Universal consistency in Thirty Flights of Loving

I’m one of the Wednesday Warriors, the kind of people who go to their comics shops every Wednesday to pick up newly released serial titles. When others question why I read four X-Men books a month, not understanding the allure of costumed superheroes fighting, I tell them it’s not heroics I’m after, but rather the sense of scale, the sense of consistency.

Comics are nothing if not secret histories, the stories of worlds that do not exist. Normal people don’t know anything about Wolverine besides him being the crazy Canadian with claws, or about Gambit’s series of heel face turns, or about famed mutant fashion designer Jumbo Carnation; many of them would be forgiven for not even knowing the series is about mutants at all.

But it’s the consistency that keeps me coming back, the exhaustive Wikipedia entries on ultra-obscure characters. It makes the characters feel like friends, the world feel more like mine, where I laugh whenever I see a Popeye’s sign, make dumb jokes when pizza delivery dudes come by; it’s what makes the real world feel, well, real.

It’s one of the defining features I love about Thirty Flights of Loving, Brendan Chung’s latest installation in his whatever you call it universe. It’s a universe that also contains titles like Gravity Bone, Flotilla, and Atom Zombie Smasher and sticks out to me because it’s rife with the kind of referential nature that makes me love serialized works.

Thirty Flights of Loving, the seventh in a series (really), makes use of this setting to tell its story in an utterly outrageous way. It reminds me most of Joe Casey and Grant Morrison’s runs on X-Men, where two experimental comics writers used established characters to tell ridiculous stories to great effect. Morrison’s run was perhaps the best received run on the series since its mid-seventies revival, while Casey’s “Poptopia” remains a personal favorite.

Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving uses very much the same mechanicism on a smaller scale. Developers have made hundreds of experimental shooters that have gone unnoticed—Chung’s own prequel, Gravity Bone, qualified—but Thirty Flights of Loving presents its ideas in an accessible way. Fans of accessible indie darlings Flotilla and Atom Zombie Smasher will check this title out because it wears a similar style, and what they’ll find will be something entirely different.

Dylan wrote a lovely summation of the game’s appreciation and reliance on quick-cuts and montage, a couple film techniques rarely used in video games, and Patricia’s written at Kotaku about its length. Both aspects are revolutionary, and neither would garner appreciation unless the player was convinced to play them by some other means. Simply put, nobody but people who love Atom Zombie Smasher would spend five dollars on a thirty minute experimental game.

In some ways, Thirty Flights of Loving reminds me of experimental Thief level “The Cradle”. The level, brilliant analyzed by Kieron Gillen years ago, is described as a “format breaker”, a changeup on the ideas that came before. In a game full of cocky thievery and shadow-sneaking, The Cradle offered something different: fear, nonlinear storytelling, and an all-consuming dread.

It worked—gamers loved it—and it brought different ideas to the mainstream. Ideas that began in System Shock moved here and hit a wider audience. Dark, first person, nonlinear horror moved from an excited niche audience to a greater crowd, and we’re bearing those fruits now in titles like Bioshock and Dishonored.

Thirty Flights of Loving won’t go that far: it’s barely a blip compared to Thief: Deadly Shadows. That said, by wrapping itself in the trappings of other popular games, in a shared mythology, it will reach a much wider audience than this genre usually does. This reiteration of elements makes Chung’s oeuvre seem approachable, despite being relatively abstract. Thirty Flights of Loving couches its experimental approach in Atom Zombie Smasher’s weirdness.

Smasher, in fact, did exactly the same thing: it took something eminently appealing—an abstracted, weird South American republic—and used it to get people to play a game about dots floating around an overhead map of a city. You came for the theme, and you stayed because the game was like nothing else you’d ever played. Its inherent weirdness also got people to play a game about necessary losses, about effectively being a heartless bureaucrat during a natural disaster: it made something nobody would want to make a game about into a game everyone played.

Playing Thirty Flights of Loving and seeing Chung reference this mythology, I couldn’t help but think of Morrison and Casey on X-Men. To one of comics most respected comics teams, they added so many strange elements: Casey added a mutant prostitute to his teams roster, and Morrison, among other weirdness, killed off one of the team’s most popular characters by placing her in the nexus of all realities. It’s a consistent element of great works: take some sort of popular foundation, then go nuts with it.

I love the idea—an abstract world couched in more mainstream fare—and it’s what made me approach Thirty Flights of Loving in the first place, regardless of countless recommendations and mentions by others. It’s the ideas. They represent a fertile way for getting new ideas out among a mass audience: rather than rely, exclusively, on ideas, give us a familiar taste, and we’ll bite off the whole piece.