“I don’t know what I just played. But I loved it!”
One finds this to be a common sentiment when browsing reviews of Blendo Games’ Thirty Flights Of Loving. I’m not sure how useful it would be trying to scrutinize the storytelling choices in this fragmented, at times absurd short story-game. But something about the work commands authority. It demands attention. As PC Gamer describes, it “tells a better story in 13 minutes than most games do in 13 hours.” So, is it worth looking at? Hell yes. Spoilers abound!
This week’s analysis will (attempt to) identify the techniques used to not only tell a clear story, but to tell it in such a short span while still delivering on emotional impact and being so damn memorable to boot.
1. “ENVIRONMENTAL STORYTELLING” or “LONG LIVE MECHA-PRESIDENTE”
Let’s start with what more and more games get right these days: ambient exposition. A bite-sized work like TFOL needs to be succinct in painting a backdrop against which the story unfolds. And it does just that. Right after we start, three newspapers on the wall tell us everything we need to know: political tyranny, civil unrest, prohibition, technological advancement, 80’s Latin America (or equivalent). A humorous tone mixes with a somber mood via a tune on the radio, the empty bar, and a gun behind the counter.
A minor suggestion here would be to shine spotlights on the newspapers, as it’s easy to miss them in the dark corridor. The bar owner seems to want to draw attention to the headlines anyway, and it’d also be a nice nod to the Bernoulli Museum end scene.
Painless exposition continues in the secret lair, where the guns’n’ammo, alcohol, fake passports, and building plans characterize the nature of your little trio — not to mention the ingenious snapshots when you press ‘E’ on Anita and Borges, perfectly in-step with the game’s style. All without dialogue, all optional, all brief. TFOL‘s insistence on finding different ways to do things is part of its charm.
2. “PACING” or “WITH THE DULL BITS LEFT OUT”
Just when things look like we’re about to embark on a tutorial mission, we SMASH to:
We find this a lot in short stories: a pivotal event circumvented in favor of its aftermath. In stage plays, it’s termed indirect action. The omission may be unexpected, but our brains prove more than capable of filling in most of the mystery: things fell apart and now we have to pick up the pieces. Where most devs fear the limits of player understanding, Chung dances on the cliff’s edge with grace and elegance. Part of good storytelling is knowing how to be clear; part of great storytelling is knowing when to leave things out.
The same thing could be said about level design, I suppose. Those hallways we jump through between cuts would have only slowed down the pace of the spaceport sequences. We only see the important moments in true montage fashion (such a thing in a bloody video game too!): the trolley, the closing gate, the balloon shootout, the time-dilated hallway that underscores how time moves against us, and even the long corridors of posters. We trim the fat and savor the meat.
3. “PACING 2” or “DRAMA IS LIFE”
TFOL juxtaposes these action scenes with the more contemplative ones surrounding the rooftop engagement party, in a way usually only seen in prose or film. The drop in tension only highlights this scene’s poignancy.
Here we witness just how close we once were to Anita and Borges. We know this takes place in the past because Anita still has both arms and legs, subtly foreshadowing some horrible tragedy we may yet see. (And of course we do.) While we enjoy a slice of their previously serene lives, we also can’t help feeling a certain melancholy similar to how Citizen Abel must feel as he relives this night. And that’s no small feat.
The juxtaposition with the spaceport scene also reinforces the importance of context. When hundreds of people ignore you carrying a wounded man on a trolley through a spaceport, it’s an act of apathy. When a friend lets you pick up an orange in your shared apartment, it’s a sign of intimacy. Yet both are an absence of system feedback.
4. “METAPHOR” or “HONESTLY I’M STILL TRYING TO FIGURE IT OUT”
One can’t deny that flight is a constant motif throughout the game: the plane, the floating party-goers the birds, the Bernoulli Exhibit, the title. What does it all mean? The only right answer I can conceive is that it’s up to us to decide. One quote seems the most ripe for interpretation: “The only thing birds need to fly are the right-shaped wings, the right pressure, and the right angle.” Any attempt to figure out the entirety of TFOL — including its ambiguities — would surely involve reading into what those three criteria represent in the narrative.
The point here, though, is the suggestion that the game is actually about something. It isn’t just a great roller coaster ride that ends when it ends. It attempts to grasp at something greater than itself. You know, like art usually does. And to reach that ‘truth’, viewers have to think about it all even after the credits roll.
5. “THE ENDING” or “NO NO, I JUST GOT SOME DUST IN MY EYE”
But maybe I’m reaching a bit there. All I mean to say for sure is that we shouldn’t be afraid to leave things open to interpretation when we write for games. Psychological interactivity can be just as moving as physical interactivity.
That said, why does the woman with red-streaked hair appear in our bed instead of Anita when that first bullet-cam hits the screen? Why does Anita only point the gun at us and not shoot when we drop down the hatch into the spaceport? Why is Borges the only one with a wanted poster?
We may never know the answers. But like any good ending will do, that of TFOL might just reveal the game’s true message. If the second truck collision kills Citizen Abel, we can take the ending scene as his mind returning to that one moment in an ungodly hour of the morning, riding on the back of a motorbike with a woman he loves as his best friend rides with them a few lanes over. Of all the times in his life, he recalls this memory as the most important one, as beautiful and meaningful as it was transient. And he lingers there in spirit. Forever.
As a player, I recognized the scene and how it’s changed. I can’t click through it now. But after everything I’ve seen that happens after it, why would I want to? Suddenly I realized: what I’m feeling now is exactly what Abel feels. Even as I exit the game, these dozen or so minutes passing into memory as fleeting as perhaps life itself can be, I linger.
And that’s how you end a damn game.