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Thirty Flights of Loving

Thirty Flights of Loving

So I’ve had this game on my hard drive for a long time. Most likely I bought it as part of a bundle where I was more interested in another game on offer, or I bought it during a steam sale where it was ridiculously cheap and, being a game that people have talked about a fair bit, I thought I’d nab it then and there. And then forget about it.

But in an effort to try and play some of the many unloved games in my Steam collection the other day, I decided to click on and load this. To be honest, if I’d known it was so short, I most definitely would have played it earlier!

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(side note: this highlights the use of a feature in Big Picture mode (which I access via my Steam Link) which pulls up games you haven’t played or haven’t played for a long time – it’s useful. Our collections are so big these days that I’m sure I’m not the only one to forget what I have and haven’t got in there.)

So Thirty Flights of Loving (TFOL) is a very short (about 15-20 minutes max) 1st person adventure game which, crucially, uses fragmented narrative and unusual story-telling devices to tell the story of a trio of criminals attempting to pull off a heist of some sort. If you’re looking for high-quality shaders and super-realistic animation, you have most definitely come to the wrong place!

Instead the developer (Brendan Cheung with Blendo Games) has opted for very lo-fi models and textures, as well as a very old engine (it’s made in the idTech2 engine – the engine use to create Quake II, and then opensourced in 2001…that’s a LONG time ago!).

These in and of themselves make for interesting choices. I often talk about how the video games industry’s tech arms race has kind of gimped it creatively in many other ways – we never stop to make proper use of what we have already. What I mean is, rather than exploring all the creative and expressive possibilities of the tools at hand (and which we have only just started to scrape the surface of with games), as an industry we have just been solely focused on more polygons, more textures, better lighting effects etc. More ‘wow!’, more spectacle and awe, but not necessarily more expression.

So TFOL is interesting for these reasons and more. It kind of jars with you because so many of the gaming conventions that we’re used to are dispensed with. This is a kind of ‘formal complicit’ (to use Brian Schrenk’s nomenclature) avant-garde video game, because it forces us to re-examine how we interact with video games and what we expect of them when we come to play them. Dialogue is dispensed with and all story is environmental, narrative is non-sequential and sewn together with smash cuts (quick changes between scenes of radically different natures), montages and unexplained time-skips.

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At first I found it kind of annoying, and I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. Playing it through again with the developer’s commentary turned on helps alot in attempting to understand what was going on and what the context of everything that went on was. Eventually, as I’ve thought about it, there is so much here to think about and experiment with for future games, it’s a shame that it’s obviously passed many game-makers by. I can’t think of any other games that may have taken inspiration from it – save for, perhaps, the sublime Stanley Parable. Yes, the mechanics are almost non-existent, but this is kind of the walking simulator that existed before walking simulators existed – and so it’s the narrative and experimentation with presentation of the story that is key here.

I really should have played it a lot earlier than I did!

The Stanley Parable

Messing with your head since, like, 5 minutes ago, I think…

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It’s taken me a long time, but I finally got round to playing The Stanley Parable. How I made it this far without someone inadvertently spoiling it for me was always a mystery – although I now know that this would have been impossible, in a sense.

(having said all that, I won’t be paying you the courtesy, reader, of no spoilers! You have been warned!)

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Stanley Parable doesn’t really have an end. It obviously has a start, but thereafter there are all sorts of different endings that could happen, and they all cascade and rework into each other. It’s quite brilliant and mind-bending in an altogether different kind of way.

There’s nothing difficult about the controls here – just standard FPS controls where you look and walk around and a button to jump and a button to use an object. It’s rare that the jump is of any importance (although it is required in a handful of sections), although you do push the occasional button or lever.

So yes, it’s a walking simulator (but that’s okay for me – I love walking simulators!).

The Stanley Parable continually asks the question, “Who is in control?” It interrogates, pokes fun at and rips apart the ‘gamers’ fallacy’ – that they are in control and have agency, and comes to no definite conclusion. There is a constant struggle between the wishes of the player and the Narrator.

Many might argue that The Stanley Parable is not a game. That would be stupid, but many will think that. And yet, The Stanley Parable itself would almost argue with you that it isn’t a game. The Narrator is constantly questioning the nature of his own existence (as well as the role and existence of the player in the game world) and there has rarely been a game that is so gloriously self-aware. The fourth wall was never really there to begin with in this game! In another title it may come across as hammy and clumsily done (Metal Gear Solid, anyone?) but the writing and the voice acting in this game is so well done – it’s hilarious, sophisticated and subtly delivered.

There is also no end. The game restarts so often (on purpose I might add, not through glitches and bugs) that the end never really presents itself. There are, however 19 different endings to be found throughout the game as well as several ‘easter eggs’ for those willing to experiment and explore (although I used a guide to find the 5 or so that I hadn’t found myself).

Altogether, The Stanley Parable makes you think about games in a new way entirely. It exposes the main conceit in many games that it is not us, the players, who are in control, but the game itself. However, the game cannot exist without the actions of the player, and so we are thrust into a kind of diegetic existential paradox. Without the player a game cannot exist – it is their choices which drive the story and the game experience (and this is what the Stanley Parable focuses on in various parts of the game). But without the designer there would be nothing to choose and no world to act in. The Stanley Parable highlights this intense and little-understood dance between the player and the designer, and the uneasy and unconscious collaboration that creates a game. Even it is just choosing which door to walk through.

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Many people associate the term ‘parable’ with the stories of Jesus Christ as detailed in the New Testament, but a parable is actually a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, or universal truth – which is by no means confined just to the folklore of Christendom nor of religion. It’s a kind of elongated analogy, in a way, that is made to be read into and interpreted in different ways – depending on the audience and the context.

The Stanley Parable is true to it’s title in part. Indeed it is a short story that is, on the face of it, straightforward enough. But it’s the way that the short story is played with and negotiated with the player, in the way that only games can do, that makes it deep and important. Just when you think you have one over on the game, it’s one step ahead of you. But then, how could it be one step ahead of you unless you yourself had taken those first steps?

But it’s not a parable about Stanley. Not really anyway. It’s a parable about the player, and it’s a parable about games in general. It’s a parable about the way we play them, the way we experience them, and the lies we tell ourselves when we play them. To think about what The Stanley Parable is telling us, is to pull back the curtain and confront the things we always suspected were there, but were just a little too nervous to really look at.