Playing like a pint-sized mashup of Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels and Gaspar Noë’s Enter the Void, Bendon Chung’s Thirty Flights of Loving (Blendo Games, 2012) packs more scintillating and beguiling details about its characters and their world into its hallucinatory, hyper-concentrated ten minutes of gameplay than most games manage in 30 hours. Bootleggers, an airport, a rooftop party, shootouts, memories, regrets, a violent end … or several? A love affair … a betrayal? All of this and much more (including a highly educational demonstration of Bernoulli’s principle) jostle together wildly in this tantalizing gem of a short.
Okay, I’ll step out of “breathless, enraptured critic” mode. Thirty Flights of Loving is an interesting game for many reasons. One of these reasons is that it steals quite a lot cinematic language—including some very interesting and unusual applications of the forms of cinema, like first-person cutting. Quick example of what this actually looks like below the jump:
My 2015 SAIC First-Year Seminar section on “The Moving and Interactive Image” had, as some of its learning objectives, the investigation of questions such as: In what way do the possibilities available to game developers differ from those available to filmmakers? How does one account for space, time, and action in each medium? What aesthetic effects are open to games that are not open to cinema, and vice versa—and how can they best be critically examined?
Thirty Flights of Loving makes for a great case study when addressing these questions. I positioned it right at the “hinge point” of the class, between when we were talking primarily about cinema and when were were talking primarily about interactive media. I also set up the prompt for my students’ second paper, a quick three-page comparison-contrast format gameplay experience reflection, around it.
The basic setup of the assignment was this: students were split up into three groups. All groups were asked to play Thirty Flights of Loving at home. Each group was also asked to watch a film, and I gave each group a different film to watch. Their thoughts on the game and the film would form the background of a short comparison-contrast essay.
Brendon Chung, the creator of Thirty Flights of Loving, has himself listed a myriad of cinematic influences on the game. When I put this assignment together, though, I attempted to avoid assigning any of the films that Chung lists (except for Wong Kar-wai/Christopher Doyle, as that’s pretty much inescapable), so that students couldn’t just stumble across the linked article and consider their work done.
Instead, I assigned one group to watch Pierrot le fou (Jean-Luc Godard, France, 1965), one group to watch Fallen Angels (Wong Kar Wai, Hong Kong, 1995), and one group to watch A Hero Never Dies (Johnny To, Hong Kong, 1998). I chose Pierrot le fou for its expressionistic use of color and its aggressive use of non-continuity editing (not just Godard’s well-known tendency to use jump cuts, but also the highly elliptical montage presenting what would usually be considered crucial story information in the “Une histoire oblique” sequence). I chose Fallen Angels because Wong Kar Wai’s influence on Chung is quite pronounced, and because I thought its assassins-in-love story thread matched the doomed outlaw romance of Thirty Flights better than anything in Chungking Express (which is explicitly listed as a reference by Chung in the article linked to above). I went with A Hero Never Dies because it contains an action sequence that is strikingly similar to a sequence in Thirty Flight in content, which I thought would give students ample opportunity to talk about differences in form.[i] (In my paragraph that heads this entry, I mentioned Enter the Void as a reference point, and although I did consider including it in this assignment, I ultimately decided against it.)
The exact prompt for the resulting three-page paper was as follows:
For the written part of this assignment, I would like you to write a three-page paper that compares your experience playing the game with your experience watching your assigned film. Think about what each artist is accomplishing in their medium, and especially how Brendon Chung, the creator of Thirty Flights of Loving, is building from a pre-established language of cinema, in ways that sometimes push the boundaries of his chosen medium of interactive digital games.
A successful paper will address at least one of the following issues, although it might be best to address at least two or three to really fill out your paper. For this paper, as in the first, I will be looking for at least one non-obvious and contestable claim, that is well-supported by precise description of the works of art in question.
- How does Brendon Chung use editing? In what ways does his use of cinematic editing styles disrupt the standard expectations players might have about how virtual spaces are represented? Are there moments in the film you viewed in which editing is used in a similarly disruptive, non-traditional way? (This question may be easiest for those viewing Pierrot le fou, but all of the films can be discussed to some degree in this manner.)
- Discuss the use of color in the game and in the films you watched. In what ways does Chung seem to taking a similar approach to color palette to the film you watched? What options are available for Chung, as a designer of virtual environments, that are not available to traditional film cinematographers? (This question may be easiest for those viewing Fallen Angels.)
- Think about scenes you saw in the film you viewed, and think about any similar scenes you saw playing out in the game. How were these scenes presented differently, in visual terms? (Be specific here in your use of cinematic vocabulary.) What do you think some of the reasons for this are? (This question may be easiest for those viewing A Hero Never Dies.)
- How do the films you watched use sound, and how does Chung’s game use sound? What is the role of music in each? What role does abstract sound collage play in the game, and in the film you viewed?
- Considered as a narrative, Thirty Flights of Loving is both elliptical and nonlinear, jumping forward and back in time while leaving confusing gaps in its story. It seems to value style and mood over leaving the player with a coherent idea of the events that just occurred. Does the film you viewed follow similar tactics? (Does it employ a non-linear progression of events? Does it leave gaps in its story for the viewer to fill in?) If it does, could you say that the film succeeds better than the game? Or does the game succeed better than the film? Why?
- Why do you think Thirty Flights of Loving ends the way it does? What does that ending provide us with, as players?
[i]. I am indebted to Will Carroll for delving into his deep knowledge of cinema and pointing out this congruence for me.