Most of you have probably heard of Thirty Flights of Loving. Everyone seems to have been going on about this game since it came out, raving about how it’s one of the must-play games of 2012. I was extremely excited to play this short first-person… game? Interactive story? Experience? Whatever it was it sounded amazing, intriguing, life-changing even. Maybe that was the problem, that I had such high hopes for it. When I got around to finally playing it this week, I was left with a sense of… well, disappointment seems a bit of a strong word, but my mind was certainly not blown like I expected it to be. It’s like when you go to a fast food joint and order a burger, which looks lip-smackingly delcious in the picture, but when it actually comes you realise that it’s tiny, the cheese looks like plastic, the sauce looks like it’s about to give you radiation poisoning and…. well you get the point. It wasn’t quite the masterpiece that I had expected. It also seems that I might be in the minority about this.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that TFOL was a terrible game. On the contrary, I actually though it was quite good. I have to give Brendon Chung some major kudos for creating such a well-thought out, tightly narrated and original game (at least in terms of design). The story of a heist gone wrong is told through a series of short scenes that move you backwards and forwards through time. In the process you catch glimpses of the road that has led your character to this point in time, poignant little snapshots that leave you wondering, but always dancing around that moment where everything fell apart. It undeniably packs an emotional punch. The pacing is incredible, always tightly wound with brief respites before you’re thrown back into it with a frenetic new energy, with not even one second wasted. It’s cinematic, it’s beautiful, it’s charming in its simple and blocky graphics. It’s atmospheric. It’s whimsical. It’s poignant. The soundtrack perfectly complements the mood in each scene. In fact I think it’s the soundtrack composed by Chris Remo that truly made this for me.
What’s my issue with it then? It’s not for any of the reasons you might assume. It’s not that it’s about as linear as you could possibly get. I enjoy linear games sometimes, case in point: Half Life 2 and Portal. It isn’t that it’s not even necessarily a game. I enjoyed this more than Gravity Bone, its prequel, which at least had some minor puzzles and quests. It’s not that I didn’t get it. It’s not that I think that games shouldn’t be open-ended and open to interpretation. I like many games that have done just that. It’s not that you have little control over anything at all. I actually like that aspect of TOFL. I thought it worked in the context of this game. It adds to the sense of futility, of moving towards an inevitable result that you can’t veer away from.
As I said, I don’t dislike the game, although I do believe it’s over-hyped. My major issue with it though, is how do I judge it? As a game? As a game it didn’t really didn’t make that much of an impact with me. After all I didn’t have much input in the story and I wasn’t really that connected to it as I am with most games with a story to tell. As a piece of art or a movie? Now we’re getting somewhere, but even compared to many short films I’ve watched (again I come back to this) it’s good, but not THAT good. Sure there are some elements of the story that’s open to interpretation, but not on the level of Inception as some people have suggested. It’s actually not a complex story at all. It’s also not really that original a story and although the characters are endearing (you somehow manage to care about them in 15 minutes you have with them) they’re really not that well developed.
Unrelated to the quality of the game, I also disagree with those that proclaim it’s the way forward for games. Really? Is that the direction you want games to go? I don’t think that this kind of cinematic interactive story-telling and your more normal RPGs should be mutually exclusive. More and more there’s been overlap and I like that we’re veering away from traditional models of quest, reward, bosses, etc… I’m glad that more and more games are placing real value in storytelling and finding new and original ways to do it. Of course, I also understand that agency is just an illusion, even with as complex a game as Mass Effect, which allows you seemingly endless options, but in fact comes down to a number of choices decided on in advance by the developers and writers. But I’ve talked about choices before and I think that they’re incredibly important, vital even. I believe that even the tiniest, seemingly most insignificant choices add up towards telling the story that you want to tell and in building the character that you want to create. This kind of game, an interactive story, has its place and I hope it will continue to grow as an art form. After all, I believe variety is important for creativity, but it surprises me that people can be so quick to disregard the idea of choice in games. Of course there are no real decisions. It doesn’t make it less important. The way forward for games, in my opinion is what distinguishes them from movies or art, that you can make it your yours in whatever small ways you can.
So should you buy this game? It’s only $5 and I certainly think it’s worth it for that amount. However, if $5 for a game that will only last for at most half an hour seems like too much then I’d say if you want to, skip it, it wouldn’t be a catastrophe. For all its good intentions it’s hard to say that it’s a game that you have to play. At the same time, a good game sticks with you, leaves a part of itself lodged in you and grows with you over time and TOFL has left a piece of itself with me, if only a sliver.
By the way – this is the first in a series of reviews of classic as well as recent indie titles. Next up (hopefully next week) is Portal 2 as part of my yet to exist Co-op series!