At a pivotal moment near the end of Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, a strange technique is utilized. As Winnie, the stifled wife of Adolf Verloc, somberly approaches him with knife in hand, hoping to avenge the death of her mentally-disabled brother, the perspective shifts from the past tense to the pluperfect: one moment the knife was plunged into his chest, the next it had already been let go. The moment itself, the act of catharsis where Winnie turns the blade and smirks, is omitted, leaving only a before and after to the jarring event. As readers this shocks us, and leaves us only to contemplate the harrowing emotions involved.
In cinema, this technique is called the jump cut, and was popularized by the French New Wave. It is the editing of two sequential shots to jar the viewer, achieving an effect of discontinuity, of an absence. But while videogames employ many cinematic techniques (the panning shot, depth of field, and the reverse angle shot, all of which contribute to the popular camera angle I affectionately call the ass shot), they do so while being anchored to characters that verbally tell the story. This means that, for all their grandeur, they produce spectacularly uninteresting portrayals of the potentially spectacular narratives.
Blendo Games’ Thirty Flights of Loving by Brendon Chung looks at this problem from another angle (pardon the pun). Its success, then, is that it shows how exemplary stories can be in games if they focus less on narrative and more on establishing techniques, on unconventional ways of telling that narrative.
TFoL begins with distinct visual intrigue. It was made using the Quake II engine, and features stylized graphics that combine the blocky charm of Minecraft with the cosmopolitan panache of TF2, and then hire the gaffer of Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void to do the lighting. The animations are simple, and since the game makes no attempt to reach that misguided realm of realism, it is refreshingly consistent.
This consistency is important because the graphics are entwined with how the game tells its story. Instead of relying on exposition or ephemera (the books of Elder Scrolls, the journal entries of Mass Effect) to tell the narrative and set the stakes, the game establishes these through what it decides to (just) show you, and what it decides to leave out. Exploration around the prohibition style bar-turned-base at the beginning reveals a cosmopolitan world of control, discord, and suppression. Instead of faceless troops, however, the oppressive agent here is represented solely by ever-changing adverts and floating security cameras that look like old cell phones strapped to balloons. Like a Krazy Kat cartoon, the game works because it functions on its own logic. And that logic, while familiar, is heightened. (One of the great visual set pieces of the game is when, getting drunk at a rooftop party, you and Anita see the dancing guests float effortlessly upwards into the sky as if being pulled by a tractor beam.)
The other fantastic sections where the game shows but doesn’t tell is when you (as player) first meet Anita and Borges, your partners in crime. Rather than establish a dialogue or ask the forehead-slap inducing question “are you ready?”, the game instead cuts to quick montages of each character, showing them in a bevy of roles from sniper to pilot to confectioner. These cuts are representative rather than “actual” images from each character’s life, and yet they accomplish more in establishing their position in relation to the game world than any dialogue would’ve been. More importantly, they do it in a quicker and much more enjoyable way. The montages are edited too quickly to capture all their charm in one go, and reward multiple viewings. For an example of this, just look at Anita throughout the game, and tell me if you notice anything.
And that’s where the power of the game shines: in its jump cuts. They manage to complicate and problematize an otherwise familiar story about rebellion, betrayal, and love. (And here I must pause to admire the multiplicity of the title, its meaning being cut and edited with each new contextual clue.) More laudably, but crucially less recognizably, the developers managed to captivate me as player while limiting what I could actually do. Just as Conrad robs the reader of the intense emotions Winnie faces as she kills Verloc, Chung disallows us as players to have any direct effect on the biggest moments driving the narrative. The restraint and focus of the game are not hampered by our attempts to break it (by playing it), because we are too busy trying to unravel the story its techniques complicate for us.
In this sense, the game seems somewhat manipulative, but that restraint also keeps it consistent and compelling. I frame the conflict like this: if people say it’s unlike any game they’ve played before, then it’s probably because it’s one of the least game-like games they’ve played. Unless they made it through the FMV period. But I won’t put that against them.
Thirty Flights of Loving
One Player; Self-Billed as a First Person Shooter, more of an Adventure Game
Available on Steam, DMR-free