A Short Review of Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving

“Cinematic experience,” is a common phrase in the game critic’s repertoire, but I’m not convinced that it should always be connoted with merit. For example, the Metal Gear Solid series has deep roots in anime and action movie cinematography, but often at the expense of player control. Cutscenes can go on for nearly a half hour without any player input, which often makes me wonder why the game wasn’t just a CGI film.

Brendon Chung’s Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving are the antitheses of that design philosophy; shining examples of how to pull off cinematic qualities in a video game without compromising player agency. Chung experiments with jump cuts, montage, on-screen text, and nonlinear narrative in ways that some bigger studios could benefit from.

From the first greeting horn blast of Xavier Cugat’s “Maria Elena”, Gravity Bone presents itself as a sort of 1960 spy flick crossed with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Though the visuals are based in the Quake II engine, Chung’s modding resulted in an amazingly simple, but gorgeous art style. Characters all have the same cheese-cube on a stick physique and the color palette is predominantly golds and browns. Despite the abstraction, this wood panel filled throwback feels appropriate to the time period it is trying to evoke.

It’s a world where everything looks like it was made from wood and metal, not plastic. It’s a place where a tape recorder with actual film stock gives you instructions on how to carry out your mission, and works well to steep players in the vibes put out by Mr. Cugat’s Latin swing. This is also a technically good looking game of its time, with plenty of lighting tricks that bathe the world in plenty of colors and contrast.

While the art style and audio are immediately in your face and bombastic, the narrative remains minimal and purposefully vague. More is learned through flashback montages than any exposition. In fact, most of story is something the player gets to kind of fill in with their own imagination.

You’ll probably wonder, “Am I supposed to be playing as some sort of corporate espionage agent?” Well I certainly felt so, but Brendon Chung never programmed anything in the game to make me outright know that I was. All I knew was that a cutscene (appropriately shown as a slide projector series) told me that my first mission pleased my “clients”, so I knew I had to be a fix-it man of some sort.

This is something that some people are going to hate. They are going to hate that the game is only about a twenty minutes long, and they are going to hate its experimental, art-house energy. And it only gets worse in Thirty Flights of Loving, which is about half as long and twice as willing to take risks.

Which makes it the better of the two in my opinion. For all its amazing atmosphere, plethora of unique art assets, and mysterious story beats, Gravity Bone has one platforming section that I kept messing up because I didn’t know where exactly the edge of the platform and my feet met. It feels much more like a traditional first-person-shooter (not that you’ll be shooting anyone) with some unorthodox story beats packaged around it. Thirty Flights makes no such mistake, instead making jump cuts, montage, and uncertain narrative the main feature.

Instead of forcing players through long walkways and platforming sequences or backstories that are relegated to “quest logs” that you’ll never check, Chung cuts out most traversal–which is crazy if you consider that first-person shooter lineage practically demands plenty of time spent in corridors full of nothing–and there is nary a dialogue interrogation ala Mass Effect in sight. Any part of the game that could be considered slow, or god forbid boring, is simply made into a jump cut, and players simply jump forward in time. And player interaction with the two supporting characters is told through flashback and small character moments.

Short montages let you know that your female companion is a sharpshooter, but what is she sharpshooting? And for whom? Likewise, your other buddy is the best man at a wedding, but you only see the after party (which is one of the game’s highlights because of its great use chronology) and you don’t really know anything that’s going on. Again, like Gravity Bone, you are set loose in a set of often non-linear events that give you just enough to make a story out of it.

Thirty Flights is a much different looking game than Gravity Bone as well, if only because of the color palette. Pinks, reds, oranges, blues; this is the kind of stuff that makes you balk at Unreal Engine titles like Gears of War (which I do enjoy despite its gray tones). Technically, perhaps this isn’t quite as stunning as Gravity Bone was back when it was first released in 2008. Still, Chung gets plenty of mileage out of the quirky design.

To continue detailing both these games would be getting into dangerous spoiler territory considering that they are both only about a half hour in total length. So I’ll leave this review with this: buy these games. Soak in the collective 30 minutes of gameplay and enjoy the feeling of existing in these rich vignettes. If you aren’t into the whole, “games as art,” thing, then perhaps you won’t enjoy you time with Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving. But if you are that person, you probably aren’t searching WordPress for blog reviews of them anyways.

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The Top 10 Games of 2012

A few months late, but I couldn’t resist posting the list of games that I loved the most this past year. Cheers!

2012’s 2011 Game of the Year:
Dark Souls: Beating this game filled me with triumph like few other things have, but that feeling wasn’t lasting. Upon being thrust into the New Game + mode directly after beating the final boss in Dark Souls, I promptly put down the controller and mourned the fleeting closure that had been given to me just moments before. I love this game, but fuck this game. One of 2011’s best for sure.

Honorable Mention:
FTL: I can’t really put FTL on my list because I simply haven’t played enough. It seems like a superb rouge-like space simulator, but I haven’t even come close to even getting halfway to the end yet. Perhaps this will be a contender for 2013’s 2012 Game of the Year if I get around to playing more of it.

And now, the list:

  1. XCOM: What a game. What a game-ass game. Managing an alien-war task force from top to bottom is appropriately difficult in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. But it can also be incredibly rewarding when your squad of elite soldiers (named after your friends and family in real life of course) take down half a dozen arachnoid Chrysalids due to your tactical decision making. I never thought this style of strategy gaming would work on consoles; surely the now defunct XCOM shooter would’ve been a much easier sell in the shooter rich environment that is AAA game development. But no, Firaxis made a hell of a game that totally eclipses that other project. Play this is if you haven’t already.

 

  1. Spelunky: Almost 500 deaths in, and I still haven’t seen every secret in Spelunky. From icy caverns to alien motherships, this seemingly cutesy platformer has some true replay value and extras that will keep me coming back well into 2013.

 

  1. Trials Evolution: What can I say? It’s Trials HD with user created levels that often surpass the developer created ones in quality. I couldn’t ask for anything more from a Trials game.

  1. Fez: I eagerly waited nearly five years to play this game, and I think it surpassed my wildest expectations. I thought I was getting a pretty, retro styled platformer and nothing more. But so many enigmatic systems lie beneath, and decoding them all was a real joy. Not to mention it was just a pleasant virtual world to exist in, with beautiful ambient/chiptune songs often playing in concert with a sunset that I just sat and watched.

 

  1. Mark of the Ninja: This is a gamer’s game in almost every sense. The visual cues that display sound waves and vision cones are in complete service of the great stealth gameplay. I liked this game better than I liked Dishonored, and I never expected that to happen.

  1. Thirty Flights of Loving: This game may only be 15 minutes long, but it is an intense and oddly experimental 15 minutes. I’ve never played a game that was confident enough to use jump cuts to expedite action and use montage to create such strong characters. Seriously, it’s only $5.00, and goes on sale for $2.49 fairly often. And it comes with Brenden Chung’s 2008 mod Gravity Bone too!

  1. Mass Effect 3: I wanted to like Commander Shepard’s final chapter much more than I ended up actually liking it. Many of the dialog options that were so fun to choose amongst in Mass Effect 2 are streamlined for a more developer directed character arc, but there is still enough there that made me feel like I was still controlling large portions of the story. And it was good to see all those characters that I spent two games getting to know again.

  1. Need for Speed: Most Wanted: Multiplayer is the only reason that Criterion’s latest racing game made it on this list at all. The fiercely competitive mix of skill challenges, group goals, and straight up races hasn’t ever been done this well since Burnout Paradise.

  1. Walking Dead: While I don’t think The Walking Dead is a revolution for games, I do think that it told an emotionally complex and mature story. That’s more than most games can even hope to achieve.

  1. Far Cry 3: While I can’t say that Far Cry 3’s story succeeds in being satire, I still think the game has some of the best open world design this generation. Attacking pirate camps only with a silenced rifle and machete takedowns is serious fun. Don’t worry about the nonsensical story that only occasionally manages to parody FPS tropes and you’ll likely have a good time with it too.

2012 was a weird year for video games. I played more downloadable titles than I did boxed releases, which has never happened with me before. At the same time as new console rumors start to rev up, the new methods of digital distribution are making me question whether I’ll even purchase a console from Nintendo, Sony, or Microsoft in the next few years. Building a PC seems to have a higher initial cost, but Steam sales cut game prices down by 50 or even 75%. But I’m getting ahead of myself here; for the next year I’ll continue to enjoy my Xbox 360 and hope to see exciting titles come out not just in stores, but on the Live Arcade as well. It’s going to be interesting to see where all this stuff goes in the next generation for sure.