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It’s easy to forget how young video games are. In a lot of ways, we’re still learning what the best practices and techniques are for telling a story in a game; there can be conflicts when you try to weave together a specific authored narrative with an audience that expects to have agency in the experience. As such, a lot of games pull techniques from film, another visual medium that shares a lot of similarities in how a story can be conveyed. Two prime examples of this are Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving, which also might be two of the most important games for first person storytelling. You can see their techniques adopted by games Paratopic and Virginia, and as virtual reality stories become more prominent, Thirty Flights and its predecessor could well prove prescient.
Both 2008’s Gravity Bone and 2012’s Thirty Flights of Loving were created by Brendon Chung. In Gravity Bone you control an unnamed spy who is first tasked with planting a tracking bug (as in a literal insect that is trackable) on a VIP. After that you have to break into a weapon design facility to photograph black birds (not the secret military plane, actual black birds). Thirty Flights of Loving, meanwhile, has you controlling an unnamed thief in a three-person crew before their next big heist, and then after it goes terribly wrong. While both games take place in the same world, share the same blocky art style, and are best described as slightly absurd first person adventure games, they also both effectively introduce an old film technique into first person storytelling: cross-cutting.
In 1903, film director Edwin S. Porter released two movies, Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery. These two films were the first to effectively employ cross-cutting, which is when you cut back and forth between multiple events that are happening separately, potentially at different times or in different locations. Even though there isn’t anything explicitly connecting the events, the viewer is able to understand that these events are happening in parallel. Like how Avengers: Infinity War constantly jumps around its huge cast of characters, letting you see what’s happening to Spider-Man, Thor, or the Hulk, while still understanding these are all parts of the same story.
This editing technique is so commonly used now as to go unnoticed in most visual storytelling mediums. But in first person games, it hadn’t been used at all until Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving. Before, first person games either treated the game as if it was a single camera shot, like in Half-Life or Gone Home; or they had cutscenes that broke from the first person perspective where the player is able to see the character they are normally controlling, like in Wolfenstein: The New Order.
In Gravity Bone, cross-cutting is used at the end of the game during a montage of moments that quickly cut between what is happening in the present, and what seem to be memories the main character is recalling. These moments, aside from the last one, are all still viewed from a first person perspective, and still give the player control over their character (although they are so short that you often don’t have enough time to realize you’re in control). It’s a simple use of the technique, but it manages to suddenly shift what had been a frantic moment into something much slower. Gravity Bone then dramatically shifts from a seemingly silly spy game into a very introspective character study, and it’s thanks to these cross-cuts.
Thirty Flights of Loving, on the other hand, is far more ambitious in its use of the technique, as it jumps non-linearly through the story. The story starts at the beginning of the heist, then cuts immediately to the moment right after everything went wrong. After this, it jumps between various scenes with the gang before the heist as they attend a wedding, and after the heist as you try to escape. The cuts are a bit jarring as it can take a second or two to adjust yourself to the new scene, but no new scene requires an instantaneous reaction from you. Instead of making them frustrating, this structure makes those cuts engaging, as you’re forced to quickly absorb what you’re supposed to do next.
What makes these games still notable so many years later isn’t just that they were the first to effectively use this technique, but that they perfectly distill their genres. Gravity Bone charms you with its music and absurd blocky aesthetic, while its simple puzzle elements lull you into a false sense of security for the inevitable spy story twist. And while Thirty Flights of Loving does away with a lot of gameplay, it still engages and thrills you with the feeling of being part of a heist, despite the fact that you don’t actually do much of anything. They’re both great experiences — and through pioneering a new technique for games, they're even better.
Thirty Flights of Loving and Gravity Bone were created by Blendo Games. Gravity Bone is available for free on Blendo Games’ site (Windows), and it’s included with Thirty Flights of Loving on Blendo’s site or Steam for $5 (Windows and Mac OS.) They take in total about 45 minutes to an hour to finish.