Developer Interview: Mountains

It’d be difficult to overstate the impact of Florence on the perceived potential for storytelling in games. In 2018, Australia-based Mountains released their debut title onto mobile platforms first, and the 30-minute Florence went on to win Best Mobile Game at The Game Awards, earning nominations for Games for Impact and Best Debut Indie Game along the way. Florence continued to be an award-winning force that year and beyond, and for those who’ve experienced Florence’s story of first love, these accolades come as no surprise. Florence weaves a more emotionally compelling story in half an hour than many games do in more than 30. From the music to the minigames, Florence is an astonishingly powerful piece of poetry. Ken Wong, Creative Director and Founder for Mountains, graciously sat down with our questions, and he shared some very welcome news: Mountains is nowhere near done with making beautiful games.

Mountains Logo

|| What were the key perspectives and talents that you sought when assembling the Mountains “dream team”? What unique skills and backgrounds were required to bring something like Florence to life? Did any of the original members know each other beforehand?

When I founded Mountains in 2016, creating a healthy diverse team was at the forefront of my mind. I had previously met Kamina Vincent at a games conference and I thought our different skillsets and experience would create a great balance – her as a people-focused producer, and myself as a project-focused Creative Director. We had planned to hire one programmer but when we found Sam Crisp we were really excited about his potential as a junior programmer with many design and writing skills. So to round out the technical team we searched for a lead programmer, and were very fortunate to find Tony Coculuzzi, whose experience on many diverse projects and specialisation in tools would be a wonderful asset to the team.

|| In what ways has the definition of “game” changed since Florence’s launch in 2018? Florence calls itself an “interactive story,” but many would readily sign off on it being just as much a “game.” How do you see Florence reflected in those two terms, and has that shifted over the years? What do you think makes a game a “game”?

It’s all semantics, really. Some people want to gate-keep what a game is or what art is and I’m not really interested in that discussion. Florence is a thing you can download, and enjoy, and hopefully it gives you something to think about, or gives you a little emotional ride. I think Florence is a small part of an overall expansion of what the general population sees as a ‘videogame’, and that’s neat! I love working in this space, as there’s lots of exciting work being done.

|| Is Florence a love story about self-discovery or a self-discovery story about love? In spite of its short runtime, Florence covers so much more ground than a simple romance. How do you view the messages that Florence manages to convey, such as following one’s dreams? Are they all equally important to you? For the player?

What an interesting question! For me, my art has always been a reflection of my life. So as I grow as a person, my art grows and evolves too. Florence had a particularly convoluted gestation. It began as a love story, but as you observed, in its final form it contextualises the relationship within Florence’s life, alongside her family and her ambitions. It was really exciting to see the project (and Florence herself) evolve into this form almost without us pushing for it. We were very fortunate that the team and our publisher Annapurna embraced this organic and uncertain way of project development.

|| Is it possible to playtest for feelings? Much of the lingering fragrance of Florence is due to its authentic emotional impact. Testing whether a minigame functionally works or not is easy enough—but testing whether someone is affected by a story? Whether they’re crying by the end? Were you able to test for this in-house? If not, why? Does your team find Florence as profoundly moving as your players do?

Oh, yes. The game I worked on prior to Florence was Monument Valley, at ustwo. Ustwo is a design studio, so they heavily emphasized user testing. Even though the earliest builds of Florence were incredibly rough and didn’t achieve our goals, the way that playtesters responded, we could see that they wanted something like this. We regularly tested with other residents of our co-working space, with visitors, friends and family. Four months before launch, we tested with a few hundred people at PAX Australia, which included temp music. I think that was the first time I really breathed a sigh of relief and knew the project would probably get the emotional response we were hoping for.

|| Do you see Florence’s gameplay-metaphor fusion as a new method for generating human-to-human empathy? Successfully explaining how you feel is a daily struggle for most people, and most often we find ourselves lacking sympathy because we’re unable to understand one another. Florence’s use of minigames, like the drifting puzzle, offers a magnetic solution to expressing an otherwise-inexpressible emotional state. Is this fascinating mix of mechanic and metaphor perhaps a new—and powerful—way to communicate? A new way to heal?

I see it as a continuation of the function of art throughout time. Each medium captures the human experience from different angles, from dance to architecture to TikTok. ‘Interactivity’ – being such a strong characteristic of videogames – has immense potential to put us in the shoes of another, to literally feel another’s experience. It’s exciting that works centred around this like Papers, Please and Gone Home are increasingly drawing attention.

|| Is Mountains still active in video-game development? In 2018, it was mentioned that “project two” was starting and that it would have the same core of values as Florence. Should the ever-growing Florence fanbase be looking forward to something new?

Yes… it’s taken us a lot longer than expected to find that project two though! Stay tuned…

|| The Mountains team has been invited to an all-inclusive resort where you get to drink all the craft beer you want and play video games for days. Where is the resort, what brand of craft beer are you drinking, what three games are you playing, and why?

The resort is in the Mountains obviously… perhaps in Iceland, perhaps in Nepal. Sourcing locally is an important part of the craft aesthetic, so we’re drinking the local beer, as well as non-alcoholic beverages. The Mountains team has almost never been playing the same games at the same time – the exception might be Animal Crossing: New Horizons.