The world of games can learn something or two about lean, mean storytelling from Brendan Chung of Blendo Games‘ little indie outings Gravity Bone, and sequel Thirty Flights of Loving.
Two lovely designed little interactive pieces about espionage in a kitschy world filled with biplanes, old school cocktail parties, and cig-smoking femme fatales. The characters are all blocky in that Minecraft-way but have a charm all of their own. And great soundtracks.
Though, to call Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving “games” in the classic sense of the word is wrong as the interactive portions are there not to excite, but to serve the narrative. There’s a lot of going from point A to B to get C to deliver to D, or hitting on things and pushing buttons to start setpieces. You can see the inspirations, there’s a little bit of the old-school Half-Life with the platforming bits and a little Deus Ex in the exploratory and espionage elements.
Like the best of overtly produced Hollywood cinema nowadays, most video games drive home messages, stories, characters with a sledgehammer, injecting heavy doses of cutscenes and dialogue, and make sure to use exposition so you get why you are where you are and doing whatever it is you’re doing in the game with absolute clarity. Games still have a way to go before we reach that enlightenment of ludic storytelling. But Thirty Flights of Loving is definitely a step in the right direction. In a game that lasts no more than fifteen minutes, there’s really not enough time to explain everything, so the tightly designed environments, characters, and interactive portions will give you a greater feel of the world in a second, that most games only achieve after a good hour. And none of the characters even utter a single line.
Whether its sharing a quiet moment chowing down on oranges with your partner in crime, or rolling your dying buddy in a cart out of an airport in an intense sequence, there’s a lot going on that the audience will feel without having to fully understand why it is happening. The narrative is largely non-linear, you’re just dropped into little scenes and you have to figure out for yourself what is going on. To me, that’s a big risk to take, especially one that triple-A titles have a hard time justifying what with the mega costs that go into making one of those things. But because Thirty Flights of Loving is a cheap indie game and Gravity Bone is completely free, Chung can do whatever he damn well pleases and there’s not much you can do about it. But that’s what makes it so good. Playthrough Thirty Flights of Loving a second time with commentary turned on so you can read Chung’s thought process at interesting points in his game.
To tell you the truth, I’ve replayed that game a gazillion times over and I still don’t fully get what’s going on. I feel for the characters, I’ve pieced together what I can of the world, but the most crucial section in the plot of how the shit hit the fan still alludes me. But maybe the point is, I’m not supposed to understand everything. The audience is not entitled to everything in art. We are at the mercy of the artist, and we have to decide for ourselves if we want to go along for the ride or not, no matter how little or a lot of it there is. And that’s cool in my books as long as the game/book/movie is well-crafted. And that’s what Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bones has in spades.