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Artist, Art Director & Designer Ken Wong On Immersive Storytelling In The Digital Medium

As the creative director at games studio Mountains and the lead of its award-winning mobile game Florence, Ken Wong speaks to FEMALE about the making of the unconventional game that's gotten a cult following due to its highly impactful storytelling.

It’s hard to categorise Florence, the first released effort by indie Australian games studio, Mountains, of which Wong is the creative director at. A mobile game that details the life of its eponymous lead character, young adult Florence Yeoh, it neither requires its player to make choices nor offers up an end goal to work towards in its entire gameplay. It doesn’t suck you in that way (or slap on in-app purchases and force feed ads like many other games do). Rather, Florence’s appeal is akin to a slice of life comic book — albeit, an interactive, digitised version that immerses its player at every turn with a storyline that takes one through the mundanity of routine working life and, the falling in and out of love. It banks on how relatable Florence, the character, and her experiences are.

Of course, it’s also in large part due to the emotion-evoking user experience that Wong and Mountains have crafted. For instance, the gameplay spikes in difficulty level when Florence is going through a rough time and vice versa, just one of the tools that’s had this unassuming game slash interactive book garner a cult following eager for their next release. And if you think it’s just women that, like us, have played Florence from start to finish upon downloading it from the App Store, Wong says, “A lot of men write to us telling us that they cried when they played the game.”

On occasion of the creative director in Singapore for a Today at Apple session (Florence also nabbed an Apple Design Award), we speak to Wong on the varied elements of storytelling in the digital medium — from colours and touch to music — and, the making of the emotional experience that is the game, Florence.

Ken Wong, creative director at Mountains

On the appeal of Florence

“I think what I’ve come to realise is that people sometimes want entertainment that helps them escape their real lives, and sometimes they want entertainment that helps them process their lives. Florence focuses on the latter. Perhaps it helps people think about or talk about their relationships, and also how they’re doing with their personal goals.”

On developing user experience to achieve impactful digital storytelling

“Designing the user experience of Florence required us to take a step back from game design conventions. We went back to looking at how people interact with touch screens, and how we use that to tell a story. If we present an interface without words or instruction, the player can enjoy figuring out what to do. But it took us many tries and many months to figure out how to create strong connections between the interactions and the emotions we were trying to portray.”

On how artwork and its elements are vital

“The art style [in Florence] is designed to be very approachable. Hopefully when people see it, they know it’s not a typical video game, nor a typical comic book. Initially I was really fearful of making a game with such a simple style, but I’m glad we followed through. By simplifying the art style, every element becomes more important, and helps tell the story. Florence’s adult life is initially very grey. When she meets Krish [her boyfriend], yellow is introduced. Yellow represents the happiness she gets from Krish. When Krish goes from her life, so does that yellow. She has to learn how to be happy again, on her own. It’s very subtle, but we use green for this — the colour of new growth.”

On the power of music

“We knew that music would be so important to carrying the emotional experience. We were very lucky to find Kevin Penkin, who was perfect for the job. He understood how subtle and intimate the score needed to be. Together, we realised that the instruments would be the voices of the characters.”

On who Florence appeals to

“We focused on trying not to exclude any group from playing the game — I think it’s a game for everyone. I like that a lot of men write to us telling us that they cried when they played the game.”

On the ultimate takeaway of the game

“We wanted the game to evoke emotions; to bring the player into the emotional journey. That’s why an explicit goal for the player is not important, and neither is choice. Florence functions closer to a book or a movie than it does to pure gameplay-driven video games. Sometimes it’s easier to think of Florence as an interactive storybook.”

Florence is available on the Apple App Store.