Florence: My Gateway Drug
Updated: Nov 7, 2022
I was introduced to video games by The Narrative Department’s Susan O’Connor. Before I met Susan, I thought video games were all raging crash-crash, bang-bang. I didn’t think that video games were for a writer as introspective as myself. Susan opened my mind by suggesting Annapurna’s Florence as a place to begin my adventure.
Playing Florence, I felt my emotions viscerally activated through the marriage of story events and game play mechanics, and… I was hooked. I began studying and playing video games, rabidly seeking to understand and re-experience that high.
Now, returning to Florence, in the headspace of an analyst, I’ve tracked the story events, their minigame/gameplay mechanic, and noted my corollary emotional responses to those moments. Playing Florence, I felt my emotions viscerally activated through the marriage of story events and game play mechanics, and… I was hooked.
I’m also going to give a lot of spoilers. If you haven’t played Florence yet, do yourself a favor, stop reading, and play Florence before I dissect it here. I should note that the music of Florence does a lot of the heavy lifting in the emotional success of this game, but… I’m going to stay focused on story event and gameplay alignment. I’ll talk about the six game moments that blew my mind and propelled me to become a freelance game writer.
1. Chapter 1 “adult life” immediately conveys the banal emotional grayness of Florence’s daily life. The player hits an alarm to wake her up, pushes her toothbrush in circles to brush her teeth, taps hearts and reposts on social media, matches accounting numbers at her job, listens to her mum on the phone and taps disinterested responses, taps on sushi to eat it alone while watching TV, and finally pushes her toothbrush in circles again before Florence goes to bed. The banality is okay, until it’s not. I felt the dullness of sleepwalking through an unfulfilled life.
2. In chapter 3 “music” Florence walks the grey city streets alone. Passing unfriendly pedestrians, she’s focused on the social media on her phone. To get Florence to walk forward, the player must react to social media posts. A red icon flashes indicating the phone battery has died. The player taps on the icon and the phone goes into Florence’s pocket. Florence, like so many of us in this situation is unwillingly thrust into “the real world.”
Instantly, as Florence is more aware of the world around her, bright yellow notes waft through the air towards her. The player must tap on the notes to move Florence toward the source of the notes. As Florence moves forward, cello music softly floats around her. She rises into the air, lifted up by the power of the music. The player keeps tapping on the notes, and Florence floats around the corner to see Krish the cellist. I felt uplifted and transported out of dullness. The power of music made me hopeful and optimistic.
3. Chapter 4 “crash” begins with Florence riding her bike through a noisy city street. Florence sees Krish the musician far away and out of focus. The player must focus Florence’s blurry vision by adjusting two sliding scales—each scale affects the other scale, so it takes some trial and error to get it into focus. I felt the struggle to discern something far away.
With her attention focused on Krish, she crashes. The player must again align two sliding scales to focus Florence’s view of her crashing bike. The player must align two more sliding scales to see Krish’s POV of Florence laying in the street. The final blurry image is Florence’s psychedelic POV of Krish the musician standing over her—the player must now align three sliding scales to see him clearly. Aligning three floating scales was really challenging for me. In my frustration, I felt the sting of shame for not paying attention to the road. How genius is a game mechanic that intertwines frustration with shame?
4. In chapter 5 “first date conversations,” Florence and Krish are nervous to talk to each other. In order for Krish to say something, the player must assemble the eight puzzle pieces of Krish’s thought bubble. This mechanic made me feel the uncomfortable struggle to stitch together coherent thoughts when talking to a crush. For Florence to respond, the player must assemble the six puzzle pieces of what she wants to say. This mechanic continues throughout their date when ultimately it only takes one puzzle piece for Florence to say what she wants to say, and they kiss.
I’m going to skip over the many, many beautiful relationship building mini-games and all the way to the bittersweet ending of their relationship — because that is where the mechanics made me truly feel the emotional power of games.
5. Chapter 15 “drifting” challenges the player to re-assemble the pieces of a torn image of Florence and Krish embracing. Unlike other mini-game puzzles in Florence, with this one, the pieces drift away from the player’s attempted placement. The pieces will not stay where the player places them. The pieces continue to drift apart. They cannot be seamlessly re-assembled. The relationship is done. I felt sadness, frustration, loss, resignation.
6. Soon after that comes the mini-game that I consistently point to as blowing my mind. This is the first one that I describe when friends ask me about story events and game mechanics creating visceral emotional reactions in a player.
After working through many, many mini-games that require puzzle solving, finger twirling, tapping, rubbing, etc., chapter 18 “let go” requires the player to do nothing. Nothing! Florence is out walking in the cold grey city, she’s trying to move on, to stop thinking about the lover that she’s broken up with. As she walks the shadow of Krish follows her.
When I first played the game, I tried to push her along on her walk. I tried to erase him. I tried to push him away. I tapped and rubbed and twirled my fingers over the screen. Finally, in frustration, I put my phone down. To win this mini-game I literally had to put the phone down and do nothing. Once I did nothing, once I stopped fighting, Krish began to fade away on his own. I gave up and felt the hollowness of letting go of a dream.
Florence is an approximately thirty-minute playthrough for ages four and up. In thirty minutes, I felt everything that Florence felt, and I understood the power of games.