Cinematic Time and Space in 'Thirty Flights of Loving'

by Eric Swain

12 March 2013

Video games are described as cinematic, yet cinema edits out the time when nothing or unimportant action is taking place. Video games show everything. They show the whole journey.

Two concepts have entered my thinking as of late. The first is the idea of uninterrupted spatial travel in video games and the second is the using cinematic concepts as a way to describe games. On the surface these seem like incompatible ideas held together by some form of cognitive dissonance on the player’s part. Video games are described as cinematic, yet cinema edits out the time when nothing or unimportant action is taking place. Video games show everything. They show the whole journey.

As time has moved on and technology improved sufficiently to realize designers’ dreams gaming has marched inexorably towards creating large consistent and open worlds for the player to explore. We are in the cities of renaissance Italy, the frozen north of Tamriel, the ridiculous parody of urbanization of Steelport, etc., etc. But one must ask, what is the point of these continuous worlds? They are there to make you feel immersed in a fictional land by surrounding your digital self with digital space. Yet, there is a lot of space that feels empty when traveling in these games.
To be fair, open world games aren’t the only perpetrators of evoking empty digital space, yet it does lead to an interesting dichotomy. If you see a mountain or a building, you can walk to it. But you will walk every single step of the way there. Whether a game is supposed to be cinematic or not, things like backtracking as a time sink is a notorious issue in many games. Always has been.

Thirty Flights of Loving innovates by taking the newly established First Person Walker genre and framing it as an actual cinematic game. It’s short, but everything in the game has a meaning or purpose. There are no extraneous elements or traveling to connect point A to point B. This is a game that cuts those moments out. The main example of this is in the game’s airport sequence. Carrying your friend’s wounded body, you walk through the terminal hallways until you reach a trigger point, and you are now walking somewhere else, a different hallway. We understand the jump cut. We just haven’t seen it used often in a game with such continuous action. We are the same, but our environment has changed around us.

This happens several times in the game to indicate the passage of time while maintaining the tension of a scene. The difference between actually being in the situation and simply viewing the situation is the emotional resonance of what you are experiencing. Existing as a part of the situation, you don’t need any narrative shortcutting because, well, you are in that situation. But is every experience of time in the game world necessary? By implementing a fast travel system to make getting from one end of the countryside to the other more palatable, even vast open world games like Skyrim seem to admit that unnecessary time might best be skipped past.

Likewise Thirty Flights of Loving is more than willing to play with time to the same effect. One scene has you waking up in an apartment. You see your girlfriend peeling oranges and throwing the rinds out onto the balcony. When you approach a door, a clock above it jumps forward several hours and your girlfriend and best friend appear in front of you carrying wedding gifts. In that moment when approaching the door, a jump cut occurred. What happened in those intervening hours? Doesn’t matter. They weren’t important to the story, and consequently we didn’t have to spend the time experiencing them. The experience is continuous even if the fiction is not.

And what of the jump cut that put us in the apartment in the first place? We were in the airport trying to escape, and then we were back in time. It’s a shift in pacing that explains something about the characters by having us play through an event. While unrelated and physically unconnected to the present dilemma, still this drives the narrative forward. But what truly shows the potential of the jump cut with regards to game narrative is how this discordant pairing of images works because of it. We are flying on a plane, then we jump to staring at our bloodied and dying girlfriend pointing a gun in our face. The game has concealed information from us as to how we have gotten to this point, but it has created mystery and confusion, which is the same emotional state of the character, though for different reasons. He knows what is going on, but we don’t. We are not the character. We are merely playing him. While this effect does distance the player from the character, it is a fine tradeoff to create an interest in the narrative.

Thirty Flights of Loving could have told the story from beginning to end, only using the jump cuts to edit out the boring bits, but it would be a fundamentally flawed way of disclosing the narrative. In doing so, the game would be telling a different story. The characters had careers and adventures before this, and this game is about an ending. The game is about those final few minutes and how everything else is a reflection on those minutes—hence, the flashbacks. The idea is to give an impression of events and a relationship, which is more than enough to understand the simple story.

But what is most impressive is that Thirty Flights of Loving is nice enough to cut out a majority of a gunfight. This is especially notable given the first person perspective. Any other game would make gun play the center of the experience. In Thirty Flights of Loving, it is merely a time filler that the game can cut out once we get the impression of the fight. The game cuts out the extraneous action. Shooters like Call of Duty or the cinematic Uncharted series would extend the sequence by having several rooms of enemies to be confronted and shot at. The levels would be built around those encounters. Instead of cutting out wasteful presentation or unneeded action, these games would prolong them. Jump cutting to the end of the battle means that we don’t have to sit through every single shot, hit or miss, but we understand what has happened.

In playing with time and removing unnecessary additions, Thirty Flights of Loving has created a more fine tuned narrative and play experience. The simplicity of the First Person Walker means that little work had to go into creating a unity of action while working out the technique. Cutting out the boring bits is second nature to every other medium, but video games insist on replicating every single moment for us on screen. For some games that’s fine, but for games that tout themselves as being cinematic, it’s more than a little odd. What would a movie that represents a journey look like if all of the traveling were left in? We don’t have to wonder. It’s called Gerry.

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