Thirty Flights of Loving

Should I be embarrassed that I did’t like Brendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving?

Spoilers ahead. I knew very little going into TFOL: I knew it was stylish, award-winning, had something to do with a heist, and that it “tells a better story in 13 minutes than most games do in 13 hours.” Maybe what I’m feeling now was a result of inflated expectations?

The game seems to garner universal acclaim (see Metacritic, Wikipedia, Rock Paper Shotgun and The Brainy Gamer). After playing through the brief experience three times and reading all the developer commentary, I was a little nonplussed. I proceeded to dig through reviews, hoping to understand why everyone is so excited about it. Curiously, I found a lot of talk about how different the game is, and a very little about why it’s good – and a lot of emotional reactions, something I seemed to miss out on. Here are some of the features called out in the discussion surrounding the game:

  1. Its style. TFOL‘s world is colorful and minimalist in a way that embraces its hybrid game/film heritage. It uses blockheaded characters with expressive flat-texture faces. I’ve seen a few people call its style “cubist”, which I find a little funny. I think it would be more accurate just to say the game uses a blocky, gamey aesthetic.
  2. Its use of jump-cuts. This is particularly unusual for a first-person game because it can be disorienting. Most critics seem to feel it works in TFOL because it’s used to maintain an intense pace, to make the player fill in the narrative gaps, and because disorientation is one of the emotions the game wants to evoke.
  3. Its nonlinear narrative. The way people talk, you’d think this had never been done in a game before.
  4. Its expectation of an observant audience. The design of the game encourages a breakneck race through the story, which makes it easy to miss some important details – really important details that allow you to understand the original sequence of events.

I’ll admit, the game is stylish. Its bold use of color and silhouette is awesome. There’s some talk of how detailed the world is, but this isn’t really true; there are details, but they’re either crucial to tell the story or carefully placed to add character. For the most part there’s just enough world there to tell the story.

The jump-cuts and nonlinear narrative are neat, but I’m not sure they impress me as much as they’re supposed to. I’ll admit, they’re pretty unique for a first-person experience. It’s just that Adam Cadre’s Photopia did something similar with interactive text fourteen years ago, and in my opinion it tells a far more touching (and coherent) story. In fact, it tackled the additional challenge of multiple perspectives. In any case piecing together a narrative from a set of temporally disconnected scenes is nothing new to games. Several of the Myst games also do this well, but they’re longer, slower, and usually in the past tense. I agree that we should have more stories like this, but it’s not a revelation.

The coherence was a problem for me. If I hadn’t heard the word “heist” going in I never would have associated that term with this story. I love experiences that reward repeat play with unnoticed details and deeper insights, but when I don’t understand anything on the first playthrough… or the second… I feel there’s a communication problem. I was especially bothered by my inability to sequence the car crash with the airport escape, until I saw someone post that around their sixth playthrough they noticed that Anita-pointing-a-gun-at-you had a bionic arm and leg, which apparently indicates that the heist occurs after the car crash. They also noted that in the seconds-long flashback right before the crash, the woman on the bed isn’t Anita (I hadn’t noticed). And several critics have referred to a love triangle – but I don’t recall seeing any romantic interaction between my partners in crime. I’m also still not sure why Anita points a gun at me, or why I choose to leave her behind at the airport, or who was shooting at us anyway.

It’s good that the game raises these questions for me, but the truth is I wouldn’t have made it as far as most of these questions if I wasn’t digging through reviews of the game. I’m more hooked by the surrounding hype than I am by the story, and that’s kind of a disappointment. Am I not artsy enough or smart enough for Thirty Flights of Loving? I hope not; I suspect it’s just not to my taste. In any case, it makes me want to try and tell a cinematic nonlinear story that’s not so evasive.

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