Warning: spoilers below. You may want to play first before reading. After all, it’s really cheap and really short.
The first few times that I played through Thirty Flights of Loving, I wasn’t sure what to think. I’m still not sure. Brendon Chung, the game’s creator, has sought to integrate the notion of the short story into the video game format. It’s an intriguing premise. Edgar Allan Poe, who was one of the first authors to seriously theorize about the nature of the short story, arrived at two key components: that it achieves a unity of effect or impression, and that it do so in one sitting. Thirty Flights of Loving certainly leaves an impression and is a short game, but the impression I was left with was one of bewilderment more than anything.
As with many forms of narrative, varying genres carry with them particular conventions that become familiar to those who often read, listen, or watch productions in those genres. In the case of Thirty Flights of Loving, I felt like someone hearing a symphony for the first time; I suspected that under the surface something significant was there to be grasped, but I felt a simultaneous tinge of bewilderment and frustration. What was this thing I was playing? Was playing even the right word to describe the experience?
Game journalists often discuss whether or not the game forces the player to follow a predetermined path, usually with a sense that restricting players to such a path is detrimental to the game. In this case, however, the game’s predetermined path was the entirety of the game’s narrative. While the characters in the game are attached to the narrative, the game forgoes a sense of participation in favor of an experience more akin to reading a book or watching a movie. Insofar as players approach the game with that realization, it packs a potent punch for a virtual short story.
Thirty Flights of Loving contains no dialogue, but the opening moments of the game tell us enough through the quick and sometimes startling use of jump cuts. It is the story of a trio of thieves, highlighting their personal and professional relationships. The jump cuts first give us brief flashback images, but after a short introduction Chung manages to shock us with a cut that crystallizes the whole story. What follows is a series of interactive vignettes from the lives and exploits of these characters. At times the chronological relationship between the vignettes is clear, but other times that clarity is lost. A chase scene near the end of the game finds the player doing little else but watching as the final moments unfold. The jump cuts, which switch between the chase and what must be an earlier time in the characters’ lives, don’t give us enough information to incorporate them into the overarching narrative.
Poe argued that to achieve a unity of impression a certain degree of continuity was necessary. Thirty Flights of Loving at moments felt like it was moving so quickly that the continuity was slipping away. To be clear, continuity in this context is not limited to chronological linearity; a story may have emotional continuity or impressionistic continuity while employing a discontinuous narrative. However, this game struggles between presenting us with a structured narrative and presenting us with an impressionistic character study. The kind of experimentation Chung demonstrates in the game is admirable if not fully realized.
Indeed, experimentation was at the heart of some of the game’s scenes; in one particular moment, a group of dancing characters slowly drift into the sky. The visual effect is intriguing, but it doesn’t seem to connect with the rest of the game in a meaningful way. Even in the creator’s commentary, Chung notes that the effect was achieved by accident. In this case the accident (and imagination and creativity often have an accidental quality to them) becomes more of a visual oddity than a cohesive component to the game as a whole. As such, while Thirty Flights of Loving delivers some memorable moments, it doesn’t do so consistently enough to offer an affective and lasting impression.
Perhaps the difficulty with the game lies in Chung’s calling it a short story, a literary form that has a long and intricate history. In the same way that we might think it odd to call a video game a sonnet, maybe what Thirty Flights of Loving is as a game doesn’t quite fit within existing generic boundaries. In any case, the final product still seems to be in process, grasping toward something without yet knowing what it is.