The Making Of…
Blendo Games’ jittery 15-minute heist proves that, in games as elsewhere, short can be sweet
The story behind Blendo Games’ short but sweet Thirty Flights Of
Loving and its 15 minutes of fame
Thirty Flights Of Loving’s premise – a heist involving screaming motorcycle chases, deadly shootouts, and dashes through airports – is worn and familiar. But the story’s delivery is entirely new – at least outside of those films from which designer Brendon
Chung draws influence. It’s a project that’s characterised by disorienting jump cuts, erratic hops back and forward in time, and a story that is as opaque as it is disjointed.
The game is so eager to ensure that it doesn’t outlast its welcome that you have barely any chance to get to know it at all: most players will arrive at the ingenious credits sequence within 15 minutes. At a glance, Thirty Flights Of Loving is simply building on the lessons of its pulp thriller forebear, Gravity Bone, an equally brisk study in miniature interactive cinema. But in truth, the game’s roots lie in a far more expansive and unlikely project, Lord Of The Rings: Conquest.
In 2008, Chung
was in his third year of working as a level designer at the now-defunct Pandemic Studios in Santa Monica, completing work on the company’s action-heavy take on Tolkien’s universe. “Our team was in the home stretch of its project,” he recalls. “There’s a period in blockbuster game development cycles where content and code gets locked down and we’re only allowed to fix critical bugs.”
In this lull, Chung found himself frustrated. Having learned so much from working on the project (in particular from lead level designer Gary Sproul, with whom he shared a booth), Chung had nowhere to flex his newfound design expertise. “I needed an escape valve for all these accrued ideas,” he says. “So I started a new project at home in my spare time.”
Chung had a clear idea of the kind of game he wanted to make. While studying in high school in the late ’90s, he had made a series of singleplayer maps and stories for Quake II under the title of Citizen Abel. “The maps are rough, but I have a soft spot for them,” he says. “I set about making a sequel.”
Chung, who in the intervening years had taught himself the basics of programming, started with some combat prototypes also made in the
Quake II engine. “I tried detailed grenade explosions that modelled the path of each piece of shrapnel,” he recalls. “I tried having the mouse wheel incrementally open doors and windows. I tried making grappling hooks be the core combat mechanic.” While these ideas were inventive, Chung found he kept shaving away the gunfight sections, as if editing a bloated film sequence.
One of the prototypes opened in a bar, and ended with the first smash cut of one of the
“I HAD NO IDEA THIRTY FLIGHTS OF LOVING NEEDED A TIME-TRAVELLING ORANGE. BUT NOW I DO”
nonplayer characters, Anita, pointing a gun at you. “The player would then pick up a machine pistol and fight their way through a building,” says Chung. “There was something juicy in this prototype. It was around this time I decided that instead of shaving away the gunfight bits, [I’d discover] how it would play out if I wholesale removed the gunfights.” Chung put the demo aside and began working on a new, gun-free prototype, which would become his first selfpublished game, Gravity Bone.
Chung forgot about the initial demo until, a few years later, members of the Idle Thumbs gaming podcast contacted him. They explained that they were planning to launch a Kickstarter to fund the podcast, and wanted to know if Chung was interested in making a game to be distributed as a reward to their backers. He agreed and sent them a few abandoned projects that he had “lying around”. One of these was that smash-cut prototype from 2008, which the Idle Thumbs team asked him to flesh out into a full game.
“The 2008 prototype had guns and iron sights and dialogue text boxes,” Chung recalls. “During the next four years, I shipped a DLC package at Pandemic, worked on a cancelled title, and shipped three Blendo Games titles. When I then returned to the prototype, I saw it in a different light. It was like putting a rough draft in a drawer and letting it sit there a while before revisiting it. Except in this case, the prototype sat in a drawer for about four years.”
Chung wanted to make a game with, as he puts it, as few moving parts as possible. “My dad works with his hands a lot,” he says. “He always says the more moving parts a machine has, the more maintenance requirements there are and opportunities for it to malfunction. Games are an ocean of moving parts. Games are like the human body – when you stop and think about how many moving parts have to work in coordination with one another, it’s an absolute wonder that we’re not heaps of organs on the ground. One of my goals was to figure out what happens when you whittle something down to its bare moving parts, and then try to whittle it more.”
Initially, Chung only had the early scene in the bar, and an idea for an ending. “Time would skip forward ten years to reveal you in a hospital room with Anita,” he says. “As she delivered her baby, armed commandos would rappel through the windows. Anita would reach underneath her pillow and pull out a submachine gun. It would be the climactic hospital-baby-gunfight finale.”
From these bookends he began to flesh out the map. “The bar area branched out and arced toward the hospital bloodbath,” he says. The ending, however, did not fit as the rest of the game unfurled. “As more areas were built, the blurriness slowly came more into focus. The planned ending increasingly felt inconsistent with the rest of the game. When it came time to build out the planned ending, I kept putting it off. That hesitation felt like a red flag.”
Chung believes it is his ability to hold ideas loosely, and to discard them if they’re not working, that gives the game its choppy, guerrilla feel. “Ideas are cheap,” he says. “Execution determines whether or not something works. I like to make one piece and see how it feels onscreen. That then determines what
piece I make next. Relying on instinct does a lot of things – it gives the work a rawness and messy honesty I like. Not knowing where things are going to land gives the work a certain energy.”
As development progressed, Chung would speak to the Idle Thumbs team – which includes Double Fine, Campo Santo and Telltale Games talent – and get design input. “Jake Rodkin, Sean Vanaman and Chris Remo were very good at honing in on sticky spots,” Chung recalls. “They saw how the game progressed from the 2008 prototype to its later incarnations, and were able to point out story beats that had trouble making the transition.”
One member of the Idle Thumbs team, Chris Remo, offered the project more than a critical eye, writing and performing the soundtrack. “On this project, I learned that I’m not very good at describing what I want from music,” Chung says. “Thank goodness for Chris’s natural intuition on what would work well. The soundtrack is one of the most distinctive parts of the game.”
Chung, who studied film and visual arts in San Diego, was eager to use techniques usually found in film (specifically the work of Wong KarWai, to whom Chung says Thirty Flights Of Loving is a “love letter”), including those distinctive jump cuts. “I had no idea if they would work,” he says. His doubt was compounded by playtests, in which players explained that they felt like the sudden camera cuts were either a bug or a result of the player character having mysterious powers of teleportation. “You can’t refute a playtest,” Chung says. “And player goodwill is a limited resource. I feel poor usability is background radiation that siphons goodwill away.”
Chung took the feedback and began modifying the cuts with some additional audio work and timing tweaks. “As much as I’d like to say that it was all hard work and elbow grease that made it work, a lot of it was luck,” he says. “We happen to be at a time where people are increasingly savvy about story structure and conventions. I think in part that’s why it worked.”
The testers were, in fact, right about the character being able to teleport – in technical terms, if not narrative ones. Chung achieved the appearance of a camera cutting to a new scene by teleporting the character to a new location. To smooth the transition, he pioneered a technique whereby the teleportation jump also inherits the player’s velocity. In other words, if you’re moving when the camera cuts, you’ll seamlessly continue moving in that same direction after the cut. “The intention was to get the effect of a match cut,” Chung explains. This blending is accentuated with the audio editing, too. “Sound cues start bleeding in prior to the cut. After the cut happens, the sound cues from the previous area bleed out. This helps bridge the two areas.”
The final game was ready in just three months, but a delay to the Idle Thumbs Kickstarter gave Chung some time to bugfix. Some flaws he chose to leave alone, however. “In the area where Anita is eating fruit, there’s a box of oranges,” he says. “You can pick up an orange. If you left-click the mouse button, you peel the orange and gobble it up. Except, some people – a lot of people, in fact – do not left-click the mouse. For the rest of the game, that player walks around with an orange in their hand. They hold onto this orange while doing whatever the game asks of them: while escaping from the police, while getting drunk, even while riding a motorcycle.” The orange, if left unpeeled, is even carried through the smash cuts. “It travels through time and space,” he says. “It effortlessly breaks every law of physics. The sensible thing to do would be to patch this out. But there’s a part of me that thinks at some point the project becomes smarter than its creator. The project gains a life of its own and it knows what it wants. I had no idea Thirty Flights Of Loving needed a time-travelling orange. But now I do.”
While Thirty Flights Of Loving is set within a consistent universe (the city of Nuevos Aires features in Chung’s other games; together they “collectively create something larger than the sum of their parts”), he was eager to allow enough room for players to add their own interpretations. “The game intentionally keeps details fairly broad,” he says. “The challenge was to strike the balance in such a way that people would feel they could fill in the details. The danger was in tipping too far in the opposite direction and completely leaving people lost in the wind.”
In this regard, feedback has shown he was successful. “People email me about the game for one of three reasons,” he explains. “Either to tell me they like the game, or to tell me that they hate the game and I should be ashamed of myself, or to offer their interpretation of the story.” He has sympathy for those who don’t get on with it. “I have no desire to trick people into playing my games,” he says, even going so far as to admit that he thinks he has, to a certain degree, failed to tell players what they can expect from Thirty Flights Of Loving. “I’m aware that my work is for a fairly specific audience. For that reason, I’m glad that more distribution channels are adopting refund policies. Prior to that, I had little to no recourse for addressing unhappy folks.”
Chung’s favourite type of feedback, however, is when people write in to explain their take on the game’s story. “It makes my day when people send me interpretations,” he says. “I think that everyone has a creative side, and to have made something people connected to on that level is absolutely wonderful.”
Thirty Flights Of Loving shares its protagonist (a nameless, thick-bearded spy) with its predecessor, GravityBone