The Mak­ing Of…

Blendo Games’ jit­tery 15-minute heist proves that, in games as else­where, short can be sweet

EDGE - - SECTIONS - BY SI­MON PARKIN

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

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