When I first posted about Blendo Games’ Thirty Flights of Loving earlier in this year I struggled to find anything to say. Everything I wrote ended up making me sound like a toddler explaining why it really fucking loves apple juice. In other words: lots of enthusiasm, but not a whole lot of insight. I kept trying to get something across, but after rewriting the piece countless times I gave up and just posted a few sentences and a link to the game’s website. I think there are two main reasons I failed to write about Thirty Flights of Loving at the time: (1) it does something so different, so unexpectedly new that I’ve struggled to find the vocabulary to engage with it on any kind of meaningful level, and (2) writing is hard. But regardless, I made the prediction that it would stand up as one of the most fascinating games of the year, and I certainly wasn’t wrong. So here we are at the Games of The Year list, and I’m going to have another crack at writing about this goddamn thing. Wish me luck.
So, Thirty Flights of Loving does something we don’t see much of in other videogames. But just what is this new and revolutionary something? Understanding movies.
Countless games have fallen in love with the term ‘cinematic’, but pretty much all of them failed to understand what that term actually means. As such, these games merely parroted the surface elements of film and declared themselves cinematic, in much the same way that a child might put on its mother’s makeup, roll stockings up its forearms, and declare itself a wealthy heiress.
Thirty Flights of Loving, on the other hand, understands what makes movies movies, and what makes certain great movies great. It doesn’t madly exclaim ‘more camera angles’ without really knowing why, nor does it go the Metal Gear Solid route and attempt to ape movies purely by having cutscenes that are as long as a fucking movie. It’s very clearly influenced by the look and the sound of certain films, but on a very fundamental level it’s also influenced by the structure of films – how they work and how they’re put together. And it’s this that makes Thirty Flights of Loving unique: it’s not simply a game containing references and visual nods to great movies, it’s a game that takes cinematic techniques and uses them to tell a story.
And it doesn’t just take random elements of cinema, either, like some mad magpie building a nest. Even a good understanding of cinema doesn’t allow you to take aspects of film and drop them in your average, run-of-the-mill game without thereby screwing everything up. You might as well take a fish and drop it into a terrarium – the fish is going to flap around gasping desperately for air, and the terrarium’s going to start to smell. You need to make a game that was designed from the ground up to work in a film-like way. Thirty Flights of Loving is designed like this, and it’s a rare successful cinematic game not because it includes smash cuts and non-bullet-time slow motion, but because it feels inherently filmic.
It flows very much like a movie. It cuts away everything that’s not necessary for telling its story, very much unlike a videogame. And among other things it uses smash cuts and and slow motion and montages (in the sense of the word defined by early Soviet film-makers (trust me on that – I’ve seen over one Sergei Eisenstein film)), but it knows exactly why it’s using them. This is a game that understands film, and what the medium can bring to certain kinds of games. And it’s built from the ground up with that understanding at the forefront.
You might think that I’ve said relatively little about the actual game so far, but you’d be wrong. Stop being wrong. This isn’t going to be the bit in the review where I awkwardly transition from talking about ‘the story’ to talking about ‘the game’. Thirty Flights of Loving is a short story with film blood flowing through its veins, one that you move through with the power of your mouse and keyboard. It’s a Dear Esther rather than a Limbo or a Bastion, in that it feels confident enough to do little more than tell you a story. It doesn’t feel it has to offer you some perfunctory puzzle or fighting mechanics to occupy your thumbs while it tells you its story, because it feels confident in what it wants to do.
The list of player verbs is extremely short – you can’t really do much more than move around and interact with a few objects by pressing ‘E’. But this isn’t some kind of fault on the game’s part – in fact it’s a consequence of the game’s purity of vision. It’s a game that wants to give you a snapshot of a world and tell you a story – a brief, tight story that plays out in one way and one way only – and it doesn’t ever pretend otherwise. There’s no need to add anything more -the game is the story, and the story is the game.
What can we say about this story, then? Simply put, Thirty Flights of Loving tells an interesting story in an interesting way. More floridly put, it crafts a snapshot of love, loss, and grand larceny that smash cuts between past and present, danger and celebration, weaving together seemingly disconnected moments into a strange, strangely affecting tale. It’s a game that doesn’t give you all the facts, but it’s not a game about guessing who is who and what happened when. It’s a mystery in so far as it leaves you with more questions than it does answers, but it’s not a mystery story. It’s a brief look into a few important moments of a few people’s lives, and it works – my god it just works.
Each scene is perfectly crafted, giving little glimpses of insight into characters and events. It embraces the limitations of a one-man development team and manages to create beautiful environments and wonderfully expressive characters from a simple, abstracted art style and not a single line of dialogue. Its soundtrack, composed by Chris Remo, carries us expertly through scenes of intimacy and escape, adding all the while to the rich, shifting atmosphere that alternates between building tension and unhurried familiarity. And as I said above, the story it tells is a strange, strangely moving affair, told through silent looks and nods, emotionally resonant montages of disparate but carefully chosen scenes, jarring smash cuts, flurried movement, and endless rich details. As with the ‘the story is the game’ blather above, this isn’t a case of me transitioning awkwardly from talking about ‘the game’ to talking about ‘the graphics’ and ‘the sound’. You can’t dissect this game, cutting it into constituent parts that can be put aside and treated as separate from ‘the game’. The story is the game. The art and the sound are the story and the game.
Thirty Flights of Loving doesn’t just stand out because it’s well made, or because it looks nice, or even because it makes smart, considered use of its deep understanding of film. It stands out because, like some of the best movies and videogames, it’s a perfectly formed whole, rather than a mass of constituent parts.
So, to transition awkwardly to the conclusion: Thirty Flights of Loving is a testament to the as yet largely unexplored breadth and depth of the medium, as well what we can gain from taking some of our inspiration from things that aren’t other videogames. And it’s a testament to strength of videogames as a storytelling form. But I keep coming back to how its a testament to the fact that the man behind Blendo Games, Brendon Chung, is an unparalleled talent in the medium.