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Just in time for Valentine's Day, a designer is taking a new approach to his latest digital creation: Turning the narrative of his video game into an interactive love story — complete with all of its complications and moral ambiguity.
Ken Wong, lead designer of Ustwo's wildly popular "Monument Valley" mobile game, left the company and created his own development studio in Australia, called Mountains. He's also got a new game called "Florence" — his first game for his new start-up that will debut on Apple's iOS on Feb. 14.
Florence Yeoh, the game's 25-year-old protagonist, tells the story of her first love in graphic novel form. In a twist on the usual gaming experience, Florence's goal is to get the user to "explore emotions not achieve goals."
To achieve the desired effect, Mountains has partnered with independent publisher Annapurna Interactive, a subsidiary of the film production company behind box-office hits like "Zero Dark Thirty" and "American Hustle." In an interview with CNBC, Wong explained why he chose the unusual format for his start-up's first game.
When talking with his team of developers, a common thread among them had to do with relationships, something video games rarely tackle, he explained.
"We had discussions about what was important to us, what conversations for us were active in our lives, and it felt to us ... that we were talking a lot about relationships," Wong said. "There weren't many games that were about this topic, about love stories in games."
In the beta test version of "Florence," the game builds in chapters, and utilizes the format of a graphic novel or comic book. The user is given subtle hints about giving the protagonist what she needs to go about her day, like running an errand or even brushing her teeth.
Yet as the story builds, the chapters get more complicated and lets the user make more complex decisions that impact Florence's life. Much like real life, the game doesn't render a value judgement about whether decisions are right or wrong.
As a result, users experience what Florence would — namely, the ups and downs of life and the consequences of making certain decisions. By design, there is no way a user can make the "correct choices" and win with a perfect relationship.
In some ways, "Florence" is slightly similar to episode-based apps like "Kim Kardashian: Hollywood" which helped popularize the "choose your own adventure" style of gaming. Unlike that genre, however, "Florence" unfolds like a movie or storybook: The game lets the user experience what Florence does, but in a more hands-on way.
"I don't think this would go over well in the heavily male dominated games — however it could possibly introduce more women into gaming." said Rahul Sood, creator of Microsoft Ventures and the current CEO of electronic sports company Unikrn.
For professional gamers who "make a living playing games, perhaps something like this could be used by their coaches to measure their emotions as they go through certain aspects of the game," Sood said.
When building this game, the Mountains team took inspiration from the way people read books for stories and emotional connections, Wong explained: They see a movie together, or walk through a museum for a cultural experience. "Florence" aims to evoke similar feelings in the form of a mobile game, rather than handing out rewards or reflexively advancing players to another level.
"It does feel like there's a bit of a movement where game developers are more introspective and we are less worried about pure entertainment," Wong said. Instead, designers are seeking to evoke more personal connections and empathy from users.
"Whether it's painful or joyous, there are relatable moments that users will recognize through Florence's experiences. No matter where you are in life, you remember what it's like to meet someone magical," said Wong.
"There is something really moving about seeing time compress, witnessing something you want to show to people and having it be interactive," he added.