Falling in Love: A Thirty Flights of Loving Review


A familiar face

It was around the six minute mark when I realized my mouth was open.

I wasn’t mouthbreathing, or mumbling to myself, or laughing (that came later); I was simply in awe. I cannot conjure up enough superlatives to describe the transcendental experience I had playing Thirty Flights of Loving. I think I was (am?) in love.

Yes, it’s that good, and if you’re willing to take a blind recommendation, I’d say to plunk down your $5 and stop reading now. I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but this is game that seeks to surprise you in its construction, not just its story. It won’t take much of your time, and it even includes its predecessor Gravity Bone in the package, so if you missed that you can play the pair.

Like Gravity Bone, Thirty Flights of Loving is an experimental, interactive first-person narrative that casts the player as secret agent Citizen Abel, and guides him through a heist gone horribly wrong. Unlike Gravity Bone, the story is not told linearly. Instead, it’s a montage, a series of playable sequences stitched together with abrupt cuts.

Developer Brendon Chung has experimented with montage in video games since 2004’s Barista 2, but it still seems radical everytime he does it, because no one else in the industry has really tried. That said, Thirty Flights of Loving is the first time he’s used the technique throughout, and the constant switching from scene to scene will inevitably leave the player confused by the game’s end.

But not too confused. It would be easy to slap a bunch of unrelated events together and call it art. Thirty Flights of Loving, on the other hand, continually prompts the player with clues and suggestions, cycling in recurring characters and introducing explanatory sequences. But just when the order of events is starting to gel, it will throw another curveball, and ultimately I think a closed reading is impossible.  Like Dear Esther before it, Thirty Flights of Loving places more value in the journey than in the resolution. This also gives the game a life beyond its playtime; I’m eager to hop on a forum and do some collaborative mystery-solving, and I suspect the game will be kicking around in my mind for years to come.

"Wheel of morality, turn turn turn! Tell us the lesson that we should learn!"
Admittedly, this makes the game sound like an academic proof of concept. Nothing could be further from the truth.  Thirty Flights of Loving’s most obvious connection to Gravity Bone is in its bright, cubist visuals, which turn the aged Quake II engine into a thing of beauty. Every room, every object seems to have been placed just so. The style calls so much attention to itself that many will have trouble seeing past it. Like with Wes Anderson and other “quirky” directors, some will see this as an affectation, an attempt to compensate for the lack of something meaningful to say.  But apart from simply making the world more pleasant to inhabit, the aesthetic accentuates the ways in which the story (and the humor) are just a few steps removed from reality; this is the world of spies as envisioned by Mission: Impossible rather than John le Carre. The visual splendor is complemented by Chris Remo’s driving score, which keeps the pacing during the action scenes, just as its lulls signal a moment of meditation.

Thirty Flights of Loving’s greatest accomplishment may be that that it manages to be simultaneously accessible and challenging. The lack of player death or substantial obstacles means that this game is playable and completable by anyone who can navigate with a mouse and keyboard. At the same time, the fragmentary narrative denies obvious explanation, and should challenge all who engage with it. Thirty Flights of Loving is exactly the sort of ambassador that gaming needs. It’s a game that wears the skin of a first-person shooter, but aggressively defies expectations of what the widely-denigrated genre is capable of. I’m taking a trip to the Midwest next month, and you better believe that I’m installing it on my laptop for the sole purpose of showing the possibilities of game storytelling to everyone I visit.