Pillbox

Thirty Flights perfects narrative-based game

Thirty Flights of Loving strikes the perfect balance between directing players and leaving them to draw their own conclusions.  (credit: Mark Slabinski/) Thirty Flights of Loving strikes the perfect balance between directing players and leaving them to draw their own conclusions. (credit: Mark Slabinski/) Despite the questionable art, the world of Thirty Flights is expressive and visually distinctive. (credit: Mark Slabinski/) Despite the questionable art, the world of Thirty Flights is expressive and visually distinctive. (credit: Mark Slabinski/)

“I wish this didn’t have to end.”

This is the overwhelming response from people who’ve played Thirty Flights of Loving, the latest video game from indie developer Blendo Games, released over the summer. The game is a narrative-driven, first-person shooter inhabited by blocky, stylized paper-craft humans. It’s one of the most important games released this year, expressing more in 15 minutes than most games do in 40 hours of play.

This is a short story in playable form, displaying a keen awareness of the idiosyncrasies of games as a storytelling medium. It’s the story of a heist gone wrong and the events that led up to it, all told without the use of dialogue. Half the game takes place in an airport you’re trying to escape, while the other half is spent simply hanging out with your bootlegger friends.

What’s most remarkable about the game’s story is its use of jump cuts. The characters will often be ejected from whatever they’re doing — like walking down a hallway — as the game suddenly cuts to a scene of them getting out of bed. A testament to Blendo’s mastery, these cuts don’t feel intrusive. Instead, they are entirely welcomed, a breath of fresh air in a world of hyper-linear structure.

Do not be fooled by the style of the art; the game’s world is an extremely expressive one. People and objects are bright and colorful, visually distinctive when necessary and indiscernible when not. The music — composed by indie game composer and writer Chris Remo — is sparse and varied, borrowing elements from spy movies and Westerns. The soundtrack features a scratchiness that makes it sound like the soundtrack to a 1960s drama recorded on vinyl.

In essence, it’s a condensed movie soundtrack; some snippets only play for moments and then are never heard again. Silence is used often, letting players make their own interpretations of the emotions in certain scenes. Text is scattered throughout the game, giving players brief insights into the absurd world from which they’re trying to escape. All of this combines to give the game an inimitable feel and a sense of weight and confidence in its own style.

Thirty Flights is in many ways meant to serve as the ideal of the player-centric game. The player is respected, never condescended to, never forced to listen to some nonplayable character drone on about irrelevant information. The game doesn’t concern itself with the tangential details, as they are ultimately only a distraction from the true meat of the story. There’s a kind of cognizance in the way the game is presented — the way it knows exactly how much it needs to tell players, yet keeps enough ambiguity for players to draw their own conclusions.

Each player walks away from Thirty Flights with a different understanding of the underlying narrative because the game so brilliantly condenses the story down to its most basic elements. Cut away the fluff found in other games — the pointless dialogue and the time-wasting game systems that do nothing for the player’s enjoyment — and you’re left with the essence of a story.

In the current world of game narrative, it seems like there’s this headlong rush to have the greatest impact on players by making them the center of the universe. Every game seems to tout that players will have this epic presence in the world, that their choices will reverberate throughout the game’s universe. These are almost always empty promises, and end up as a hollow power fantasy masquerading as something more important.

Thirty Flights is the opposite: a small, intimate game that has something to say and isn’t afraid to do what needs to be done — even at the risk of alienating players. This kind of game only comes along once every few years, and is one of the few that might one day be spoken of in the same reverent tone as Half-Life 2.