Review - Thirty Flights of Loving (Steam, 2012)
A slick, stylish and refreshingly grown-up piece of storytelling
Thirty Flights of Loving is a difficult game to talk about. There’s not much gameplay to speak of, leaving just the artistic and narrative elements to discuss. But then the game is all of 15 minutes long, so almost anything could be a spoiler, and the narrative is interpretive and not conducive to summary. But I’m going to press on ahead anyway, because this little experiment in nonlinear storytelling is fun, stylish, skillful, and deserves to be played by just about everyone.
“Thirty Flights of Loving innovates by taking the newly established First Person Walker genre and framing it as an actual cinematic game. It’s short, but everything in the game has a meaning or purpose. There are no extraneous elements or traveling to connect point A to point B. This is a game that cuts those moments out. The main example of this is in the game’s airport sequence. Carrying your friend’s wounded body, you walk through the terminal hallways until you reach a trigger point, and you are now walking somewhere else, a different hallway. We understand the jump cut. We just haven’t seen it used often in a game with such continuous action. We are the same, but our environment has changed around us.”—
Eric Swain on Thirty Flights of Loving and the differences between cinematic and game-ic representations of space and time.
Games of the Year 20125. Dear Esther
Dear Esther didn’t click with me the first time I played it. I loved it on the merit of its visual art alone. I liked that the beach was filthy and the sand was full of rubbish. You don’t see a lot of non-idyllic landscapes in video games outside of warzones or post-apocalyptia. I liked that the environments were directed to ensure the player is always in the best position to appreciate their beauty. It does this so successfully that it renders Dead End Thrills obsolete. All of the photos in Duncan’s Dear Esther set look exactly like I remember from playing the game (except those first two which are manipulated in Photoshop for stylistic effect). His photos bring nothing to the game’s art that the game itself doesn’t already afford, and I mean that not as a slight to Duncan, but as praise for the game. I thought Dear Esther was worth playing for this alone, but I never engaged with it on any deeper level. After reading what Cameron Kunzelman wrote about its story, I played it again. The more I reflected on it, the more it grew on me.
I’m amused by people who say Dear Esther isn’t a game. I can’t see it as anything but. It’s not a story, but a possibility space of stories. Who was driving the car? Were they drinking? Are Esther and Donnelly the same person? These details blur, change, contradict across playthroughs. What would usually be considered important plot points, aren’t. But this isn’t the type of game where players excitedly exchange stories about what happened in their personal playthrough. Did your FemEsther kill the rachni queen? Did you bring Clementine with you into the cave, along with 17% of players?
Take a cross-section of any game—one person’s playthrough—and you get a linear narrative. But a game is as much a series of narratives as a film is simply a series of images. Dear Esther requires its three-dimensionality to tell its story. Or non-story, as the case may be.
Some games are worlds to explore and exist in. Some are simulations. Puzzles. Stories. Dear Esther isn’t any of those things, but it has traces of most of them. The game’s challenge is to interpret the story. And like coin-op games, or like Canabalt, it’s the type of challenge where you will never “win,” and the goal is to last as long as possible. All interpretations of Dear Esther are wrong, but the fun is in tweeting how many metres you ran before hitting a wall and falling to your death.
The game also has actual, quote video game unquote challenge, which people seem to overlook. There are details in the environment—contrails, ghosts—that activate extra monologue from a different narrator when the player uses the focus button on them. But you wouldn’t really call that a ‘challenge’ or an ‘easter egg’. If the game had guns, we might.
When discussing video games, common vocabulary is limited to the cultural construct of what dominates the medium. Dear Esther breaks down those barriers. We need to think of these things differently.
But best of all, Dear Esther not a game about video games. It’s not an explicit critique on the way we think about games. Dear Esther doesn’t give a shit about any of this. It just exists as a compelling thing in it’s own right.
And, honestly, it’s not the game in direst need of defense. Dear Esther was backed by Indie Fund, and has stunning visual art by Robert Briscoe which was made in Valve’s Source engine, for which it won Excellence in Visual Art at the IGF.
The creator of the next game on this list might have been able to afford the entrance cost for an IGF submission if his game weren’t still straggling for audience votes in Steam’s Greenlight game show, and if he had known they were going to finally introduce an Excellence in Narrative category this year.
There’s something magical about Verena Kyratzes’ drawings. With absolutely zero animation, this game world felt more alive than any other I’ve played in recent (selective) memory. Saying individual goodbyes to every single character at the end of the game filled my ‘feels’ quota for the year. It made me notice how attached I’d become to all of the characters—not just as individuals, but as a family.
To make the world feel lived in, Jonas Kyratzes wrote unique descriptions to accompany every single object in Verena’s maximalist art. You can talk to every sentient creature in the game, down to the smallest spider. Mushrooms have political persuasions. Flowers disagree on whether Robert Frost or William Wordsworth is a better poet. Maltalonos’ Twitter persona (circa his nymphal ‘A Thoughtful Bug’ phase) feels like a character straight out of this game.
RPGs like the Elder Scrolls series have been utilising the bookshelf of an NPC to give flavour to backstory for a while. Mages own spellbooks, cultists have demonic texts. But Jonas has this school of environmental storytelling down to a T. Unlike The Elder Scrolls, in The Sea Will Claim Everything, you do not open the pages of any novel, but only glance at the titles. Some books are fictional, some are real. Some are from other, existing fictions. Such is the nature of the Lands of Dream. Enter the offices of the various mayors of the lands—the villains of the game, driving the populous into debt and poverty—and you’ll find books titled:
- How Greed Helps Everyone, by Flora Mendacium
- How Successful People Think: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life, by John C. Maxwell
- The Great Chain of Industry, by Andrew Ryan
The doctor has a collection of medical books, the lighthouse dwelling octopus has books on adventure and exploration. The characters in this game are more well read then that of anyone in Tamriel, and this is evident not only from the sheer volume of books in the world, but from the way the characters think and speak and act.
It reminds me of Dan Marshall’s brute force method of writing a unique joke for every possible combination of items in Time Gentlemen Please. A writer sees a genre trapping as a writing challenge. When you hold a hammer, every problem’s a nail, and all that. I think both games succeed, even though it would have been a ridiculous amount of work and will never catch on. And that just makes a unique, evolutionary dead end of a game more special. It means it will never feel outdated.
I’ve always wanted to play a video game that has all the awe and wonder of Adventure Time. The Kyratzes’ Lands of Dream is all of that, plus an abundance of literary and philosophical ponderings, and writing that provokes thought and poignancy.
- Eric Swain’s review on Pop Matters
“Living, breathing” are common adjectives to describe an achievement of a game world. For this game, Eric aptly appends “thinking” to the platitude.
One blink for yes, two blinks for no.
Oh, *Hyun-ae. At first, I felt extrememly uncomfortable with her. Then I loved her. Then I pitied her. Then, in the end, I couldn’t bring myself to break her heart.
Analogue is a feminist hypertext essay in the form of a story of a teenage girl living in modern Korea, who is transported back in time to the Joseon era, a state run on the corruptions of Neo-Confucian ideals, in which society was most oppressive to women. But that’s not literally what the game is. Rather, it’s adapted to a science fiction setting—a colony living on the space ship Mugunghwa—and instead of a girl sent back in time, this girl is sent forward in time to a dystopian future aboard the ship where society has regressed to a Joseon-like state.
I’m going to spoil some of the plot from here on out.
Placed in stasis by her family in the hope that her incurable disease will be curable sometime in the future, the girl—named The Pale Bride, a mistranslation of The Sick Daughter—is released by her descendants who plan to marry her off to a royal family. In the time that she was dormant, something caused this societal regression and you never find out what it was (but this will possibly be revealed in the upcoming DLC).
You, the unnamed player, have a spaceship of your own and are tasked with the job of logging into the computer of the ship—which is now long-abandoned—and downloading any logs you can find. The game opens similarly to Spec Ops: The Line (GOTY #8) in that your mission is simply to get in, gather intel, and get out. But as soon as you discover the ends of the threads of what happened on the space station, curiosity (or something else—perhaps just the motivation to exhaust the game content that was payed for) takes you on the scenic route of this routine op. (Unlike Spec Ops, you can choose to simply do your job to the letter, bypassing the entire story and still receive one of the multiple, canonical endings.)
The game unfolds across three different modes of interaction which you move between as appropriate to the story. Initially, you have a textual terminal that you can use to directly interact with the ship’s computer console. You soon boot up the ship’s AI—*Hyun-ae—and speak with her. She gives you partial access to the ship’s logs, curating them as to what is relevent to help you get up to speed. Eventually, you’ll discover that she’s also using this curation to withhold some information from you that you’ll have to tease out of her.
Eventually, *Hyun-ae reveals that she and The Pale Bride are the same person—she uploaded herself as an AI to the ship’s computer before dying along with everyone else six centuries ago.
As you read the logs—in the ballpark of 500 words each, usually emails sent between characters, sometimes resembling journal entries—there’s a heavy sense of *Hyun-ae’s presence watching over your shoulder or waiting to see your reaction and tell you what she thinks. The game’s literary-heavy nature enables the story to unfold on multiple, nested layers: your mission and the relationship between you and the AIs happening in the present, and the story of the denizens of the Mugunghwa 600 years in the past.
While the ship’s text logs are where you piece together most of the story, the dialogue with the AIs is a significant part of the experience.
Games often abstract conversation into a game mechanic—usually dialogue trees—and lose the nuance of interacting with another human. It’s inevitable. When a game tries to give us agency through loaded, discrete—sometimes binary—nodes, we have to suspend our disbelief or else become incredibly frustrated: whether it’s Mass Effect giving us three different ways to say the same thing, or L.A. Noire, which has you bracing every time you make Phelps speak for fear that he’ll fly off the handle and entirely misinterpret the tone you would have gone for.
Analogue sidesteps this problem, and by doing so, creates an effective and unique dynamic. The UIs and proxies through which the player is interacting with the game world are diegetic. (The Sea Will Claim Everything sort of does this as well, but it’s more of a novelty and it eventually becomes invisible to me, like the UI of any typical game, with occasional exceptions.)
In fact, the game teases you with a text parser in the opening, but regardless of what you type in it, *Hyun-ae discovers it isn’t working properly. Instead, she must resort to asking you a question and presenting you with two responses that she has written and that you may choose between.
When the game forces me into making a loaded choice, or I say something that comes off the wrong way, I no longer see it as the game’s fault, I see it as *Hyun-ae’s fault. Which means I no longer see it as a fault at all because she’s so cute and insecure, and I don’t want to blame her for something out of her control, especially after everything she’s been through in life.
She’s trying to figure out what I’m thinking, but all she can do is offer me a choice of two options of her diction. On top of that, she’s also gradually falling in love with me because I’m the first person she’s spoken to in a long time, and the first person who hasn’t treated her like shit for even longer.
And now these extreme, loaded, binary choices start to make a whole lot of sense. There’s a part of her that believes so hard that I could love her, but there’s a self-doubting realism which almost already assumes I don’t. Our relationship was mostly taking place in her head. She’s excessively introspective and I am the quantum observer which must collapse her wave function of cognitive dissonance.
When I realised that’s what she was doing, my reaction was a sharp sense of pity. In her, I saw the insecurities and infatuations I’ve had in the past. The game held a mirror up to my neuroticism. Not that I’m as bad as *Hyun-ae, but leave me alone on an empty spaceship for a few hundred years and then let me write the cards with which I communicate with others and I don’t think I’d fare much better.
Although not all of the binary dialogue choices were extreme as I’m making it sound, they all played the same dissonant tune: You could never love me (but maybe you do?). I could only choose between between fulfilling her fantasies or confirming her pessimism. If I just had a text parser, maybe I could have talked her back to reality, but that was never an option.
In many RPGs you’re given the choice to be good or evil—usually incredibly banal choices, unless you find pleasure in being a bastard (which I don’t). Or perhaps they are bleak worlds like Dragon Age II or The Walking Dead where there are no right answers, or something that you thought was right turns out to have unforeseen ramifications. Both of these examples do excellent things with dialogue and player choice, but even those shades of grey can be limiting and trite. I always play the good guy in RPGs, and usually stick up for my party members. I just can’t help it. And I’m used to RPGs making it too easy for me. Analogue is a game that plays right into my empathy and made the easy choices of being the “good guy” complicated and confusing.
At one point in the game, when you’re starting to dig beneath the surface of the story, *Hyun-ae is clearly starting to having fun helping you uncover the plot, and enjoying your company. She gives you a terminal command that will change her appearance, telling you that cosplay is a hobby of hers. This sounded fun, and I figured her schoolgirl outfit was a bit inappropriate, so I looked at the list of costumes. Scientist, maid, detective, and one I didn’t recognise: hanbok. I chose that one because I wanted to see what it was. It turned out to be the traditional dress that she was forced to wear as The Pale Bride.
“Oh,” she looked incredibly hurt, ”Where did you find this?”
She thought I was telling her to know her place and that she should wear what a girl in her position is supposed to wear. She’d spent the worst parts of her life in that outfit and wanted nothing more to play dress-up in all the fun clothes she couldn’t touch. And I had just given a severe insult by inadvertently making her wear the one thing she never wanted to wear again.
I was mortified at what I had done, and immediately swapped it out for her detective outfit. She cheered up after that, but I still felt horrible for the misunderstanding. What I love about this moment is that this kind of miscommunication—unlike the miscommunications of Cole Phelps—didn’t break the game at all, but evoked an honest guilt that supports the framework of the narrative.
The limitations of communication in Analogue create a nuance of human interaction with an NPC instead of removing all nuance. And for her weaving of good writing, good game design, and a subject matter that is significant, Christine Love deserves to be commended.
Some people take their sci-fi romance with a side dish of third person cover shooting. I take it with a history of women’s literature in Korea.
In contrast to everything I said about Dear Esther, I don’t know if I even want to play The Walking Dead more than once. Some details change and others are static, but here the distinction isn’t important.
Regardless of how the game’s code discriminates an action that will be ‘remembered’ or one that will only trigger an immediate dialogue response before being forgotten entirely, my real investment in this game takes place in my mind, not a save file. That’s not to say there isn’t a whole lot of work being done on game’s side to keep this up—which it does masterfully, right up to the game’s final, somber moment.
Where many games take pride in offering a smorgasbord of narrative choice, The Walking Dead prefers to focus on reflection. It gives you a voice to judge, defend, or apologise for your own actions and the actions of others. A consequence isn’t a slap on the wrist. It’ll haunt you for the rest of the game.
While the choices are important, what Telltale gets so right are the consequences. Almost every decision in the game is made under pressure. You never have time to think things through and and you’ll often make bad calls in the heat of it all. This means the game is not about adopting an ethical stance; making the choices is arbitrary. They’re there for the story to explore themes of blame, grief and humanity. Right from the start, the player character, Lee, is introduced as a convicted murderer and you are never sure whether he is guilty or not. Lee’s past is brought up frequently throughout the story as one of the key examples of this motif.
When a character died in the final episode—I won’t say who, but it was a male—there was nothing I could have done about it. He made a decision which I couldn’t talk him out of. I stood behind a locked fence, hopelessly clicking on it—the only action available to me, but which didn’t bear any consequence—as I was forced to watch his death take place. When I returned to the rest of the group and informed them of what happened, it felt appropriate for Lee to say something about this character who just died. Or rather, the game presented me with the option to eulogise him.
One of the game’s dialogue options appeared, offering me a choice of three options or the choice to remain silent. A bar at the bottom of the screen slowly shrank, indiciating how long I had to respond before my silence would speak for me and the scene would move on. This is how most of the interactive dialogue works in the game. In this case, I could show regret, cold indifference, anger, or silence.
It had no bearing on the plot, but it—and the rest of these moments that the game is ripe with—had a bearing on my own perception of Lee and his relationship with the other characters. For an entirely prescribed narrative, the game is still equal parts give and take.
“He was my friend,” Lee said. I said.
The world didn’t care. The game didn’t care. But it was important for me to say those words, as if saying it somehow made it fact. For a game that’s so tailored to my experience, it still succeeds in feeling disinterested from the player. So much so that I cling to those moments in defiance of the game’s selective apathy.
Another character responded with a reminder that just because he’s dead, it didn’t resolve him of the terrible things he did.
“I know,” Lee defended, too quickly. Or maybe that one was just me.
There’s an option in the game which allows you to have a more verbose HUD, indicating to the player whenever a decision will have an effect later on. I can’t imagine playing this way because the game was most effective when I didn’t know when it was taking notes; when it felt like the opening of Chrono Trigger elaborated into a whole game.
My favourite moment was when Clementine used a swear word in front of the group because I had used it in front of her some time in the past. There was an awkward silence and we were both embarrassed.
I feel like most games use explicit, extradiegetic indications of character affinity in lieu of putting them to any use. I don’t know if The Walking Dead crunched numbers or triggered flags to determine how people would respond to me, and I liked that. The writing in The Walking Dead was good enough that these seams—the turning of pages of the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book—weren’t visible.
Punctuating each episode is a glimpse into the multiverse: a summary of the key, branching choices you made and how they compare to everyone else’s who played the game. But this screen only serves as a reassurance that yes, this game is not a cop out; the other paths you didn’t take really do exist. When I felt horrible for something I said or did, and I had to deal with the consequences: that wasn’t emotional manipulation. Sometimes I could have done something differently, other times I couldn’t. This combination of predeterminism and agency is a symbiotic relationship.
The Walking Dead is saturated with moments that feel human. Making the call that saves a life can be momentous, but sometimes it’s more powerful to have simply saved someone’s grief. It’s a step forward for storytelling in games. It’s an example of how games can cut out the fat, pull up their socks, stop making excuses about how we need deeper game mechanics, or clever puzzles, or photorealism, or meta-commentaries about problematic video game tropes, or anything else, and just be as good as they can be.
I hope Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman can take what they accomplished with The Walking Dead even further in future endeavours. And maybe next time we can do it without zombies.1. Curiosity – What’s Inside the Cube?
Na, just kidding.
But have you seen the Wikipedia page for that game? It sure is something.1. Thirty Flights of Loving
The menus and loading screens of Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving mimic the packaging and design of a vinyl record as though the game were an EP. Like a song, the game doesn’t last long and is the same every time I play it. But I always get something new out of it depending on my mood, or what I choose to focus on, or what I let wash over me. It gets in my head. Sometimes I play it on repeat. It favours being evocative over making sense, expressing feelings and events without spelling out a prosaic narrative.
And of course—underneath the raucous—it’s a love story.
The game’s B-side, Gravity Bone, which was originally released non-commercially in 2009, is similar to Thirty Flights, but begins with something resembling a traditional game, or at least a more formally structured one; a stripped-down, bonsai Hitman: Blood Money. After two levels, it throws its twist on you, beginning a rolling ball of a chase scene culminating in an inscrutable series of flashbacks while the protagonist falls to his death. Thirty Flights of Loving, the sequel, takes what Gravity Bone does with its ending and spins that experience into an entire game. There’s no buildup to a twist; instead, the buildup is every other video game you’ve played in your life, and the twist happens the moment you start this one.
Gravity Bone’s chase sequence is played to the tune of Aquarela do Brasil, a song popularised by its use in Terry Gilliam’s film Brazil. Although Chung explains that he chose the song just because he liked it, the game’s sequel bears further striking resemblances with Gilliam’s film, both superficially and in the way its narrative complexity subverts the traditional storytelling tropes of the medium.
The three protagonists—Abel, Anita, and Borges—are on the run for a heist gone wrong in the fictional, future city of Nuevos Aires. Many scenes are inhabited by security cameras floating about from balloons marked “POLICIA” mirroring Brazil’s 1984-inspired totalitarian government. You carry a bleeding Borges on a luggage stroller through an airport as crowds of people move by without noticing, much like the apathetic crowds surrounding Harry Tuttle’s demise. ’Wanted’ posters are issued by the “Department of Retribution” and a plaque in the game’s opening room makes reference to a period of Abolition put in place by the State’s “Wheel of Morality Department”. These departments are almost a flippant, tongue-in-cheek equivalent of the “Ministry of Information” or “Ministry of Truth”.
There’s also a moment where the decidedly Orwellian phrase “FORGET YOUR PAST” is projected on the walls. Initially, I parsed this as an uncharacteristically metaphysical message to me as the player, until I took a few steps forward and noticed that the words are repeated as the assuredly diegetic slogan for Cugat Air. The words create a moment of dramatic irony, echoing the graffiti that welcomes visitors to the Buzludzha Monument, before you enter a hall similar to the Buzludzha’s interior for a theatrical shootout.
This is where the thematic similarities to Brazil end. Thirty Flights doesn’t follow Brazil as far as its use of fantastical dream sequences as counter-discourse to bureaucracy and repression, but it does utilise similar subversions of temporality, spatiality, and causality in a way that most previous works in the medium barely scratch the surface. They both require their audiences to piece together a story from a fragmented and incomplete experience, and prevent them from relying on hypotheses drawn from expectations or predictions of how games or films work. Consequently, playing Thirty Flights is like playing a video game for the first time again, and recaptures the magic that is lost once a player has an internalised a set of expectations.
The rest of the words on the aforementioned Abolition plaque stoop into nonsense, but this flavour text is meant to be parsed no more than the spoken “mwah mwah” noises that substitute for dialogue. Abel doesn’t remember what every sign says or what people say, but distinctly remembers that someone was saying something. Abel doesn’t care what the groom’s speech was at the party; his attention was with getting very drunk with Anita. He shared some words with Borges (an apology?) shortly after wheeling him under a gate to stop it from closing, but in the heat of the moment all he stores to memory is the fact that words were shared.
The story is non-linear, jumping back and forth through continuity, location, and reality, letting you piece together the fragments of what is going on, in the way that art cinema toys with syuzhet. It doesn’t reach the delusional heights of Brazil’s dream sequences, and is far less explicit with what is and isn’t real. Rather, it plays out like Abel remembering a series of events in an erratic order and cutting out filler moments. Some memories lead to other thoughts, with a logical thread that only makes sense to Abel himself.
The moment of betrayal, the heist going wrong, Anita clicking an empty gun to your face: all this is the game’s chorus which it periodically returns to. The first smash cut is shocking, and you quickly escape with Borges. When you return to that moment, your movement is limited, suggesting that Abel had hurt his legs when falling into the room from the ceiling. Did you recover between then and leaving the room, or is Abel just remembering details differently each time? Subsequent portrayals of this scene are played out differently as if the interim led to a revision to the way it plays out in Abel’s mind.
Many games have toyed with narrative logic, usually as twists or novelties. Few have been so confident as Thirty Flights. The presentation is far from realism—not only by way of the cute, boxy character designs, but the exaggerated set up of the scenes and spaces. The memories are embellished in a theatrical way, fully embracing the subjectivity of the point of view.
At Freeplay this year, Dan Golding and Claire Hosking ran a presentation named Games and Space, which was certainly the high point of the festival. They spoke about the way the Assassin’s Creed games represent the space of a city like Florence; how key landmarks are recreated in high detail and a realistic proportion, but the filler space is abbreviated so the world isn’t tedious to traverse. Many people have spoken about this before, but Dan’s use of the word ‘abbreviated’ resonated with me.
That word helped me notice how these types of games that advocate spatial and temporal continuity often portray time similarly: at any given moment, the world appears to run in real time, but when observed broadly, is clearly abbreviated. People may perform actions in real time, but an entire day might pass in 30 minutes. These tropes become internalized and contribute to player schemata and the much-coveted video game concept of “realism” (often problematically prefixed with “photo”) which can be skewed and suffocating.
Thirty Flights truncates time instead of abbreviates—a trick which is accentuated by the recurring symbol of the clock. In a room that Chung refers to in the director’s commentary as the “time hall”, time is moving incredibly fast. Crowds of people speed past you and the hands of the analogue clock on the wall spin wildly. In another scene, as you walk to the exit of your apartment, the digital clock in front of you jumps, and Anita and Borges appear to appear in front of you, ready to leave for a party. The player hasn’t moved in space, but time has instantly jumped forward and the clock is a grounding of how much time has passed.
Then when you get to the party, the dancefloor fills with people and bottle after bottle of alcohol appear in front of Abel and Anita. A post-processing bloom effect and a hallucination of floating dancers represent Abel’s intoxication. This is followed by snippets of the two of you drunkenly stumbling back to your apartment and presumably sleeping together. Thirty Flights fast-forwards and truncates time without breaking the continuous, first-person flow. It presents a combination of singular moments stretched out to eternity as well as extended periods of time condensed into a stylistic representation of them. In the same way that Brazil challenged the continuity of reality of the typical Hollywood structure of a film narrative, Thirty Flights deliberately draws attention to the jagged, temporal construction of its story.
I’m not able to make the claim that Thirty Flights is The Brazil of Video Games, and the game is certainly not trying to be that. But it was a decade after Brazil that Hollywood movies and audiences became comfortable with toying with the artificial, flawed “realism” of the medium’s conventions. It led to an environment that allowed films like Reservoir Dogs and Inception to thrive with large audiences. Although Thirty Flights is not a mainstream game, I hope it too can pave the way for more complex narrative in video games.
It’s good to explore how video games are unique but it’s important to remember that the medium does not exist in a vacuum. Some games are criticised for their cinema envy, but Thirty Flights is proof that the problem is not with the influences to which games often look, but with the lessons they should be drawing from them. Thirty Flights is one of those games that seems like it has fallen from an alternate universe. It’s so bold in its style, and feels like it’s the result of generations of iteration on the foundations of Genres and Waves and Movements.
In interviews and talks, Chung has spoken about how he puts a lot of himself into his games and that they are largely influenced by personal events in his life. I’m sure everything in the game was put there for a reason, but those reasons aren’t worth reading into. I don’t understand the meaning to all the lyrics of my favourite songs, but it’s enough to know that they mean something to the author. Something personal goes in and something personal comes out, even if the game is a black box of exegesis.
The end credits—a place where the game stops jerking you around and lets you catch your breath—is also actually where the game is at its most metaphysical and self-referential, not fitting into the narrative at all. As your car crashes at the game’s climax, you fall through the windshield into a museum in which the car, along with many other props from the game, are exhibition pieces along other artworks which serve as the game’s credits. Small clusters of generic NPCs in classy attire sip champagne, contemplating the various showpieces. It’s a self-aware mocking of its own art cinema pretension. The NPCs represent a stereotypical, snobbish museum crowd and their futile discussion of the meaning of abstract art, in the way that a player might be tempted to contemplate the game itself. It’s a wink at the player, saying ”don’t take it seriously, babe, it just ain’t your story.”
Post-credits, the game leaves you with a final image, returning to the scene of Abel on the back of the motorcycle before the crash—a fleeting moment stuck skipping like Sgt. Pepper’s inner groove.
- Thirty Flights of Loving and the invention of videogame space, by Dan Golding
Further GOTY reading:
- Ludonarratology - The Year of Games, a collective pick of GOTYs featuring the writing of some of my favourite game critics: Brendan Keogh, Cameron Kunzelman, Justin Keverne, Eric Swain, Kris Ligman, Mattie Brice, Michael Abbott and more.