Scouse scoundrel David Valjalo gets taken on a tour of one of 2012's indie highlights, Gravity Bone follow-up Thirty Flights Of Loving, by creator Brendon Chung. Together, they unravel the myriad movie and game references buried deep in this short, sharp burst of first-person, spy-themed adventure.
It was late last year my then-flatmate stopped me in our sparse, dusty hallway and said 'come here, sit down for ten minutes and try this.' He stood from the table that was temporarily hosting his newly built PC (a long story) and offered me the chair.
At the time I was working for a shadowy, mysterious game magazine and it was widely known that I liked to keep my time staring at virtual stuff to a minimum outside of the office, so I figured the man wouldn't make such a request for nothing. And so I sat, I played and I loved. Thirty Flights Of Loving stayed with me more than any other game of 2012. Not least because of its filmic feel, it's lack of traditional game-like flow and convention. Rather, it lingered long because, for me, Thirty Flights (along with its predecessor, Gravity Bone) is one of the most convincing arguments to date - alongside the likes of Rare's Goldeneye or Hideo Kojima's... anything - that the mediums of game and film can collide with one another to the benefit of the videogame form, delivering something unique and original even as it riffs on the iconography and ideas of another art-form.
Short as it may be (some five minutes of play time if you sprint your way through) Thirty Flights is a melting pot of influences and inspirations - the sources of which feel familiar (a dash of 60s European new wave here, a smattering of film noir there) yet just out of reach. Personally, during my first few playthroughs, I caught whiffs of everything from Sam Peckinpah to Francois Truffaut - and that's part of the game's beauty: it can be read, as with a film, in a variety of ways. The gameplay is linear, reduced to simple pacing back and forth, but the experience will conjure a range of emotions from players depending on the baggage - or lack thereof - that they bring to the keyboard.
As the game repeated on me in recent months, and the references I plucked out became more eccentric and extravagant, I couldn't help reaching out to its creator Brendon Chung to find out exactly what the core inspirations and influences on the game where, and in the process coerce him into offering his own blow-by-blow, screenshot-by-screenshot account of where Thirty Flights' hidden homages lie.
So here, in a sort of long-form variant on a director's commentary, is the story of how Chung and I unpacked Thirty Flights Of Loving like a dynamic, film-obsessed duo on a road trip through his own creation. And, like any good road trip, we punctuated the journey with post cards of the key moments for you to enjoy. Consider it a sort of side-dish to the brief in-game, text-based commentary Chung offers in Thirty Flights which gives insight into his process and thinking as a developer and designer, as opposed to the out-and-out pop culture obsessive he here reveals himself to be.
And so we begin...
From the outset Chung makes it clear that I won't be able to squeeze Thirty individual references out of him. My dream of titling this feature "Thirty Flights Of Homage" is just that, a dream (but I called it that anyway: take that, logic). Deflated but determined I watch Chung take his first couple of steps in the game before stopping, his voice shooting up an octave and his enthusiasm igniting as he recalls the inspirations behind the first few cap-doffs in the game. It's here, staring at the plaque on the wall of the game's very first corridor, I realise that even if we don't get Thirty exact references out of this, we are probably going to get pretty damn close.
"There are a few different things on this first sign," he explains.
First up, there's a reference to Zork: "Frobvember! Zork has a bunch of fictional dates and this is a nod to that. Also 'Quesomancy' - in the Zork universe there's a mysterious punishment called totemisation and it's never explained. Quesomancy is my version. Then there's 'wheel of morality', that's a reference to a cartoon called Animaniacs."
I can't help wonder, with so many obscure references packed into this very first bit of text in the game, if Chung is at all wary of alienating players not in on his private, nostalgic jokes. "Some shows use pop culture references as the punchline," he says. "I don't find that to be very funny, I think it works for certain people but it doesn't compute for me. It's better, for me, when there's a reference that isn't the punchline to the joke, it just flavours the joke, adds an interesting dimension. If you want to dig into it, it's there."
Chung then takes another five or six paces into the game's first room and we're already straight into the next demonstration of his approach to "flavouring" his world with pop cultural nods.
"The line on this sign, Wilkommen Auf Zauberburg, is a reference to the old Sierra adventure game Hero's Quest. There's a wizard and when you reach his house that's what it says. Adventure games are a huge influence on me, I grew up playing them. Space Quest, Hero's Quest... all of those. And then the Lucasarts titles came out and it was a whole new breath of fresh air. My work's greatly influenced by adventure games. It's about soaking in the world, as opposed to what a first-person shooter traditionally is - let's kill bad guys."
With Thirty Flights' restrained approach to action (there's one short scene involving guns blazing and you're not even the one pulling the triggers) I ask if Chung if he consciously avoided a full-blown shootout or more conventional set-piece. "Yeah, as I watched coders playing [an early build of] Gravity Bone, someone asked me why I let the player die. It struck a cord: why not just let the game do what it does well which is story, narrative. And that stayed with me for Thirty Flights Of Loving."
The bar isn't just a tribute to Hero's Quest, Chung tells me. Hidden behind the bar is a machinegun, a reference to the classic Robert Redford thriller Three Days Of The Condor. "In the film he works in a CIA office and there's a really brief scene that reveals the secretary is hiding a gun - it was a really brief moment and it really stayed with me, so I had to get that in."
It's here I realise the bar, with its hidden, knowing and very personal secrets is a neat representation of Thirty Flights Of Loving itself: a quirky, attractive veneer covering something deeper and more private.
The next room builds on my sense that Chung's passion for film may rival my own. "This little hideout area is inspired by Francis Ford Coppola's film The Conversation. There's an area in the movie where Gene Hackman has this private workshop, it's drab and lived-in, I love the little details. This was their workshop, where they hung out and stored the goods for their operation."
With two out of two rooms so far hosting a wealth of influences, I want to know how Chung constructs his games. Does he plan his story around specific locations, like this hideout, that he's determined to include? "The way I work is backwards. I like to think of the ending to the story. A strong, juicy, satisfying ending and then move backwards - what preceded the events of the ending so we wrap around back to the start. It's about not planning things out too carefully, letting it happen organically. It just reaches a point where things make themselves more obvious."
In the same room Chung points out yet another reference, this time to one of his all time favourite films.
"With this mess of papers I was thinking of the movie Delicatessen.
"There's this gorgeous credits sequence in the film. The camera roams around this table full of stuff and everything on it, detailing the cast and crew with names printed on each item. In the same room, a few steps away, this box of bullets is a nod the Japanese anime series Cowboy Bebop. There's a really brief shot of this box of bullets and I was so taken with it, I needed to get it in [laughs]."
So far, so much film. As Chung ticks off some other stylistic influences such as Wong Kar Wai - he singles out Chungking Express, In The Mood For Love, As Tears Go By, Happy Together, 2046 as key inspirations for their "dreamlike quality and theme of unrequited love" - I learn that I'm dealing with a fellow film school graduate. With the majority of Chung's geekery homed in on films, and Thirty Flights in defiance of the norms of a first-person game with an espionage/spy theme, I have to ask if he plays games at all these days. "Having 40 hours to play a single game is something I don't have any more," he says. "I do feel that if you want to write books you have to read books, if you want to make movies you have to watch movies and if you want to make games you have to play them. I'm a little more selective now. I'll play things that aren't always good but that try something interesting."
I suggest, therefore, that Thirty Flights' brevity may be down to Chung's own preference for an experience he can fit around his day-to-day, family life. "Yeah so this is a game you can play and finish in one snack-sized go. When I was younger, game length was one of the criteria that attracted me, but as I've gotten older it's become less important and workable. I really enjoy open-world games, that's the most exciting genre for me right now. In terms of games that I think will be the future, roguelikes and things like Day Z are the shape of things to come. Games where the player generates their own unique narratives, that excites me so much."
The next reference Chung points out is to a game with one such big open-world. "The sniper while somehow bungee jumping is from Saints Row 3. There's one mission where, for some reason, you're dangling outside a building with a sniper rifle - utterly ridiculous, but again, it struck me."
What I love about Chung's range of influences is how varied and far-reaching they are, delving deep into his childhood - the plane that pops up next is a nod to an old Disney TV series called TaleSpin (he refers to its "swashbuckling, pulp fiction inspired universe" as a major creative force at the time) - and scaling the heights of the most revered art house cinema of our generation ("I'm a big Woody Allen fan, his movies, books..."). As disparate as some of Chung's name-dropping may seem, it is all tied together by a common thread: visual storytelling. Whether it's the all-ages approach of Animaniacs and Tailspin or the more cerebral and emotive work of his favourite auteurs, it's a body of inspiration that aims to hold your attention, like Thirty Flights, by telling a story powerfully. I prod Chung for his own views on storytelling in games to which he concisely explains that for him, "the most effective games are those that allow players to explore and discover on their own."
With our shared passion for film now out in the open, it's no surprise that our conversation wanders into game adaptations. "My opinion on adaptations is that videogames and movies are two extremely different products. I feel that if you want to adapt something, you kind of have to pretend that the original version didn't ever exist. You have to make your project work for that specific medium. I know a lot of people are adamant that you have to get every single detail in a film right - it has to mirror the game - but for me that ends up making it no good at any one thing."
After our brief detour, it's back to Thirty Flights. "The tunnel where everything goes really fast is a reference to Chungking Express. There are many shots in the film where the character is still and everything else is speeding past."
The use of time in the game, with clocks a recurring motif and jump-cuts, slow-motion and time-lapse all coming into play, is a nod to a trinity of connected film canons. "I'd say the French New Wave of the 60s, the work of directors like Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, that all contributed [to the manipulation and use of time]."
The flight arrivals and departures board area lurking around the next corner, while itself being a reinforcement of the time theme in Thirty Flights, also builds on Chung's layer of inter-textual references.
On the board there's West Egg, a reference to The Great Gatsby, Vire River, a reference to a "stale-mate friendly" Company Of Heroes map - a game Chung played religiously for years - and, written on the luggage trolley of the gentleman nearby, Cugat Airfield, a reference to musician Xavier Cugat whose work appeared in Chung's previous project, Gravity Bone.
The enigmatic scene that follows the airport, set in a green-hued apartment, is Chung's salute to one of cinema's greatest living cinematographers, Christopher Doyle, a frequent collaborator with Wong Kar Wai.
Doyle's use of colour and filter to set mood is a primary influence on Thirty Flights' look and feel and Chung is as passionate as a cinematographer in his belief that colour deserves more credit, and attention, in games. "I feel it's easy for games to fall into a trap of being brown or grey... I make a very conscious effort to use colour very specifically."
The rooftop party that takes place moments later is yet another Wong Kar Wai homage, this time it's As Tears Go By. "There's a scene in the film that's just lit in a really gorgeous magenta hue," says Chung.
This scene is my personal favourite, as jump-cuts narrate the increasingly drunken state of our hero/protagonist and the triangular relationship of the cast comes to the fore. I tell Chung I feel this mysterious menage a trois is a direct a reference to Francois Truffaut's 1962 drama Jules Et Jim but he shoots down my grand claim with something much simpler. "I didn't have a specific reference point, I just wanted a small cast of characters to keep it simple."
When the partygoers ascend to the heavens from the dance-floor - one of Thirty Flights' most strikingly artistic moments - Chung explains that, like a director happening upon an indispensible piece of improv as he shoots a film, this was a "happy accident. I was trying to make the people bob up and down to dance and they kept floating upwards unintentionally. But once I saw that, moving on screen, I realised that it was what I really wanted without even knowing it."
As we move onto the next scene, a hallway dotted with original posters and adverts, I'm waiting for Chung to run out of steam but the references just keep coming. Here we find nods to Lone Wolf And Cub and then, on the "Wanted" poster we have a name ripped from Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi in Moco, and Woody Allen's alias in Mo Golden.
Next up is the shootout without the player actually doing any shooting. It's one of the game's most original scenes and, yet again, we find it directly linked to a film. It's the use of sound and poetic slow motion in 1982's Koyaanisqatsi that left the biggest impression on Thirty Flights flashes of gun fire, lending it the air of a dream rather than bullet hell.
And here, finally, Chung does run out of references. We didn't get to Thirty exact references, but we got pretty damn close.
In a wonderful twist in the tale, it's the over-riding theme of flight, the motif of planes, that doesn't have any direct link to any other property, film or game. The scene the game ends within, a sort of museum of aeronautics, is entirely Chung's idea, ending the game, and our journey, on an original note rather a tributary one.
As for Chung's next game, Quadrilateral Cowboy, it's a work in progress that we will be seeing "soon... 2013 is still the aim" and he promises it'll be all part of the connected universe he's established with his work. Once again, Chung is chipping away at the game as a one-man studio and I ask if he intends to remain a lone wolf developer for the rest of his career. "There are limitations to working alone," he admits. "And working with more people - that's something I intend to grow towards [in the future]. I would love to work on an open-world game of some sort, but as a one-person developer it's not really possible."
It's the current limitations on Chung as a developer that defines and determines the outcome of his work, he says, before we part ways. "One of the parts of the creative process is working within limitations and making something within those limitations. The original Star Wars trilogy was made on a limited budget and they made something really interesting."