Thirty Flights of Loving
Videogames have a complicated relationship with film. They’re constantly being compared and contrasted due, in part, to their shared visual nature. This connection has changed over the years. In the ‘90s, games like Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid were lauded for their similarities to cinema; both their heavy use – especially in the case of Metal Gear Solid – of non-interactive cutscenes and the broad, dramatic twists of the plot itself as it unraveled through these brief pieces of cinema. These games were only the beginning of a trend towards the dominant art form of the 20th century, now that trend is routinely lamented by those who view these interruptions in hands-on interaction as the antithesis of what games are, or at least should be, all about.
“Applies the language of film”In designer Brendan Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving, the use of film technique is again on display. However, this doesn’t mean cutscenes or carefully placed camera angles. Unlike Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima’s obvious aspirations to author games that resemble his favorite movies as closely as possible, Chung applies the language of film – its jump-cuts, its relatively constrained sense of pacing – to experiment with and push boundaries. In it, a silent protagonist navigates – in first person – a series of evocative cartoon set pieces, shifting abruptly from one to the next as time and place radically shift with little warning.
At first blush, the story was nonsensical. It’s non-linear and ends abruptly. There’s no exposition or dialogue. Our role is to keep the game moving, to explore compartmentalized bits of apartments, rooftops, and highways before triggering the next slide in the queue. If it sounds disorienting, it’s because it is precisely that, which works in its favor. You’re part of a three-person team of bootleggers, wedding-goers, and heist artists during prohibition. One teammate is Anita, the other’s last name is Borge. During the heist something goes horribly wrong. There’s blood, one of them points their gun at you, the click of their repeated squeeze of a trigger betrays the lack of bullets, they carry on anyway. You drink a lot at the wedding, magical things happen. You escort your wounded friend through crowds of milling passersby. You stare out the window, slowly peeling perfect wedges off an orange. Two oranges. As many oranges as you’d like.
“Memorable and surreal”This is most impressive – not the oranges, though they are indeed quite nice – but the nuance of the level design and how time, space, and player activity interact. The way it coaxes specific actions purely through pacing and placing of each individual scene, all of which are individually memorable and surreal all while contributing to the greater whole. There’s plenty of room for plot interpretation. Everything is subtle – even at their most dramatic – but most subtle is the pacing, how each set piece allows and encourages a certain approach. It’s not puzzle solving. It’s not choosing from a number of authored routes that all lead to the achievement of a goal, one way or another. Here, the brilliance is in consciously constructing every scene of the game to encourage the player to do what needs to be done. That means watching your friends carrying cake and booze up several flights of stairs – of course you follow. That means sending throngs of people walking in every direction because really it doesn’t matter which way you go. It means scattering the room with intricate maps and bullets to pick up, forcing preparation before fully understanding what’s going on – if that’s even possible. It’s following up quick, frantic bits of progress with serene moments of exploration where taking one’s time is desired by the player as a way to slow down and absorb any sliver of narrative there is to be found.
One of the biggest, regularly appearing obstacles for effective narrative in games is interaction. When handed a virtual world to mess about in, we might just do exactly that. We might not go and do what the developers want us to. Our actions aren’t always conducive to the story we’re participating in. Grand Theft Auto IV‘s redemption story is severely undermined by the maniacal laughter that bellows out of us as we fire rockets at helicopters and run down dozens of citizens in the fanciest/largest/fastest/funniest vehicle we see fit. We see a game – a world constructed and only restricted by its meticulously chosen rules, and we can’t help but push the boundaries – to play.
Thirty Flights of Loving is unique because of how the player is routinely reigned in. Perhaps it’s because of the simplicity of it, when the budget grows, so too does the virtual space inhabited and the capacity to go off on a tangent. But when each area is so severely constricted and each cut to the next scene so artfully placed, it’s not only more difficult to dissent, it’s undesirable. By creating the non-linear and surreal, there’s a pervasive sense of mystery. Less likely are we to fuddle with what the author intended when “seeing what happens next” is so essential to figuring out just what the hell it is we’re dealing with here.