I’m a sucker for writing craft. The stuff that makes a good plot into a story you can truly care about. More than just, ‘I like it. It’s got a nice plot,’ I mean truly care about.
In movie script writing, there’s a particular moment you want to capture early on in every film. Blake Snyder calls it the ‘Save the Cat’ moment, but the ideas remains the same regardless if a cat is stuck up a tree or not.
‘It’s the scene where we meet the hero and the hero does something – like saving a cat – that defines who he is, and makes us, the audience, like him.’ – Save the Cat! , Blake Snyder,2005.
In film you probably only need one of these scenes, what with the condensed running time, and the lack of player control. An actor can constantly act in a way that tells us about their character – the way they walk, the way they talk, the way they do things – but a video game character is forced to act to the player’s whim. It’s not easy to characterise someone who’s being played by someone else.
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons knows how to save cats, though; unsurprising when you find that it was directed by a film director. Game designers have cribbed off movies since their inception, but they rarely ever steal how they build their characters.
The game focuses on two brothers. They have already lost their mother, drowned despite the younger brother’s best efforts, and their father is ill. The doctor points them in a direction for a cure, and we follow them on their quest. We’re stuck with these guys from here on out, so we’d better like them.
In Snyder’s books he gives numerous examples of ‘save the cat’ moments, one being from Aladdin. How do you write a film where you’re supposed to cheer on a thief? He’s a thief; he’s not a nice guy, no matter how charming his smile is. I don’t want to be friends with a thief, but I could think about hanging out with a guy who steals bread, and gives it to starving children instead of eating it himself. Especially if then saves the kids from getting whipped from a bad guy.
Instead of one moment in a sea of exposition, and action scenes, and careful explanations of the motivation of the characters, Brothers gives us many.
You control each brother independently: one analogue stick and one button for each. Manoeuvring them next to things and then pressing the button has them interact with it. Instead of one scene in the film, there’s a short vignette for each thing you find.
You find a woman is sweeping. The older brother takes the broom off her, and sweeps up for her. The younger brother tries to impress her by balancing the broom on the palm of his hand. Earlier, they come across an old woman in her rocking chair. The older brother asks for directions, before thanking her. The younger brother turns her chair into a seesaw, and gets everyone laughing.
From these actions we know that the older brother is the leader between them, as well as helpful. And we know that the younger brother is the cheeky, mischievous one. We like both of them, even if they are for completely different reasons.
Cleverly, whilst these moments are essentially just small cut-scenes, they are not presented in the same way. They require you to hold down the button to carry on watching the interactions. Gameplay disguising itself as a cut-scene. A player interaction disguised as a character action. A character action designed to endear them to us.
Shockingly simple and shockingly effective.
It’s impossible not to like the two brothers, as they game crams down their personalities down your throat, but for every thought that these moments are invasive or that there is too many of them, you’re reminded by how much you like these guys, and how much you care for them. This from a game without a recognised language. This from a game that purports itself to be a puzzle / platformer.
There’s a reason why there’s a buzz around this game, and why I like it so much. Blake Snyder has that covered too. He said: ‘Liking the person we go on a journey with is the single most important element in drawing us into the story.’ – Snyder, 2005.
But in this case, it’s two brothers. And they’re damn good at saving cats.
On Monday nights I run a small fighting game event at a bar. It’s a video game bar: you rent a TV for a certain amount of time and you get to play anything from the bars library of games. It’s got a couple of rows of PC’s too. Come by on any night and you’ll find people playing Starcraft, or League of Legends.
Most people just swing by for a couple games of FIFA before carrying on, but on Monday’s we play Marvel, Street Fighter and Injustice for a couple of hours whilst drinking a few beers. It’s nice. It’s fun. We’ve even got a couple of girls who show up too, and everyone goes home happy. It’s a world away from EVO or the other big fighting game events and communities, but it’s ours.
I got there early this Monday to watch the Microsoft press conference. I figure if I want to get into the industry eventually, I need to keep up-to-date and watch everything I can; stoically and critically.
I watched the conference with a beer and the subtitles on, the music of the bar reigning over everything. A couple of guys close to me were playing Blur and cajoling each other loudly too.
I watched in silence, until Killer Instinct was announced and I felt the need to punch the air a little. Fighting games pride, I guess. By this time a few regulars had turned up, and we reminisced as much as we could about the original. None of us could remember if the original had super moves, though.
Whilst the conference continued, we started playing. We caught up with each other from last week, and drank and laughed. I came third in Street Fighter, and we had a new person win the Marvel tournament.
None of us caught the rape joke. It wasn’t on the subtitles, so maybe it wasn’t scripted. I hope it wasn’t, because it’s getting harder and harder to defend the fighting games community by blaming on ‘just one asshole.’
In fact, not only is it impossible; it’s something we shouldn’t even be doing.
Fighting games remind me of boxing. It started out meagre, got richer, got scandalised and now just about manages to hold its cultural stature from the looming power of the UFC. It’s not hard to work out that the unrelenting hordes of MOBA’s are the UFC in this metaphor.
All we’ve done is replace the plaster in our gloves with some new unsavoury jokes. Biting with unneeded aggression. Dives for the mob with grand finals with split pots, and being fought between randomly chosen characters. Whilst this sense of lawlessness is enticing, it will only serve to compound its own problems. Our bastions of common sense and humility will be overpowered by the unchecked masses, until we’ll have walled ourselves in. And everyone else out.
Trapped inside these monstrous walls, with our filth and our squalor.
The first thing I did the next day was check for news I’d missed. I knew that Sony had had their press conference whilst I was asleep, and I had to catch up. That wasn’t the first thing that caught my eye though; the first thing was a piece about Killer Instinct, and its rape joke.
I read it through and at its closing line of ‘this is institutionalised misogyny,’ I shook my head and got ready for work. But a working day later, I realised that was exactly what it was. There is no other perfect definition. Girl goes on stage, plays a game with a guy, guy slurs at her, guy beats her, normality reigns.
I’d like to think they chose that guy because he was good at the game, better than everyone else in the company. I’d like to think they chose the girl because she was a confident, interesting speaker for the Smart-Glass segment, and just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I’d like to think he apologised for the joke backstage.
Maybe no-one thought about; but just because you didn’t think about it doesn’t make it misogyny. It makes it exactly misogyny.
Fighting games get shown in public, someone makes an offensive comment, the public sagely shakes their heads, another brick gets added to the wall around us, normality reigns.
I’d like to think that the joke would have gone down badly at my event. Maybe it wouldn’t have. Maybe we would have snorted at it, and carried on playing.
Chances are we would have just carried on, talking about getting the PS4, new characters to play and about whether or not the first Killer Instinct really had super moves or not. And we wouldn’t touch the walls. We’d glance to check that they were still there, maybe even rap a knuckle on it. And we’d just shake our heads, and nothing more.
Let’s start at the end. The credits don’t roll in Thirty Flights of Loving, instead we get to stroll through an art gallery wing containing exhibits adorned with the creator’s names. Others remind us of particular set pieces of the game, there’s a bit of the level design prototypes, but it just keeps going.
We walk from one wing to another and are greeted by a plaque dedicated to Daniel Bernoulli. Then there is another one pointing us towards a physical representation of the principle that’s named after him. The principle is critical in understanding flight, and the difference in pressure between the air that flows beneath a wing compared to above it. Next to it is another plaque:
‘All birds need to fly are the right shaped wings, the right pressure and the right angle’
- Daniel Bernoulli
There is another display around the corner of an airplane wing, complete with coloured air to properly highlight the working of the principle. Here is where the game truly ends, and the retrospective analysis begins.
Why is this here? Why didn’t the game just end? What the hell did I just play, anyway?
The Right Shaped Wings
You’re at a bar. The controls are on a handy poster above our heads and there are framed newspapers on the wall beside you. You go down the stairs, underneath a radio playing us a dainty little song, and step up to the bar. The barman and the only patron in the room are staring at you. There’s a gun behind the bar and non-alcoholic drinks next to the prohibition license.
The opening of the game’s aim is to instil you with a feeling of anticipation and uneasiness. Your subconscious should have already made the link between the prohibition laws and the bar to conjure up an image of a 20s speakeasy, and possibly the type of organised crime run from its seedy, dark rooms.
Are they staring at you because you don’t belong in this kind of place? Should you be here?
You click around the room until you find a secret passage and you step through it. You walk down more stairs and are greeted with the box-shaped figures of Borges and Anita. The room is full of weapons, duplicate passports, maps of an airfield’s vault and illegal beer. They’re bad guys. You might be a bad guy too. There’s been no dialogue so far and you’ve only been playing for about a minute.
Thirty Flights of Loving uses this minimalism to great effect throughout the entire game. You are never told where to go or what to do, but due to the smart and salient design of the game, this is never a problem. There is never a wrong way to go and you will never realise it.
Whilst we do not need to know the specifics of where we are, and what the time period is, it needs to be functional and give us a sense that this is a living, breathing and well-realised world. If you were paying attention, you would know that it’s set in a country called Neuvos Aires and its set around the 1960s. We don’t need to know this, though.
You’re a bad guy and you’re part of a heist. Then something goes wrong.
The Right Pressure
The first time you’ll play this game, it’ll take around 10 minutes to play through. It’ll be a blur. The pace of the game will arrest you and you’ll just roll with whatever comes you’re way, regardless of your awareness. You won’t understand it, and in true postmodern style, you’ll either hate it or be interested enough to play it again.
I think that this game is perfectly paced. It has a slow start, gets quicker, slows down again and picks up again for the finale. It’s a typical three-act structure, albeit in a shortened format.
Cut the fat and show don’t tell. Only give us the information we desperately need.
With the minimalist approach to the game, the pace is dictated by the lack of reasons to stick around any of the scenes or locations that you are put into it. If you don’t have any good reason to stick around, then it’s time to move to the next scene. And the next one. And the next one until there are no more.
It’s not a question of a lack of content. They could have added a 2 min tutorial for the controls, a gravelly voice-over of the character’s backstory, pages and pages of internal dialogue complete with snappy one-liners and the repetition of the action scenes. But they didn’t. Because they are not needed to tell the story.
Cut the fat and only show, not tell, the information we need.
This is storytelling at its leanest. Distilled. Purified. One mouse, one button, one plot. The pace of the story is so quick because there is nothing else in the game. There are items in the world only to remind you you’re a real person. Your actions tell the story. The gameplay is the story.
With the frantic pace, however, comes the desperate need for downtime. Peaks and troughs. Build up and climaxes. But when there is only one action scene in the game, the aforementioned heist, you’ve got to get creative. And innovative. They used jump-cuts.
Using jump cuts is something new for games. For all of the craft stolen from film, the jump cut has never been one of them. Understandably, with writers probably never having an in-game reason for them, artists not wanting to have to create another location to jump to, the vast memory it would take to have two locations and models loaded at the same time and the pre-conceived notion of ‘why jump cut when we could have a fancy pre-rendered cut-scene?’
Cut the fat and show don’t tell the information.
Jump cuts add nothing to the gameplay too, and are purely a conceit towards the narrative. Which is why Thirty Flights of Loving utilises them so well. The cuts allow the benefit of flitting between locations and time to particular moments, which simultaneously eliminates the need for expository dialogue and keeps the pace at a constant speed. We don’t need to sit around and mope and talk whistfully about a character’s backstory. Bam. We’re right there. Bam. Now we’re back.
Cut the fat and show don’t tell.
Time lapses are also used in this game. They keep the pace frantic and also to reinforce the theme of that particular moment.
You get back to your teammates. Anita is trying to fire an already empty gun at you and Borges has bullet holes in him. You grab Borges and run through the door and enter a busy airport corridor. You’re running with a wounded man alongside hundreds of people are rushing past you in jerky, time-lapse fashion. The clock’s spinning wildly and Borges is bleeding out. It’s you against them. You keep running and running. It’s tense and everything is going badly.
Cut the fat.
The Right Angle
We don’t get too many games in which you’re the bad guy. Especially one in which you aren’t redeemed in some way. Being a bad is guy is cool. Heists are cool. Getting betrayed and having your team getting picked off isn’t cool, but it is exciting.
Blendo Games knows this. Everything about this game puts in the mindset of a breezy, twist-ladened caper film. The title screen has an eclectic font, a staccato and upbeat song and a couple of lines of burnt-in credits along the bottom of the screen that remains for some of the action scenes. Anita and Borges are a combination of impossibly convenient skills for a heist, which is a fact that is never questioned. There’s two women you are involved romantically with, one good and one bad. There’s a secret party on a roof you shouldn’t be on. Team members turn on each other. An injured man shoots a number of security cameras with spectacular accuracy, before making around an impossible barrier of police. There’s a chase. A car crash. Everyone dies. Maybe.
Games can be about anything they want to be, but are the best they can possibly be when they full embrace the location, the time period and a specific theme and tone. Spec Ops: The Line did this with its wall of sandstorms creating a purgatory-esque location and tone, it’s lose/lose choices enforcing the desperate and uncaring tone of the game . It’s impossibly convenient moments of the game reflecti a generic action-thriller film, which is something that is juxtaposed to great effect with the gradual descent into madness of the once messianic protagonist.
Red Dead Redemption encapsulates the spirit of the great western’s with its embracing of old technology despite the sandbox ethics and it’s epic storyline of the rogue with a heart of gold being dragged back into his sordid past through the wide open and iconic vistas. The small snippets of gameplay like the duels, horseshoes and the horse-breaking mechanics. The embracing of the timeless character tropes. Carriage heists. Town drunks. Black hats and white hats. Sunsets.
Each of these games worlds are incredibly well realised, making it one step easier for the player to get fully immersed in the game. Thirty Flights of Loving gives us scant, but purposeful, details of its unseen outside world. It’s collection of city names seen on the airport departure board. The world’s level of technology in the form of its weapons, vehicles and airplanes. Its eccentric architecture. It’s ‘Big Brother’ style ethics towards privacy in the form of the floating cameras and the use of wanted posters in major airports.
Being the bad guy will always be cool, and Blendo Games have figured out a whole bunch of ways it can show us why.
The Bird Who Needs To Fly
Thirty Flights of Loving arrests you like no other game, and demands that you play it. It’s breakneck pace, it’s basic but charming visuals and its crumb trail of a narrative creates a unique gaming experience. How many times do you sit there and think about a video game plot? How many times do you have to in order to discover the full intricacies of the plot?
This game confronts you with the question of: 'Are you actually ready to properly analysis a game?' If you aren't, then maybe this game isn't for you.
Regardless of whether or not 'you get it', this game is made up of all heart and all craft. It's determined to show you something that you've never seen before, and is going to do it uncaring of whether or not you like it. This game incredibly confident in its own abilities and ideas. It’s fuelled by bravado and sheer intuition. This is your Kill.Switch. This is your Dear Esther. This is your Braid.
Is it actually a game? No, not really. It's more of a combination of craft textbooks. Advanced Video Game Narrative. Video Game Minimalism 101. How To Pace Your Game Properly.
Is it one of the 'great' games? No, but it's one that we can, and we should, learn a lot from.
You know that point in most RPG's where you considering skipping the grinding and jumping to the next boss? That's like, THE WHOLE GAME. Am I going to get crushed by this opponent? Well, the stats say yes, but I just beat it. With one less party member. In, like, 5 turns. Am I great, or is this way too easy?
I also got a code when I bought the game to get a ''Larvetar''. I have no idea how to put in this code, or what the hell I even get.
A lot of these fancy game journalists and bloggers like to start their pieces with a somewhat pretentious first person narrative. Perhaps to indulge their more creative side or to give them a brief respite from reality as a hero from whichever game they’ve just played. They like that stuff. I like that stuff, too. It sounds artsy.
I, mentally, can’t for this game. Due to my disbelief and disgust, I can’t place myself in the shoes of Spec Ops: The Line’s protagonist. This is not a bad thing, I think.
I checked my clip again. 6 bullets left for 8 men. I could hear them and their weapons snarling behind the barricade I was braced against. They sounded like lions and tigers just moments before their death. They we’re enjoying their last, glorious and savage fight for survival. I closed my eyes and breathed out slow, letting my hands place themselves around my rifle. I turned and placed a hand on the barricade and vaulted. Fire and death were in my lungs and heart.
Spec Ops is a game about responsibility, both of the games characters and of the player themselves. This is a game that, briefly, embraces one of gaming’s greatest assets; seamless playability. ‘Don’t tell us, and don’t show us. Give us control.’ Forget your ‘Press X to Harvest. Press Y to Save.’ Forget your stern sounding expositional dialogue and your beautifully choreographed cut-scenes. We’ll find our own way. Give us the gun and we’ll make the decisions. We’ll decide who to shoot and who to save.
As I felt my body lurch over the barricade, time slowed and memories rushed. My squad mates stood around me, looking for support and reassurance. They asked me what we should do next. I said we had a duty to save those hostages. That we had a duty to save the innocent from the evils of their fellow men. No questions asked. By any means necessary. They looked to me with shining eyes and determination. My mind surged to a later memory. To their bodies on the blackened ground.
For every tense moment of contemplation and deliberation, though, we’re also given an inane and pompous set-piece of startling mediocrity. For every anxious stand-off between you and a gang of furious civilians, we’re also given an implausible sequence of a miraculous luck. For every innovative way to show how the character’s demeanour has progressed, we’re given a vapid and generic set-piece. For every seed sown to hint towards a greater tone and interpretation, there is also an inane turret sequence. This is exciting without the excitement. These are the loud moments.
I started shooting. I used my six bullets on six men. Bullets spiralled around me. I was too fast and my reflexes were too sharp. I counted my shots and threw my empty pistol to the ground as I weaved towards the final two men. My bones were on fire and my heart was imploding and exploding. The whites of their eyes got larger and larger and larger. I took out my knife as they started to try to escape. The floor was hot with blood and sparks. I scavenged a rifle from one of the dead men. Guttural screams resonated around the walls until the echoing sounds of my footsteps overrode them.
This is a game about harsh realities and choices with self-righteous answers. Self-righteous, not through pretence, but through the necessity of the character and the setting of the tone. This is not a game where you get to fall in love by through picking someone from a list and persistently pressing the confirmation button. It is not an oversight or a technical problem that you can’t save everyone. This is not your story, its Martin Walkers’. In this game, things get worse.
I approached him. He was cowering behind one of the hostages, keeping his handgun trained on her at all times. I told him to put the gun down. He shouted at me in his foreign tongue. I knew enough of the words to recognise ‘soldier’, ‘America’ and ‘murder’. ‘Innocent’. He waved his gun to make a point I couldn’t comprehend, and I took my chance. I shot him with the rifle I stole and he reeled back against the wall. I shot him again. The hostage was in shock, slumped on the floor but unhurt. I threw my rifle on the floor. The sun shone through the window and illuminated everything.
You will never be the hero in this game. No matter how much of a perfectionist you are, no matter how many times you play it, no matter how hard you try. It’s your game, your controller, your screen; but it’s not your story. You shouldn’t be able to relate to the plot or the character. Just the theme and the tone. And the way it all plays out.
The hostage embraced me and started to frantically thank me. The other hostages started to celebrate as I released them. I took out my radio and asked for a transport home with the hostages. The operator told me my men had checked in, half-dead, and they were on a helicopter to the nearest hospital. I smiled and walked through a bullet spattered door and went outside. I stood and watched the sun set behind a rolling hill. The sky was a deep pink colour and the horizon was wide and inviting.
This is not a perfect game. The combat mechanics get tired, the achievements aren’t integrated well, the multiplayer shouldn’t even exist, it froze multiple times, the cover mechanic is tetchy and the overall story arch, in all fairness, is neither particularly original nor engaging. I can’t help but look past these faults, though.
This game is not the smartest, the most enjoyable or the best looking, but what it has is heart and a dedication to progress. A re-evolution of games. An invention of new craft techniques. We’ve achieved First-Person Shooter perfection of late; it’s never felt so damn good playing a shooter. We can make anything we want in games now and it all looks and plays fantastic, but would you rather have progression or perfection?
Do you want the punk kid with great ideas and bad grammar, or the kid who knows everything but never thinks for himself? Do you want something that attempts to make a story that a film can’t? Or do you just want something that looks good and plays well, and has a tolerable plot told like an action film?
They told me I had saved the day. That I would get all the medals that would fit on my chest. That I’ll be in for a hell of a reception for when I get home. I thanked them and put the receiver down. I carried on looking at the sunset, thinking about the events of the day. I felt proud. I clenched my scarred hands and waited for the next fight.
The summer of arcade promotional video on the dashboard has to be one of the lamest things I've ever seen in my life. No-one cares about the wrapper around it any more, you saturated the market already. It's done. It's stupid. It's over. Just give us the damn games.
I find it kind of depressing how people can feel 'closure' on the Mass Effect 3 ending because they got shown a slideshow of what the characters did after. Really? That was all it took, a couple of pictures? As if you couldn't have just imagined that that was going to happen, after the ending? You had to be shown it? THIS IS EXACTLY WHY YOU DONT LISTEN TO FANBOYS