towards their respective dreams. We witness their first minor squabble, we see a map of all the places they’ve been and people they’ve met together. Six months later, he moves in. And everything is perfect, until it’s not.

I know, none of this sounds inventive. A couple falls in and out of love in their mid-twenties. So what? That happens to almost everyone. Why yes, it does, and that’s one of the reasons Florence’s story strikes a chord. It doesn’t offer an artificial Hollywood-esque story of love to foolishly aspire for; it presents a character study of a young person who might as well be you or me.

If you have gone through heartbreak, specifically the kind that sneaks up on you when you thought this person, this relationship, could really be the one, you’ll find much to relate to here.

But don’t be mistaken — Florence also imparts a moving message of hope. There’s happiness to be found after heartbreak. And as corny as it sounds, true happiness really does come from within. Florence stresses this common theme without devolving into cliché.

What makes Florence especially poignant, however, is not the story as told by the developers, but the way the interactive elements manage to bring you closer to the game’s defining themes. Best described as an interactive comic book, Florence uses a restrained yet beautiful color palette that stitches together its moving pieces brilliantly with the help of a wonderful soundtrack.

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Some panels have you merely tap an object on the screen, such as the blaring alarm clock, to make progress. Other times, you turn clock hands round and round to advance time. Occasionally, you rub the screen to reveal a picture, or drag a frequency bar until the scene comes into focus.

At first, the extremely minimalistic approach to gameplay disappointed me. And that minimal requirement of me, the player, mostly remained through the credits. Yet, I grew to appreciate what the game asked of me.

Florence’s puzzles won’t stump you. They aren’t meant to. Instead, they work hand-in-hand with the story to convey underlying emotions that sometimes become obscured by words. When Florence and Krish speak, you fill in the dialogue bubble by piecing together a jigsaw puzzle. The number of pieces and their shape directly correlates to the situation. When they first meet, its hard for Florence to converse, so there are more pieces. As the date goes on, the puzzles have less pieces. This ingenious mode of portraying human interaction works so well that actual dialogue — of which Florence doesn’t have — is rendered unnecessary.

When they move in together, you unpack a box onto various shelves by dragging and dropping household items, but not all of them can fit.  You have to decide which belongings to keep in storage. And when the relationship dissolves, you have to pick which possessions stay behind.

After subtly inviting you into its focused story, Florence deftly gets you to interact with its moving parts just enough to encourage you to trace through your own experiences with love. 

 Florence is available on the App Store now for $3.