Late last year, Annapurna — the film production company behind movies like Her and American Hustle — announced that it was getting into games with a new interactive division, with a slate that included the next release from Ken Wong, lead designer on the original Monument Valley. (Wong had just recently set out to launch his own studio, called Mountains.) Now Wong is finally ready to reveal the studio’s first release: Florence, a visual novel about relationships and love. While it may look quite a bit different than the impossible architecture Wong is known for, the two games share at least a few ideals in common. “It’s designed for an audience that doesn’t play games a lot,” says Wong, “and maybe feels some trepidation about playing games.”
Florence tells the story of 25-year-old Florence, who is stuck in a familiar routine, with a life that revolves around work and wasting time on social media. The game follows her budding relationship with a young cellist, as the two grow closer and go through the highs and lows of falling in love. It’s described as a “short narrative game,” inspired in large part by slice-of-life graphic novels. Florence is divided into a series of chapters, each of which plays differently, with game mechanics designed around the particulars of the scene, whether it’s flirting or fighting.
“I’m still very interested in making games for a broad audience.”
It’s a structure that sounds reminiscent of What Remains of Edith Finch, a game that similarly introduced a range of interactions to tell a number of short, very distinct stories. Wong describes Florence as being “like a collection of mini-games where in every chapter we’ve designed custom gameplay around trying to evoke the emotions of the different stages of a relationship.”
For Wong and the rest of the team at Melbourne-based Mountains, a studio that is currently home to four creators, the journey to Florence started with deciding who they wanted to make games for. “I wanted to continue some of the threads that we’d been talking about at [Monument Valley developer] Ustwo,” Wong says. “I was interested in making non-violent games. I think violent games are great, I grew up with them, but there are enough of those in the world. And I wanted to explore what kind of stories and what kind of dynamics we can get without resorting to violence. I’m still very interested in making games for a broad audience, especially people who don’t normally play games.”
That’s part of the reason the game will be coming to mobile. Though the studio is keeping many details secret for now, Florence will be launching sometime next year, and will be available on Apple devices. In many ways, it’s a continuation of the work Wong did on Monument Valley. It was a game that managed to reach a massive, mainstream audience — it’s been downloaded more than 30 million times to date, and was even featured in an episode of House of Cards — thanks to a combination of platform, distinctly beautiful visuals, and approachable gameplay. With Florence, Mountains is trying to do something similar. It has an art style that looks like a moving comic book, and interactions that don’t need to be explained through lengthy tutorials. Of course, the popularity of Wong’s past work also means some comparisons will be inevitable, no matter how different the two games end up being.
“We have this big spectre of in some ways following up Monument Valley,” he says. “Obviously, my three new team members were not on the Monument Valley team, but it did feel like the shadow of Monument Valley helped start the studio and in some ways this would be talked about in comparison to that. There were a lot of things that I was thinking about, in terms of what would be exciting to work on, and a lot of that comes from the touchscreen and the mobile platform. Just like with Monument Valley, I think that designing a great game means acknowledging the platform you’re on and all of the dynamics of it.”
There are other similarities. While Monument Valley was best-understood as a puzzle game, it also told a story, using sparse dialogue and short sequences to build a narrative. Florence is a more story-focused experience, but it similarly pares things back a great deal. “We don’t have words in the game,” says Wong. “There’s no dialogue or narration. It plays out a bit like a comic without words, which I’m a fan of, but also a but like a silent movie or a music video, where you’re going to be reading a lot into body language and how these characters move throughout the world and looking through their possessions.”
For the team at Mountains, mobile was the perfect avenue for this kind of game, where they can potentially reach an audience that might not otherwise care about games, but is maybe intrigued by this app that looks like a comic book about love. “I think mobile is still untapped,” says Wong. “I think there’s still a lot of opportunity for different experiences. You look at Pokémon Go, or the recent blossoming AR experiments. The kinds of genres you get on mobile are so different. For me it’s a really rich design space, where I think I can contribute to making games that haven’t been made before.”