Why I Love is a series of guest editorials on GamesIndustry.biz intended to showcase the ways in which game developers appreciate each other's work. This entry was contributed by Josef Martinovsk, artist at YCJY Games, which is releasing the frenetic first-person shooter roguelike Post Void today.
When I first played Thirty Flights of Loving back in 2012 it changed my whole mentality of what a video game could be.
A game didn't need to be ten hours long; it could be ten minutes. A game didn't have to include conventional mechanics like scoring systems or a game over condition; it could just place you in a story in media res and let you piece it together. It didn't even have to make narrative sense; all it needed to do was evoke a mood and a feeling.
Thirty Flights of Loving changed my whole mentality of what a video game could be
When I encountered Thirty Flights of Loving, I'd never drawn any video game graphics before, but this ten-minute experience made me want to get started.
Probably the most notable characteristic of Thirty Flights of Loving is its use of jump cuts, where the camera abruptly blinks and we're whisked away to another scene. The first time it's used -- when you embark on a plane and suddenly it cuts to the game's title screen where your comrades are bleeding out after a botched job -- is utterly shocking. We're totally disoriented, and one of our companions, the one it's teased we're romantically involved with, is pointing a gun at us.
Did she betray us? Is she dying and clinging to her weapon in case our enemies show up? Why are we rescuing the other guy instead of her? Before we even have time to think we're off to a crowded airport terminal, hustling and bustling with foot traffic as we wheel our dying comrade to safety.
This pace seldom lets up, and when it does, it's up to the player. A lot of "walking simulators" confine the player to simply pressing forward as they go through a scripted sequence, which I find both boring and a poor use of the medium. These games often force the player to slow down so they have nothing to do but admire what the developers have put in front of them.
But Thirty Flights is basically a walking simulator that removes the slow parts. The walking speed is quick, the scenes are short, and when the game does slow down it's because you, the player, are choosing to slow it down. Early on in the game you drop down into a secret bar/war room and stock up on guns and ammo. There's absolutely no mechanical reason to do this. There's no ammo counter or combat, but you're about to embark on a heist, so gearing up just intuitively feels like the right thing to do.
When the game does slow down it's because you, the player, are choosing to slow it down
There's another scene like this when you wake up in the safe house with your comrade and possible lover peeling an orange. You could simply run up the stairs and trigger the next exciting story beat, but you don't want to -- you choose to take the time to admire the view from the balcony, munch on an orange, and fawn over some cute cats on the railing. Even these slower, more meditative sequences are relatively brief, lasting only a minute or two, but compared to the breakneck pace of the rest of the game they feel like a much needed moment of respite, to catch your breath and take stock of the situation.
And what a situation! I've played through Thirty Flights of Loving multiple times and I still can't tell you its exact plot other than it's about a trio of thieves in a botched heist. Parts of the plot are clear -- like when you're wheeling your wounded comrade through the aforementioned airport and he shoots down a barrage of police drones -- but the conclusion is an open-ended mystery capped off by an enigmatic post credits sequence at a museum exhibition where we're treated to a lesson about aerospace physics.
In its brief runtime Thirty Flights liberally leaps around in chronology and fantasy, so it's never clear when we are in the story or what's really happening. But that's what makes it so intriguing. We've seen lots of games use environmental storytelling to flesh out the lore, but Thirty Flights was the first time I'd seen a game use nothing but environmental storytelling. There's no dialogue and almost no text, so it's up to the player to interpret this madcap tale, which very few games have the audacity to do.
To me it doesn't even matter what the actual story is. It's the feeling that Thirty Flights invokes that's special
But to me it doesn't matter what the actual story is. It's the feeling that Thirty Flights invokes that's special. It's punchy and colorful and violent and romantic in a way that feels effortlessly cool. It's what inspired my creative collaborator and other half of YCJY Games, Christopher Andreasson, to make our first game, Keep Walking EP, which was about feeling cool while walking down the street listening to music and smoking.
One reason Thirty Flights feels so effortless -- even though I'm sure it was a ton of work to actually make -- is its simple art style. The cube heads and low-poly art is goofy, but still evocative. You never got the sense that developer Blendo Games was incapable of making more polished animations and that it had to use simple stand-ins as a last resort, as the whole thing felt purposeful. It was the right mix of silly and efficient, offering just the right amount of information to convey meaning, while ambiguous enough to remain mysterious.
This simplistic art style convinced me to try my hand at digital art and I discovered a lot of simple techniques by observing how Blendo tricks players' eyes. For example, early in the game there's a part where the player descends down a cavern, and in order to make the shaft seem longer they spaced dots closer together when you look down, suggesting a deeper descent. I never would have noticed this had I not heard developer Brendon Chung's developer commentary.
When I started making games I looked for similar ways to cheat the player's eye. Like if you want to show a character breathing in pixel art, you don't actually move the pixels, but rather pulse the colors in the chest area. Basically, Thirty Flights taught me that you don't need fancy tech to make something that looks good.
Thirty Flight of Loving broke the mold on what we thought games could be. It felt part music video, part crime caper, and part experimental film, all served up in a bite-sized interactive platter. It's been eight years since it came out and I've never seen anything like it. Its techniques and style are so original that it feels as refreshing now as it did nearly a decade ago.
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