Developer: Blendo Games. Publisher: independent.
Genre: Interactive Fiction. Platform Played: PC/Mac (several times on both).
Tell me a story. Close your mouth, put down your pen, unplug your keyboard, cover your face, sit still, and tell me a story. All set? Okay, now tell me a tale about a man and his two friends as they pull off a heist in a seaplane, attend a wedding reception, have a little romance, betray one another, and escape the authorities in fantastical ways before coming to an abstract end in a museum of art and aviation.
Sorry? You can’t? Well, then, I’ll just go back to playing Thirty Flights of Loving.
Games like Passage, The Stanley Parable, The Path, and Dear Esther each use walking as their main mechanic for storytelling. Some use this well, as is the case of The Stanley Parable, while others present it as a boring way to sell a short story, á la Dear Esther. The main difference is whether the tale is told at you (Esther), or whether the player has a form of agency in the game (Stanley). This is mainly the dividing line between a great ‘art game’ and a sub-par one, and there has not yet been a game that can straddle the line between the two extremes, offering fun, interest, and immersion as well as giving you the simple direction of ‘walk to the next bit, please’. That is, until Thirty Flights of Loving arrived on Steam slightly over a year ago.
Offering the tale of a groovy crime thriller, with love, lust, action, betrayal, and the scientific principals of flight as put forth by Daniel Bernoulli in 1738 books of principles and theories, Hydrodynamica, Thirty Flights offers all the fun and captivation of the best narrative driven games while maintaining the straightforward method of simply walking to different points of the story. Despite the relatively short length of thirteen minutes on a slow run, this never manages to take from the experience, instead offering one of the best bite-sized ventures in gaming.
Playing Loving is much like being in an intense dream. You enter, consciously, in the middle of the story, and then proceed to dance around the narrative back and forth and then back again for some tango. You have the WASD controls for movement, a computer mouse for the camera, and the contextual E key to perform actions. A familiar control scheme, but justified in giving the player more brainspace to focus on the setting that it, in some cases quite literally, drops you in. You can pick up items such as guns, ammunition, and a plethora of alcohol (to no noticeable effect on character performance; quite the hardy drinker), but you’re never seen using it, or even possessing the items whatsoever. I am ever the kleptomaniac in Thirty Flights, though, because every object gained is accompanied by a very satisfying sound effect. My inner audiophile gushes.
Speaking of sound, the score in Thirty is refreshingly funky. No melodies or complicated orchestrations here, no sir, only the finest in groovy free form jazz. Even the absence of music is played to effect when the player wakes up in a more personal and intimate situation involving clementines. Nearly every wave of the sound design feels painstakingly well crafted to really draw oneself into the ambiance, minus perhaps a shootout scene in an airport where the sounds of what I assumed were Battle Crows began multiplying and playing over one another in a clustered mess.
On the smoother side is the graphical department. Low-powered graphics have been making a solid return in the games industry lately, mostly reboxed as retro, in an attempt at either nostalgia or reaching a wider audience with slower processors. Minecraft used it to great effect in sporting a unique art style that would be compensated for sheer quantity, and Thirty Flights of Loving takes full advantage of its own unique art style. The Uncanny Valley states that anything that looks human, but is not quite there, is an unsettling site that is difficult to empathize with. It’s strange and creepy to us when we get the feeling that we’re looking at something else in human skin. Flights of Loving sidesteps this to give us cartoonishly simple-looking characters. Being cute and so much unlike a person instantly makes it easier for us to suspend our disbelief. Nothing here is wrong to look at. It’s not trying to be real life. This is a ridiculous story with ridiculous action and anything but ridiculous looking people would be jarring.
So, how exactly does a story get told without words or interpretive dance? The answer seems to be by just dropping you off in a world, have people interact with you, have you interact back, and follow the narrative, the essence of the story itself, along the ride. Make it believable, no matter how abstract, make it interesting, regardless of how you tell it, and most importantly, do it with love.
An art game that walks the line between having the story told at you and being the story yourself, Thirty Flights of Loving is a mastercraft of game design and non-linear narrative. It may last you five minutes, it may last you ten. You may play it over and over again for hours and still feel the same amount of wonderful glee as you did the first time. Many of you will play it just to visit the Aviation museum and learn Bernoulli’s Principle, and many more will enjoy the free copy of Gravity Bone, Flights‘ spiritual predecessor, that comes with the game. Either way you take it with you, Thirty Flights is a Grade-A game.
- Great story.
- Fantastic audio design.
- Great art direction.
- Does the “Walky-Talky Art Game” right, minus the “Talky”.
- Comes with Gravity Bone.
- Just the right length.
- Audio cluttering at one point.