There are three things you need to know about Thirty Flights of Loving, a community-funded Kickstarter project developed by Blendo Games:
1) It’s super cheap at $4.99
2) The first few things you say about it will start with “What the hell…”
3) It’s only ten minutes long
This is truly the weirdest indie game I’ve ever experienced, and I’m lucky to have gotten it on sale. At full price, I’d be stuck with the tiniest of niggling doubts squealing out curses and pressuring me to justify my purchase. At the Boxing Day week sale price of about a dollar? That’s just right.
With that said, the key defining factor in your decision to buy this game won’t be the financial cost, but rather the amount of interest you have in one of the most confusing and single-minded, yet emotionally nuanced and subtle stories of 2012. Basically, this game exists to ask the great question, “Can video games be made for art’s sake?”
Thirty Flights of Loving begins innocently enough: you start on a staircase leading down to a bar, with posters indicating the few keys needed to play this game surrounding you and a radio playing a soft classical-sounding tune in the background. The game truly manages to hook you in, however, once you discover the secret wall that leads to a room clearly used for planning criminal operations.
The setup, it seems, is that you are playing the role of a lead criminal, as your comrades, Anita and Borges, are armed to the teeth and ready to roll out. Plans for a heist of one Cugat Airfield sit on a desk, and a biplane is sitting in a nearby harbour. All you can do is venture forward, head for the plane, and watch as you and your accomplices fly off into the unknown.
Cue jump cut – now Anita’s in your face with an empty gun, blood flowing from various wounds, and the title card superimposed on the situation.
To say this game is disorienting is an understatement; saying that’s part of the fun, doubly so.
This isn’t the only time that jump cut effect will be used here. Thirty Flights thrives on keeping the player on their toes, always ensuring that they know less than what their character knows. Exactly how it does this comes down to a lot of visual tricks and sudden scene changes, but the beauty of this storytelling method is that you are kept in the moment with a growing understanding of what it all means.
Because storytelling is this game’s focus – the draw is in the mystery of how the characters, the situations and the subtle environmental clues fit together. It may take a few playthroughs to fully grasp the underlying message, and like last year’s Cloud Atlas it likes to jump around in its own timeline, but savvy gamers will appreciate the depth and complexity of this short-winded tale.
After all, what other game gives you characters who never speak, but express themselves with actions better than any Hollywood actor could? Where else could you find themes of love, of adventure, of commitment, of loss, of the thrill of crime and of fate’s inevitability so carefully crafted as to be invisible in the moment, but sensible in the grand scheme? Few works of media, let alone games, could tackle such grand ideas in such a focused, yet erratic manner.
I’m being obscure on purpose, if you haven’t caught on already. There are things in this game that may or may not defy the modern conventions of Activision or EA-made games. Describing the intensity of watching a shootout occur mid-game with little user input, the confounding hilarity of a sequence so clearly influenced by alcohol, or even the comfort of an optional scene involving oranges, of all things, would be tantamount to spoiling some of the greatest plot twists from fictional media history.
Sure, a cynic could point to the game’s abysmally short length or lack of gameplay variety as flaws – and yes, by modern standards those might be enough to condemn a wide range of games. That’s the beauty of Thirty Flights: it does what is necessary to tell the story it wants to tell.
The controls are enjoyably simple, focusing only on movement (“WASD”), visibility (mouse) and interaction (“E”). The gameplay, while not technically varied, does bring the player to a number of different locales and sends you into various distinct situations – from rolling a bloodied comrade through bustling airfield crowds, to experiencing two simultaneous vehicle-based “memories”. It may not offer much on its own in terms of replayability, but this roller-coaster ride of a narrative certain leaves you with basic satisfaction.
On that note, there is a bit more to Thirty Flights of Loving than just the base game. With this downloadable package, you also receive a Developers’ Commentary mode, which consists of the ordinary game with question mark emblems floating in every scene, providing insight on how and why the game was designed in the way it was. This offers context for the various sequences and provides some interesting tidbits of information, though just to clarify, it’s 99% the same game.
Then there is the included copy of Gravity Bone, one of Blendo Games’ earlier hits. It’ll be getting its own review, and much of the same points made here apply to that game, but the key distinction is the reduced focus on storytelling and the increased focus on exploration and interaction. Gravity Bone isn’t much more substantial than Thirty Flights but I can appreciate Blendo Games’ decision to add it here – it gives you just a bit more reason to buy this package.
The visuals are appropriately retro, with a range of bright colours standing out in some very well-staged environments. Places like Cugat Airport and a rooftop wedding reception feel alive with personality thanks to the superb lighting, and though the graphics run on the aged Quake II engine, the artistic decision to give characters flat faces and blocky bodies adds to the characters’ subtle expressiveness and makes them generally appealing to look at.
There’s also some creative visual design on display here, particularly in two scenes. The first occurs in the airfield, where the passage of time speeds up and nearby planes leave trails of light as they sail into the unknown. The second, which I mentioned above, takes place at a wedding reception, and draws to mind various questions about just how much the player’s had to drink.
Sound design also plays a pivotal role in setting the tone and atmosphere. Every scene features a background track of some sort that fits the mood of a location, from soothing blues tunes at the bar to intense heist-like chords playing at Cugat Airport. The game’s knack for immersing the player in every scene is uncanny, and it’ll likely be the talking point at any game conventions where Thirty Flights is brought up.
In the end, that’s the best endorsement I can give it: it will immerse you if you let it. The game may not be as “meaty” with features or gameplay mechanics, but it serves the ultimate goal of telling a rich, fulfilling story to the best of its ability. To answer my above question: yes, games can be made for art’s sake, but not many can be as good as this.