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Ken Wong: "Gaming's remit is up for us to challenge"

Monument Valley designer discusses his latest project Florence, a "slice of life" game about a woman's first love

Given the unique nature of Monument Valley, it was always a safe bet that Ken Wong's next title would be something special.

After he formed his new studio Mountains in July 2016, the industry has been eagerly waiting to see just what Wong meant when he claimed his team would be working on 'craft games'. Now we have the answer.

Florence, the debut title from Mountains, is positioned as an "emotive and unique mobile narrative experience" and centres on its titular character's first love. Not much is known about the gameplay at the moment, other than the fact it will explore Florence's relationship with a cello player named Krish via a series of vignettes - "from flirting to fighting, from helping each other grow to growing apart."

Ken Wong, Mountains

Even in an era of visual novels and more intimate indie titles, it's an unusual concept and one that doesn't fall within the traditional definitions of video games. But that, Wong tells, is the point.

"I think gaming's remit is up for us to challenge," he says. "To make better games, developers should always be questioning the definition and categories of games and trying to push past them."

He continues: "One way to broaden the audience for gaming is to create new types of experiences, with new stories and values. Mobile games have the potential to reach a massive audience, as do games about personal experiences."

When we last spoke to the designer a year ago, he said that games as an industry should aim to be as relevant as film, literature and other art forms, and it's clear he's keen for his studio to lead the charge on this. But would such a cultural shift not be better supported if larger developers and publishers were to explore the fringes of what video games can be?

"I love when a studio with a lot of resources takes a bet on a creative and helps them achieve incredible things," says Wong. "[But] I don't necessarily think that will happen for the huge publishers in games. They've tried this in various ways over the past decade or so and often it hasn't worked very well. There's often dissonance in values. I'm more excited about publishers like Annapurna Interactive [Florence's publisher] who are trying to support creatives in different ways."

"One thing we use art for is to hold up a mirror to ourselves. We write songs and read books to understand all aspects of life - including love and relationships. Games do that too."

His most famous title, Monument Valley, told a surreal story about a journey for forgiveness spread across mazes and optical illusions. By contrast, Florence sounds significantly more down-to-earth, bordering on mundane but Wong is keen to prove there is room for games to explore everyday issues like love and relationships.

"I believe games serve different needs for different people, at different times," he says. "One thing we use art for is to hold up a mirror to ourselves. We watch theatre, we write songs and we read books to understand all aspects of life - including love and relationships. Games do that too."

He continues: "Games occupy an interesting space where they can act as art, as text, as education, as sport. The feeling that games need to function as a sport, with a focus on skill and goals led to a certain culture where only some games were marketed and talked about as 'real games'. We're now seeing a diversification in the kinds of games people want to play and create."

The inspirations for Florence actually lie beyond the games industry, with Wong citing the movie 500 Days of Summer and various 'slice of life' graphic novels as benchmarks he is aiming for.

Art from Florence, Mountains' debut title

"I really admire how these creators are able to portray such intimate, personal storytelling with such raw techniques," he says. "But we've tried to combine this with interaction design that tries to evoke feeling. Some inspiration came from games like Papers, Please and the work of Nina Freeman and Jenny Jiao Hsia, but we also borrowed patterns from web and app design."

The concept of 'gameplay vignettes' makes it hard to know what to expect from the final product when it arrives on Apple devices in 2018. There are plenty of indie titles that defy definition when it comes to typical genres, but this will presumably make it difficult for Wong and his team to communicate how their game actually works.

"Sitting outside of established genres has been a big challenge," he says. "We want players to go through an emotional journey with our characters, feeling all the joyful and painful moments of a relationship. We've found a variety of touch screen interactions and mechanics that are less about skill, and more about sensation or metaphor. It's difficult to explain in words, but hopefully through good user experience design, the interfaces will be self-explanatory."

As mentioned, anticipation for Mountains' debut title is mounting - especially given the impact of Monument Valley, still one of the most successful premium games on mobile. Yet unusual titles like this have historically been well-received critically but not necessarily reached the wide audience they arguably deserve. This does not concern Wong, however, as he is determined not to focus on any commercial expectations surrounding Florence.

"I don't spend much time worrying about this," he says. "Annapurna Interactive are wonderful partners, and I trust them to help us reach our intended audience. Monument Valley taught me that mobile players just want good experiences, and can be open to new things. There's a vast potential audience there.

He continues: "My dream is for Florence to do well enough that other developers can learn some techniques or insights from it, and perhaps apply it to their own work, creating even better experiences from more perspectives. I think this is how game design works. Minecraft and Journey are examples of new experiences that went on to inspire many other developers."