Designer Ken Wong’s app Florence isn’t exactly a game. Or a comic. It’s a little bit of both – a new experience in storytelling using a mobile device.
The app – or game, if you prefer – comes from the mind of Ken Wong, best known before Florence’s release as Monument Valley’s designer – another app which broke new ground in mobile gaming by creating a visually stunning world that ended up winning the title of Apple’s Game of the Year in 2014, as well an Apple Design Award.
Now Wong has won for his work again on his first venture post-Monument Valley with an Apple Design Award for Florence.
We sat down with designer on the sidelines of Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in San Jose this week to talk about how Florence came to be, and what Wong has planned next.
Wong had left ustwo Games (Monument Valley’s publisher) before its sequel, Monument Valley II, because he wanted to try something new.
“I kind of said what I wanted to. The best thing for Monument Valley would be to have other people take over and expression their vision for it,” he says.
Wong moved back to his home country, Australia, from London, to Melbourne where there’s a thriving indie gaming scene to launch his new company Mountains.
The team at Mountains is small – just a programmer, producer and artist, in addition to Wong.
The company partnered with Annapurna, a film studio behind hits like “Her” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” that now runs its own games division. The studio backed Mountains on the Florence project, but also gave the team advice and input along the way.
As part of this arrangement, Annapurna shares in Florence’s revenue. (Florence sells for $2.99.)
Unlike traditional games, you don’t play the “game” Florence with a goal of getting a high score or achieving goals of some kind.
Instead, you tap your way through the interactive story where a young woman, Florence, meets someone, falls in love and has a relationship. You live through it with her, dealing with everything from parental pressure over her single status, to then first dates and moving in together.
Music is a key part of the experience, and helps the game invoke an emotional response.
When the relationship ends, you’ve been invested in this story and characters, and probably will feel sad.
That’s the point, says Wong.
“A lot of people think of games as things you can win – things that involve luck or skill. But…in video games – or, largely, the digital interactive space – there’s so much that you can do,” he says.
“It seems like we’re surrounded by stories of love and romance and relationships…but it felt like that was a blind spot for mobile games. We wanted to tap into that and see how far we could take a romance game on mobile,” Wong explains.
Wong says he was inspired by stories from friends, as well as his own personal experience, when building Florence, as well as movies about relationships like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” and “500 Days of Summer.”
Like those, Florence is also a portrait of a relationship that’s both light and dark, both joyful and painful.
“It’s my job to provide stimulating material. I just want to move people. And I think moving people in itself can be a goal. What they take out of it is really up to the individual,” he says.
Now that Florence is out there, on both iOS and Android, Wong says he hopes it will inspire other developers to take what the team introduced in terms of the app’s interface design, and use that to tell their own stories.
As for Mountains, however, the team is now considering what stories they want to tell next. They’re not announcing the details of those discussions, but they have some ideas around telling other types of stories that aren’t represented today through mobile gaming.
We might not see those come to life for some time – it took Florence fifteen months to go from idea to launch, and the next title will likely take just as long.
But Wong knows what kind of stories they probably won’t do, he says.
“There are so many other studios out there exploring your traditional power fantasies, like combat and fighting and such,” he says.
“I think where we can really contribute is telling stories that are less explored – human experiences that have to do with family or identity. I think that’s who we are.”