The first title from independent games studio Mountains, Florence is an award-winning game and interactive storybook that follows a young woman through the giddy and tender naivety of first love.
Bringing together the minds behind Monument Valley, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain and Movement Study 1, Mountains uses hand-drawn animations, mini-challenges and haptic touch to create a uniquely intimate experience between Florence and her audience.
In celebration of the games' induction into our games lab, our assistant curator Jim Fishwick spoke with programmer Sam Crisp about the process of developing the title, realism in games and the power of jigsaws. [Warning, spoilers ahead].
JF: What was your background before you started at Mountains?
SC: Before Mountains I did an undergraduate games programming course at RMIT. After that I took a year off from game development to do an Honours in Media and Communications, and ended up writing a thesis about realism in videogames. Then I had a brief stint working in app and web development at a tech startup, and after that I joined Mountains.
JF: Can you tell me a little more about your Honours thesis?
SC: There are two ways people tend to talk about realism in video games. The first is the consumer or marketing rhetoric, where the selling point of games is that you feel like you’re totally immersed in the game, and that’s presented uncritically as a good thing.
On the other hand, you’ve got the indie game designer’s position, which says realism is folly, that games should be stylistic because realism is boring. This side argues that the history of the games industry has been an arms race of ever-increasing realistic technologies, which shuts indie developers out. In order to be indie, they say, your style should be antithetical to realism.
‘Realism’ is a word people have been using for centuries. These conversations have happened in the history of visual arts, literature and cinema, and I was trying to bring that conversation to videogames. Realism can mean many things: it can be visual realism, it can be realistic cause and effect, it can be all sorts of things.
JF: It’s interesting to think about that in terms of Florence, because Florence has a hand-illustrated style, but the story it presents is so true to life.
SC: Exactly. Subject matter or social realism is another aspect of it. Florence is a great example, because visually it looks like a comic book, which we wouldn’t normally think of that as being realistic. But there’s a tradition of Adrian Tomine style comic books and graphic novels that aren’t about superheroes, they’re about everyday events, but they’re rendered in a style that looks unmistakably like a comic book. It’s realistic and stylistic at the same time. Those two things aren’t really as opposed as we think.
JF: Where did the idea for Florence come from?
SC: Ken had come off the strength of Monument Valley to start this new studio. He knew he wanted to do a mobile game, something similar to Monument Valley. The mobile platform and its touch interface provide a lot of untapped possibilities and potential to reach a really wide audience. You don’t have to learn to use a dual analogue stick to play. Mobile is much more accessible to a non-gamer audience.
But at the same time, apps on the app store have a very conservative design tendency, or are exploitative free-to-play advertising games. We wanted to make a mobile game with a premium pricing model. You pay a small fee upfront and you own the game. It’s a finite experience, but one where we’ve put all the thought and effort into making that small experience as rich as possible.
JF: On that, your website says Mountains is a craft game studio. How does that ‘craft’ label describe what you do?
SC: We make games that are supposed to feel like they’re handmade, not mass-produced. The product should feel like there’s a lot of attention to detail, that we really put thought and care into it. It’s similar to craft beer; it has this local aspect to it. Everything about how we make games is local, small and thoughtful.
JF: Florence is set in Melbourne, as was your previous work Movement Study 1. Is the idea of place important to what you do?
SC: I think the fascination with local identity is something that all game developers in Australia seem to be waking up to. Game development in Australia has gone through lots of boom and bust cycles, and before this really burgeoning mobile scene we have now, we had bigger studios that were mostly producing other peoples’ IP. It seems like there wasn’t a place for exploring what an Australian game looks like, and what that means. But now people are really starting to talk about that and ask those questions, to try and make their work engage with local identity.
I was really pushing for that in Movement Study 1. At the time I was watching a lot of Italian neorealism, and looking at how postwar Italian cinema worked through the idea of national identity through the art they were making. And now you’ve got games like Paperbark, Necrobarista, and Wayward Strand; all of which are set in Melbourne or Victoria, but are each saying something different about the place.
JF: You mentioned Italian neorealism being an influence on Movement Study 1. What were some of the influences, either game or non-game, on Florence?
SC: The main influences on Florence were romantic comedy films, things like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or 500 Days of Summer. Those two films in particular are stories about romance that don’t necessarily work out. They’re also quite formally inventive. They’re both stories whose archetypes we’ve seen before, but they present it in new ways.
Again, we didn’t start with the idea of making a romance game. We started by thinking about touch interfaces, and what people haven’t done with them before. We realised there’s an intimacy to touch and touch input. Touch is this really interesting sense, it’s the only one that’s reciprocal. You can’t touch without being touched.
Phones, as well, are these devices we carry around with us all the time, they’re always with us. We have social interactions through our phones all the time. We wanted to explore that intimacy and sensation of the phone device and of the touchscreen.
We started off playing with the idea of with jigsaw puzzles as gameplay. What if there was a game that was all jigsaw puzzles, but they have metaphorical meaning? What does it mean if you start putting together jigsaw puzzles, but they get harder, or there’s more pieces, or they don’t fit together? As we developed that, we reached the point where in order for this to sustain a coherent game experience, we needed to work a narrative through it.
With that realisation, it was just obvious that those metaphors were telling a romance story, a breakup story. So we charted the experience of getting into a relationship, then it going really well, then it going poorly, and then moving on from that. That was our arc. And we would try and map that onto these metaphors, these puzzle ideas. That’s where the film influences came in, because Ken knew he wanted to do this with minimal textual or verbal dialogue. It would be more visual and metaphorical interaction.
JF: There’s such a strong story in Florence, and there’s strong gameplay mechanics, almost minigames. How do you get those two systems to work together when they have their own rules?
SC: With extreme difficulty. What you just described was the biggest thing we had to figure out over the whole course of development. Like I said, in the early stages we had these disparate puzzle ideas and metaphors. We also had the overall narrative arc of the game, separated into beats. We took all our ideas, and mapped them onto beats where they might fit.
The negotiation process of making this game was basically trying to get these two ideas to meet in the middle. Some of them fit like a glove and we didn’t need to touch them. The jigsaw where the two halves don’t fit together was one of those ideas we thought of very early in development, and pretty much stayed the same until the end.
But on the other hand, the idea of jigsaws being the backbone of the game, that became less important as we realised we had to lean more on other mechanics. Instead, the game has lots of minigames where we introduce them, then they come up again and we put a twist on them to recontextualise the idea.
For example, the minigame where you dial a clock to show time passing. We originally had stacked jigsaw puzzles, where you completed one then completed another over the top and there would be a similarly framed image, but time would have passed. We really liked that, but we’d already removed the early jigsaw puzzles, and you can’t put a twist on things you haven’t introduced yet.
You have to make sure the early bits of the story are introducing the characters, but also make sure the puzzles are introducing how to play the game. It’s tutorialising the mechanics at the same time as tutorialising the story, essentially.
JF: And what’s next for Mountains?
SC: We’re getting started on project two. The next thing won’t be exactly the same as Florence, but it’ll have all the values we brought to Florence. We want something accessible, and we want something that’s emotional. We’re still figuring out exactly what it’s going to be, but it’ll hopefully become something special by the end.
JF: I’m sure it will be!
Florence is available on iOS and Android.
This interview has been edited for length.