Fifteen minutes of something else entirely

February 4, 2013, Author: Adam Boffa, 4 Comments

Fifteen minutes is not a particularly long time, especially in gaming. In many modern games, fifteen minutes of play won’t get you past the opening titles and tutorials. However, fifteen minutes is also the entire duration of Blendo Games’ Thirty Flights of Loving, a 2012 independent release about a heist that packs a dense, emotional, character-driven narrative into just a few short sequences. By subverting many of gaming’s narrative conventions, Thirty Flights of Loving constructs a world and a storyline that far exceed the constraints of its short length.

This is not, strictly speaking, a traditional video-game experience.

One of the most profound but subtle ways in which Thirty Flights of Loving undoes traditional game conventions is with its treatment of the relationship between the player and the protagonist. Many games equate these two things, even if the main character is given a name and thoroughly-developed backstory. In addition to giving the player control over the main character, games often find some reason (memory loss, first time in a new world, whatever else) for all of the exposition and explaining that needs to occur to get the player up to speed with the game’s events. Through these things, the player and the protagonist become much closer to equals.

Thirty Flights of Loving throws both of these elements out. Rather than directly telling the player anything about the current situation, it leaves almost all the details to the player’s inference. As you move your character through the game’s set-pieces (a secret hideout, a busy airport with an injured colleague, an apartment complex during a dinner party), you witness events as they happen and must consider the implications. Relationships between the three main characters aren’t explicitly stated and the hard facts that most games dole out through tutorials and cut-scenes are non-existent.

A public service announcement regarding the effects of alcohol.

A public service announcement regarding the effects of alcohol.

Related to this is the removal of true player agency. Thirty Flights of Loving operates much like a guided narrative, as the player has no real impact on or ability to change the events that occur. In most cases, the game simply waits for you to move the protagonist into the right spot and then proceeds onward. This seriously contrasts with the movement towards the purportedly all-powerful avatar of series like the Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect, Grand Theft Auto, and others, which focus on the player’s ability to shape the world and story as they play.

Even more interesting than the lack of agency, though, is the effect it has on the player as the game’s story unfolds. Because the events are out of your control, you may find yourself increasingly at odds with the decisions that the character you control is making and realizing things about him that are less than ideal. Although you are moving the character into position, you aren’t directing his implied words or actions, and this creates a serious distance between the player and protagonist. In a gaming landscape that frequently allows for complete customization, this is a bold choice. The player is mostly an observer rather than a participant, and the main character knows far more and is in far more control than the player.

This creates a unique, compelling dynamic between player and character. Although you are not in total control, the simple act of moving the character through the game world creates a visceral connection between the player, the supporting cast, and the world they all inhabit, allowing for a very different emotional experience than if this had been a short film.

Just another day at work.

Just another day at work.

Much more immediately noticeable than this, though, is the game’s manipulation of time as a narrative device. Most of Thirty Flights of Loving takes place out of sequence; there are frequent, abrupt cuts between events that occur at completely different times in these characters’ lives. Many different events are portrayed in this game’s short playtime thanks to its willingness to throw the player all over the timeline. The game’s world feels far more developed and more robust, and the characters’ relationships seem far more realistic, due to the game’s non-linear approach.

It’s certainly a jarring experience on a first run, but as the game progresses, you become more accustomed to its non-linear treatment of time and you become much more aware of little details that might give clues about what’s really happening between these people and the circumstances they’re in. Subsequent playthroughs become even more revealing. The story becomes some sort of puzzle that the game teases at but never fully opens up about, and your emotional engagement with the characters and their world means that you’ll find yourself trying to figure out more and more of it, looking desperately for some closure.

These are pretty daring moves for a game of this size and they’ve definitely been divisive. I still don’t know exactly how I feel about Thirty Flights of Loving, but I am impressed with the game’s willingness to try new things. It achieves a whole lot despite (or maybe, in part, because of) its short length, and it uproots a lot of the things we’ve grown complacent about when it comes to narratives in games.

Although, as a player, you don’t have an active role in the game’s events, playing Thirty Flights of Loving is not a passive experience. It demands attention and critical thinking and rewards multiple playthroughs. There are few game stories out there that fit as much into the length of a tutorial as Thirty Flights of Loving does.

Comments (4)

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  1. Trent said:

    I've played this and it's prequel Gravity Bone (which is barely even a game) and I would put them firmly in the 'arty bollocks' camp personally.

    I can never understand when someone cites a lack of something as a positive. Like how there's no story told, you're just left to work it out. I went through the game 5 times and worked nothing out. There's nothing wrong with the game telling you things and taking you on a journey, just as how there's nothing wrong with telling the player nothing but it irritates me when games that seem to make random design choices and essentially turn into playable mini-movies that make no sense get points for what they HAVEN'T done.

    It's like if I made a game where you were a black square navigating a black landscape with a white background, with only the ability to move and jump, and occasionally chunks of random poetry fade in in the background to 'tell the story'. At the end you just drop off a cliff, with no chance of survival. I would personally say that it's lazily made and even more lazily written. Some would say that it's a metaphor for how we blend in to our environment and become cookie-cutter slaves to that environment and the only way to succeed is to kill yourself.

    I've heard Thirty Flights of Loving called, among other things; groundbreaking, amazing, astonishing, fantastic, brilliant and mesmerising. I just don't see it. In my time with the game I was kept interested (mostly) and was generally unsure of exactly why I was doing what the game was telling me to. At the end I was just like 'What the hell just happened?' and felt no resolution or achievement. I felt no effort had been made to create an enjoyable experience, just a cerebral one that people can mull over at arty cocktail parties and psychologists can discuss to make themselves feel more clever. I suppose what I'm saying is, the fact that you don't understand it shouldn't be an accolade in my eyes.

    Posted on: February 07 3:11 PM || Report || Reply

  2. Andy said:

    I don't think ambiguity is a bad thing outright. When a game can leave it to your imagination, it creates interesting discussion, theories. Alan Wake pre it's shitty DLC is the perfect example done right. Spec Ops too does it throughout in the way it distorts Walker's retelling.

    Posted on: February 08 12:21 AM || Report || Reply

  3. adammb said:

    Hahah, I can definitely understand the frustrations with this kind of storytelling. Like I mentioned in the article, I'm still not totally sure how I feel about 30 Flights as a whole, although I do think some aspects of it are really interesting. For me, the main draw with this kind of stuff is just that it explores the different ways in which we can tell stories using games. Some ways will be more successful than others, but it's still nice to see developers try out new things. Gaming is such a diverse medium and the barriers to entry are getting lower with independent releases and such, so I like seeing what's going on outside of the big studios, even if it's not always the type of thing I'll enjoy a ton.

    Posted on: February 08 3:52 AM || Report || Reply

  4. Trent said:
    adammb wrote: For me, the main draw with this kind of stuff is just that it explores the different ways in which we can tell stories using games..

    I think my point is that I don't think that less is more necessarily when it comes to storytelling and often developers get away with lazily tossing in story beats because people assume they're trying to tell a story in a different way.

    Alan Wake (or at least it's American Nightmare XBLA spinoff that I rinsed) is a great example, leaving the pages of text you find and the occasional TV message from Mr Scratch to chillingly fill in the plot for you. It's not leaving it entirely for you to work out (which many people don't) and it's not ramming it down your throat; it's a nice middleground.

    So no, ambiguity isn't automatically bad, just when it's used in place of effective storytelling or to try and slot a game into the 'art' category. Just cast an eye over the Adventure section of any flash game website and you'll see what I mean; scores of developers who can't even type an accurate description of their games using 'innovative' storytelling 'techniques' to attempt to cover up the fact they have no narrative creativity.

    Posted on: February 10 11:06 PM || Report || Reply

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