a pale illustrated woman with a short bob facing a darker skinned man with strong sideburns and a white shirt.

Florence and Collaborative Play

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While on a weeklong vacation in Japan, my girlfriend and I embarked on a day trip to tour sites within view of Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and rainy out, and we could only catch one brief (though nonetheless awe-inspiring) sight of the mountain before it hid from us for the rest of the day. The tour was hardly a wash for it – all of the Japanese countryside is gorgeous, and sites like the Shiraito and Otodome waterfalls more than made the trip worthwhile. Still, the persistent fog meant one couldn’t while away the long bus trips away and back to Tokyo simply by gazing out the window.

I had downloaded a few mobile games before the vacation, but until then had no occasion to pull them up. But during the afternoon bus ride away from Fuji, as we lulled in the pleasant exhaustion of a long day’s walking and sightseeing, I opened Florence to kill time. The game had been a blind buy; I’d not played it before then, and knew nothing about it beyond the critical praise it had received.

The first chapter of Florence skillfully schools you in its mechanics, having you tap and slide your finger on the screen to perform the title character’s daily routine. I was quickly drawn into playing, and not long after noticed that the game’s music had drawn my girlfriend’s attention to it as well, so I held my phone so that she could see what was happening. In the second chapter of the game, you must solve a few math problems to complete a young Florence’s homework, dragging the correct number to fill in an equation. On one line, while I was scanning the possible solutions, another finger darted in and finished the problem before me. Suddenly, without a word passed between us, we were both playing.

Florence transitions from a one- to two-player experience without a hiccup. My girlfriend and I could easily shift control of the narrative between the two of us. We would take turns winding the arms of a clock to move the years of Florence’s life forward or assembling the puzzle pieces of a speech bubble to fill in her side of a conversation. Sometimes we could participate simultaneously, our forefingers dancing together to scrub away an image and reveal a dream underneath it. Florence, built primarily around Florence’s romance with a young man named Krish and how it evolves her as a person, is a gentle, intimate experience. It feels best suited to playing in bed early in the morning, curled up by a windowsill on a rainy day, or in the back of a bus. That closeness can expand or contract to accommodate varying audiences.

We could have watched a movie or social media video together, but that wouldn’t have been the same thing. This was a deeper connection; the two of us were actively involved in an act of creation, the kind of authorship of a story that only a video game can provide. The closest sensation I can think of is to when we’ve cooked together. There too we shared an easy understanding, taking on responsibilities without much fuss, and together making something more meaningful than we would have separately. But this was even more intuitive, the simplicity of just us and the screen and easy-to-grasp controls letting us do this without making a sound, other than the occasional “Aww” or “Ohh” at various story turns.

Couples have been able to share a sensation like this ever since one person first sat down on the couch next to their significant other playing a game, or peeped over their shoulder to look at what they were doing on a computer. It’s not the same as simply watching a movie together; more like tagging along with them on an adventure. Cooperative and competitive games have since allowed couples to share these adventures. Florence continues in that tradition, but is still yet something else. At a time when games are evolving away from the old paradigm of “Solve this puzzle”/”Kill this enemy”/”Go from here to there to proceed” at a faster rate than ever, as they find more new ways to incorporate player authorship and engagement into their narratives, so too do the possibilities grow for player collaboration.

The smartphone is a harrowingly intimate instrument, a device that contains the entire world within it. The social good and social ills that it has wrought have both stemmed from this quality. Many of the best mobile games take advantage of this, transmuting the tapping and sliding we do to navigate social media and the internet into a way to explore a story. The icon bubble for the game is right next to all the others, a different way to see the world.

The icon for Florence isn’t too far from that of Facebook, the primary medium through which I communicate with my girlfriend. We’re in a long-distance relationship, and have been since we first met. She lives in Taipei, I’m in Los Angeles. In Japan, when we were physically together for an all-too-rare moment, we could paradoxically experience the same sensation we share online together in that physical space. Sharing a phone, we watched someone else’s relationship play out, together empathizing with Florence’s highs and lows. We met on Tinder and maintain our relationship through Facebook Messenger – ours is not a romance that could have happened before this point in history. And playing Florence together is likewise an experience unlike any other a couple could have had before now. What a strange, wonderful world this is for us.

Games, Life