Some games have blown my mind with the quality of their storytelling. Braid’s clever use of familiar cliches told us about how perspective changes everything. Red Dead Redemption told us an amazing tale worthy of Leone. Metal Gear Solid 3 made you pull the trigger on Naked Snake’s mentor, the best use of integrating gameplay into storytelling I’ve ever seen. But I’ve never come across anything like Thirty Flights of Loving. To be fair, I’ve never come across anything else labelled a “Video Game Short Story” either, but Thirty Flights of Loving’s storytelling prowess isn’t fundamentally anchored to its gameplay(or lack-thereof) structure. It’s a proof of concept. It’s not hard to imagine adapting the cinematic jump-cut style of storytelling to a game with adventure mechanics, and a creative designer could adapt them elsewhere. TFoL opens with you descending down a staircase into a bar. You are immediately given a taste of Chung’s quirky style of humour; Mecha-Presidente, Prohibition License, and so forth. As a long time Blendo Games fan, I love this quirky stuff. I’d also recommend checking out the turn-based Homeworld-type game “Flotilla” for more of this, along with a brilliant game.
The music playing sets the mood perfectly. Its tinny nature puts us in the past. This is the kind of bar you are intimately familiar with, despite the fact that you’ve never been in one. You pull a lever disguised as a photo and descend into a hideout. A plethora of cliches assault you. A giant map, boxes of bullets, two compatriots. Interacting with them begins a series of flashes that quickly establishes everything you need to know about the situation. You are part of a crew, these are your partners in crime, they each have specialized roles. But at the end there’s something else. Caterer? Best Man? Whose wedding is this? Was it a job, or something else? Are there social bonds in this crew that go beyond our business? It’s hard to say. You advance to the whimsical aircraft, and are suddenly transported to a room, with your female teammate clicking an empty gun at you, covered in blood, with the game’s title flashed over the screen.
It’s a series of unanswerable questions that tease at you. If only you payed closer attention, if only you had explored that room fully. The game takes a mere 20-ish minutes to play through, but it lingers in your mind for much longer. There’s a perfect balance in this game between giving you enough hints to keep you interested and leaving out so much information that it’s frustrating. Who was that man who answered the door across the hall from your room? Who is the woman standing outside the reception? Did I see her for a second later on?
Why does Anita wish to kill you? What happened at the Airport? Who betrayed who? Who is the “little cilantro friend” mentioned in the credits? What does the Bernoulli principle have to do with anything? Why is this game called “Thirty Flights of Loving”, and why does the title flash before us again at the end?
I’m going to now make a decision that Brendan Chung has also made about this game. Yes, I have theories about what went on in that airport, about why Anita wants to kill you, but I’m not going to share them. The game’s value lies not with the answers to these questions, but with the questions themselves.
There exists video online of early builds of TFoL that feature dialogue. If you become as enamored with this game as me, you can find it here, but I beg you to come to your own conclusions before watching, as the answers are not concrete – or else they would be in the final game. But this footage tells me that TFoL started not as a storytelling exercise, but an attempt to show that cinematic techniques – jump cuts, time dilation, moving around a timeline, and using audio to establish setting ahead of the visual – could work with video games. Chung achieved this, but he also showed a brilliant novella. A vertical slice of a story with heartbreak, betrayal, and danger.