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Thirty Flights of Loving and the invention of videogame space

In contrast to videogames, film is by and large concerned with the invention of space.

What I mean is this: a television series was shot partially using my sister’s house here in Melbourne. The exterior was used without much alteration in the show, but the interiors were reconstructed on a sound stage. The result is a kind of fantasy of space: the architecture is familiar and uncanny, but small things have been altered. Corridors point in different directions. Doors appear where they shouldn’t.

The whole experience of watching this show, as someone who is very familiar with the house and not the sound stage, is one of disorientation. Actors enter the space that I know so well only to emerge on the other side in some ghostly twin. I am deeply aware of its unreality, of its fabrication, but the average viewer is not.

The way that film can choose to piece together a space or leave it as ambiguous is its beauty. On the one hand, we can have something like Kubrick’s The Shining, a film that allows its camera to wander at length throughout the Overlook Hotel, giving viewers as clear a mental image of its architecture as possible. Sometimes we’re given so much spatial information that we could draw a map.

On the other hand, we can have something like Paul Greengrass’ two Bourne films, films that go to great lengths to obscure their worlds as much as possible. Aside from his trademark shakycam, Greengrass deliberately keeps us disorientated in his Bourne films by not giving us links between shots, by excluding and erasing spatial information. Corridors come from nowhere. Doors are passed through before we even knew they were being opened.

Film can do this because films cut images up. I can shoot you walking from the front door of my house to the back garden, an act that might take thirty seconds. In editing, I can cut it down to a three seconds and still give off a general sense of space. Or I can keep those three seconds and go for total disorientation instead. For film, the invention of space lies in the cut.

Mostly by convention, videogames usually do not have the same luxury. As radical and fantastic as videogame environments can be, they do not invent and connect spaces in quite the same way.

Usually, videogames inhabit spaces. They set them up to be populated, they create functioning, navigable environments that in some way or another have an unbroken connection to a previous space, even if it is only by virtue of the player’s memory. There is usually no cut. Like a long take from A Touch of Evil or Children of Men, the player wanders throughout a space at leisure, bearing witness to spatial connections unable to be hidden or emphasised through montage.

But not always. Thirty Flights of Loving is a very unusual videogame. Thirty Flights of Loving is a videogame that cuts space up.

Thirty Flights of Loving—by Brendon Chung’s Blendo Games studio—is a first person game with a flat and vibrant visual style that takes probably less than 15 minutes from start to finish. Its narrative is deep and satisfying—something about bootleggers, love and theft—but it’s the way that Thirty Flights of Loving tells it that is fascinating.

The game is essentially divided up into a number of short spatial vignettes, little scenes that make their contribution quickly and get out of the way. These scenes are sewn together by what Chung calls in the developer commentary a jump cut. The player can be walking down a busy corridor and suddenly appear in a serene, romantic setting. They can be taking off in a seaplane and find themselves falling into the end of a tragedy. It is an amazing technique, but these are not really jump cuts.

A jump cut, for cinema, is when two shots of the same subject, from the same camera are edited together. But these? These are just cuts. They are regular, unadorned, untechnical cuts that create a sense of montage from scene to scene (N.B. a reader has since pointed out that a ‘smash cut’ would probably be the most accurate term here).

I suspect this confusion stems partly from unfamiliarity with cinema and plain old linguistic clarity (the scenes do, after all, appear to jump around). Mostly, though, my guess is that the confusion stems from the fact that we just aren’t used to the idea of cutting between scenes in videogames.

In videogames, players move between scenes, they navigate them. Scenes are established, they take their time, the level is finished, then a menu appears, then another scene is established. We don’t jump between sequences without warning, as Thirty Flights of Loving does. We don’t rapidly transport the player between spaces, between scenes, between radically disparate locations without telling her we’re going first. But Thirty Flights of Loving does.

It reminds me of something Pachinko Pictures developer David Surman said to this blog recently about his game Take a Walk: “You often hear about the differences between film watching and game playing, and we wanted to just steamroller through that and combine the two together.”

Thirty Flights of Loving also steamrollers through the differences between film watching and game playing, taking the player on a masterful, technically acute narrative, a videogame short story, a poem. It puts a line through the distinction of the film’s invention of space and the videogame’s inhabiting of worlds—not coming up with some idealised new hybrid form, but merely pushing videogames in new directions, and helping to dissolve the fixed definitions of those who hope to set up rigid boundaries of what a videogame can and cannot do.

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