The first thing to say is that if you have even the slightest interest in video games as a serious thing you should go and play Thirty Flights of Loving right away. It’s about the same price as a cup of coffee, and will take you about as long to finish, but it will stay with you for considerably longer. I am going to write a few things about it here which might be considered light spoilers.
Thirty Flights of Loving does something remarkable and rare for a game: it tells a story which fits its medium perfectly. Most high-concept games try to approach meaning through a direct imitation of cinematic style. But the ways in which TFoL imitates cinema are not nearly as important as the ways in which it departs from it. Despite locking the player into a linear series of events, it still features game mechanics which clearly identify it as being a game. If you don’t listen to what the game is telling you, you won’t reach the end.
On one level, this is a game about the way in which games are constructed. It deliberately eschews conventional exposition in favour of building a narrative through subtle cues in the game world. Some of these clues are more literal than others. You can drink bottles of booze, but they have no effect on your behaviour. You can pick up guns and ammunition – plucking cartridges three at a time from a prettily-rendered box – but you can’t use either. You can turn one way or the other down those airport corridors, but it won’t make much difference. The only thing you get to point around at anybody has a life of its own. All these things are little jokes at the player’s expense, but they are also ways of adding texture; the game is telling you that you can pick up and use these things because you are the kind of person who would pick up and use these things. But it’s also telling you that this stuff is just stuff and it ought not to be confused for what the game is about any more than we ought to think Doom is about being a space marine on Mars.
And then there is something else. At the very end of the game is a brief credits sequence in which the player wanders through what appears to be an art gallery. There is a party in progress. People stand around, ignoring you. Names and quotes are given on tiny cards and there are also larger signs on the walls. There are replicas of models from the game: a plane, a car. Familiar objects. But then the last few rooms feature something totally different and apparently quite random. A pair of working models demonstrating (you are told) the Bernoulli principle of powered flight. A big fan and some strips of paper, a fixed wing that rises and falls in a gust of wind. The kind of thing you might expect to find in a science museum. What has it got to do with the rest of the game?
It’s actually a rather neat metaphor for the way in which the game is constructed. The whole thing is one fantastic flight. According to Bernoulli, the difference between air speed at high and low pressures is what generates lift; the ‘lift’ here is the exhilarating mystery of the game itself, the flight created by the skillful contrast between the ‘high’ moments of action and tension and the ‘low’ scenes of dreamlike melancholy .
One moment you’re racing through a crowded airport concourse, the next calmly peeling oranges beside a loved one on a lonesome hotel balcony. It is the difference between these two pressures of gameplay that generates the lift in the story, that creates the sense in which there is something at work here which is beyond your understanding even while it leaves you totally captivated and slightly baffled. To play it is to learn to fly from one flight to the next. You start by pushing some geese off a ledge and watching them fall; you end by watching them fly away from you into the sunset.