Producer Kamina Vincent says Florence’s story is universal: “[We all] experience love in some form, even if it is just a friendship”. (Supplied: Mountains)
Games creator and designer Ken Wong thinks video games should make you cry.
“Like a great song can make you cry, and a great movie can tell you something about the world, and a great book can reveal something about yourself, a game should do all those things too,” he says.
For now however, he says, it’s an anomaly, “because that’s not necessarily what games have to do”.
In June this year, Wong’s indie games studio Mountains collected its first Apple Design Award (Wong’s second, following a 2014 win for the viral success Monument Valley) for its debut mobile video game, Florence — a hand-drawn, delicately animated and exquisitely scored story of young womanhood and first love, designed for a single player.
Part puzzle and part graphic novel, Florence charts the budding relationship, courtship and eventual break-up between Malaysian-Chinese-Australian protagonist Florence Yeoh and Indian-Australian love interest Krish Hemrajani.
Since being released on iOS and Android platforms in February, Florence has received overwhelmingly positive feedback.
In reviews and in private missives to the studio, players from around the world have expressed gratitude for the game — some moved to tears by the true-to-(their)-life vignettes, and others simply grateful to see themselves and their experiences represented within the video game genre.
Describing Australia as a “nation of immigrants”, Wong says Australian identity is, at essence, “being multicultural and diverse”.
“Everybody deserves to see something of themselves represented in stories.”
‘I’ve never seen my nose in a game before!’
Kamina Vincent says the Melbourne indie community embraced mobile gaming in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. (ABC Arts: Kate Disher-Quill)
Talking about Florence’s first public showing at games expo PAX Australia in 2017, Mountains producer Kamina Vincent recalls a reaction from one player that particularly struck her.
“He said, ‘He had my nose — I’ve never seen my nose in a game before!’ And it was a beautiful moment but it was also heartbreaking, because … we should be able to see ourselves in the mediums we consume — it’s so important,” Vincent says.
“I was not expecting that to be the moment that hit him hard.”
Vincent says there are some subtle nods to Melbourne within Florence.
Vincent, a recipient of the 2016 Film Victoria Women in Games Fellowship, spends her spare time mentoring young people and students entering the industry, and researching a diversity program for the Game Developers’ Association of Australia (GDAA).
She says while the gender gap is narrowing, the industry and the genre have a long way to go before they achieve genuine diversity.
“Yes, the statistics of women in games is getting better, [but] we’re still sitting at 20 per cent, and we’re missing so many perspectives that could be coming from so many different people,” she says.
Reflecting a whole diaspora
Wong told ABC Melbourne “the importance and power of games has always been misunderstood and underestimated”. (ABC Arts: Kate Disher-Quill)
For every person who sees their nose in Florence, there will be people who feel the game doesn’t accurately represent their personal experience.
Wong is OK with that.
Citing a TIME magazine interview with actor Constance Wu — in which she responded to Asian-American fans who had criticised the sitcom Fresh Off The Boat for not being exactly true to their specific lived experience — Wong says: “That’s the problem when you have one single example [of diverse stories]; how can one character or one family represent a whole diaspora?”
Wong says representation in stories is important because from a young age “we learn about life by absorbing the stories around us”. (ABC Arts: Kate Disher-Quill)
“Florence is one representation of what it means to be Chinese in Australia, but I think that [the story] connects with a wide range of people.”
The inclusiveness of mobile
Other Apple Design Award winners in 2018 include a real-time language translator, a music composer for children, and a blood-loss tracker. (ABC Arts: Teresa Tan)
In the early stages of developing Florence, the game could have looked drastically different; initially, Wong and Vincent talked about using 3D graphics. But the choice of platform for the game was always going to be mobile.
Wong was interested in the growing devotion to mobile devices in daily life, and the intimacy of touch in a world in which glass and electronics have become our repository for emotional connection and relationships. (In one scene in Florence, we see the protagonist ‘like’ or ‘share’ social posts to pass the time during her commute, as part of her daily ritual).
Unlike video game consoles, such as the Xbox and Playstation, or hand-held devices, like the Nintendo Switch, mobile games are exceptionally inclusive: they require no specialty controller or convoluted button combinations to play, and they don’t require hundreds of hours of gameplay to achieve any semblance of progress.
In Florence, which looks and functions like an interactive graphic novel, players tap, swipe, ‘colour-in’ and drop-and-drag together the moments that make up the heroine’s life — scrubbing sideways to brush her teeth, for example, or drag-and-dropping a rice cooker from a kitchen shelf into a storage box to make room when Krish moves in.
Not only is Florence easy to play, but a single playthrough takes approximately 30-40 minutes. You could finish the entire game on your lunch break.
Games as art
Ken Wong was the lead designer for the BAFTA Award-winning indie game Monument Valley (2014). (Supplied: Monument Valley/ustwo games)
Some say video games can never be art, but Wong believes “game developers should think like artists” and that mobile games could be the artform of the digital generation.
“[Game developers] should think about, ‘What is the cultural impact of my work?’ ‘How does this work take place in society?’ ‘How are we expressing ourselves in the game?’ And not just in the visual art but in the coding, as well as the game design and level design,” he says.
A report by app-focused analytics platform Sensor Tower projects that by 2020, the App Store will be home to 5 million app offerings.
And it looks like the financial and cultural influence of games will only continue to grow in the years to come.
Wong and his studio are hoping — perhaps even counting on the fact — that the genre will broaden as it grows, to include more games that tell stories.
“Games are really good at creating imaginary worlds and exploring the fantastical, but they also have a great potential to examine identity, society and choice, and tell personal narratives,” he says.
Wong says French artist Jean ‘Moebius’ Giraud’s wordless comic Arzach blew his mind: “It was exactly the kind of storytelling I wanted to do”.
(Supplied: Les Humanoïdes Associés)
In the non-verbal single-player game, a player accrues points as their avatar moves rightwards across a game terrain littered with obstacles and treasure chests. They get bonus points if they choose to “couple” with a love interest, but find moving as a pair makes navigation of the obstacles trickier. In the course of the gameplay, the player comes to realise the rightwards journey represents an ageing process — ultimately ending in death/end of game.
In condensing an entire lifetime into around five minutes, Passage is reminiscent of artworks of the memento mori genre, which confront the viewer with the brevity and fragility of human life.
“I’d never experienced [a game in which] the form of the game itself [is] creating meaning,” Wong marvels. “The meaning came from what you were doing and how that was displayed on screen.”
“It had a really profound impact on me. And not immediately, but eventually it set me towards trying to create meaning using gameplay design.”
Florence is available via the App Store and Google Play. The game is also on display as part of the Screen Worlds permanent collection at ACMI in Melbourne, and the Common Good exhibition at Powerhouse Museum in Sydney (until December 2).