Florence as Interactive Metaphor


There is a category of games that I’ve seen growing over the past couple of years. These games occupy multiple genres: they are primarily narrative-driven, but borrow mechanics and structures from many ‘loaner’ genres. These loaner genres can be anything, but often fall in the category of puzzle, action, or rhythm. Notably, however, they rarely achieve any of the goals of their loaner genres. Florence is not a puzzle game: every task can be solved by ‘fiddling’. Neither is it an action game: all timing or response based challenges can be completely ignored and taken at your own pace.

Florence solves the puzzle of her job.

Florence solves the puzzle of her job.

Instead, these games ‘loan’ mechanics from others. They borrow the bare-bones mechanisms and in doing so borrow a feeling. Take, for example, the spreadsheet ‘puzzle’ in Florence that happens early on in the game. Florence is frustrated and bored by a job that is uninteresting, but must be completed. The interaction presents a system that is unintelligible at first (the rules are unclear), followed by a methodical and fairly uninteresting elimination of information (finding similar numbers).

Both of these feelings (confusion and methodical practice) are strongly present in the puzzle genre. However, Florence does not support these borrowed feelings with the variety of other emotions and structures present in most puzzle games. Normally, the confusion gives way to clarity and analysis, and the tedium shrinks as puzzles become more challenging. By choosing to keep only the initial structures of the puzzle genre, Florence also keeps these initial feelings as well. Metaphorically these are the feelings that map to Florence’s own struggle.

We, as humans, are well conditioned. When we hear music, we are instantly reminded of the feelings (either good or bad) that we have associated with this music in the past. Play someone a song and you drive emotion: a gut memory about a time and place, a loathing for a certain style, or the apathy of mild distaste. Games do this too. When a player is presented with a puzzle structure, this creates emotions. For puzzle lovers, it may be the excitement of seeing a new system to solve. For puzzle loathers it may be the exhaustion and annoyance of having to figure it out. Even non-players have experienced puzzle structures in their lives, and have associated feelings and reactions.

In Florence, the puzzle structures do not represent themselves. They are metaphors for the feelings and associations we’ve built for them.

We tend to label these games as “Narrative Games”, however this dismisses the role of these borrowed mechanics. A game like Florence or What Remains of Edith Finch has few meaningful narrative choices. Rather, it is these loaner mechanics that are used to built the core emotion of the game.

It isn’t an “Interactive Narrative”. It is an “Interactive Metaphor”, wrapped with a story.

“Interactive Metaphor”: balancing fantasy and mundanity in  What Remains of Edith Finch.

“Interactive Metaphor”: balancing fantasy and mundanity in What Remains of Edith Finch.

EssayJohn Austin