In the time it took me to come up with this first sentence, I could have played through Blendo Games’s Thirty Flights of Loving twice. Thirty Flights of Loving is the sequel to 2008’s Gravity Bone, a freely available game that I played more than a few times back in the day, and it shares a lot in common with that game (a copy of which is included in Thirty Flights’s executable). But fascinatingly, it feels like a step back while also being a giant leap forward. Whereas Gravity Bone had items and a basic inventory kit that served some minor little puzzles, Thirty Flights of Loving has WASD and a “Use” key. It’s shockingly simplistic, but it has aspirations of grandeur.
The game’s trailer bills itself as a “video game short story,” and that’s a brilliant way to describe it. It’s a jam-packed fifteen minutes, full of intrigue, chaos, and directed narrative. But what’s most interesting is how little of the greater narrative there is: In those fifteen minutes, a whole lot of things happen, and you the player are privy to almost none of them. The story is told without words or voices; it’s just a series of not-clearly-related events and it’s up to you to figure out what they all mean. You’re in a place. Now you’re getting into a plane. Now someone you thought was on your side is pointing a gun at your head. There’s blood everywhere.
So you play it again (maybe with the developer commentary on) to try to get a better sense of things, but it’s still discombobulating. And it always will be, because that’s how it’s designed. There aren’t answers to all of the questions. And that’s totally fine, because there doesn’t need to be. At fifteen minutes, Thirty Flights of Loving tells the story that it needs to tell and does away with all of the excess. This is gaming at its bare essentials, and that’s an achievement in and of itself. It would be harder to make a less game-y piece of fiction and still call it a game, because this is all but the simplest form of interaction: you just point at a thing and press a button.
(And then you realize that that’s what every single video game is, but Thirty Flights does it without an invisible inventory, health bar, or anything else to distract from what it is that’s being pointed at and pressed.)
And perhaps it could have been twenty minutes while still having the same intensity and without any fat, but thinking about that sort of thing is dangerous, because length matters only insofar as it doesn’t pose a problem to the success of a narrative. Length is a useful descriptor only when you want to know if a game is a serious time investment or something you can get into and out of quickly. And I think people have understood that since Portal, even if not everyone is willing to admit it. Because Portal, with its short and perfect campaign, taught everybody a thing or two about how long games are “supposed” to be.
Portal 2’s length was interesting mostly as a counterpoint to the original. Whereas the original was tightly paced and (as I said before) perfect, the sequel is merely awesome. I’m glad it’s longer, but it can’t have the same sort of impact that its predecessor has. The momentum that Portal kept up for 2 hours is not unlike the momentum that Thirty Flights of Loving pushes for 15 minutes. It’s a constant go-go-go that ends with a, “Whoa… I gotta do that again.”
It’s hard to keep that intensity for extended periods of time, not just for the creator to imagine but also for the player to experience. That go-go-go mentality is present in some of the more recent Call of Duty narratives, and the constant build just became exhausting as one set piece melted into the next. Thirty Flights of Loving, as it jumps from scene to scene, makes it hard to really lock in on any individual moment (some only last seconds), but once the credits have rolled, you realize that isn’t a problem. The short length means it’s easy to remember what has happened, and even easier to figure out where the gaps in your knowledge are. Then, if you’re confused, an answer (if one exists in game), is never more than fifteen minutes away. There’s something nice about getting to re-experience moments so quickly. And Thirty Flights of Loving is all about those little moments.
When so many games pad their length to the detriment of their basic narrative, people like Brendon Chung (who for most intents and purposes is Blendo Games) should be praised for their ability to just let brevity be the soul of wit.