There’s been quite a lot of talk amongst game-playing types recently about Thirty Flights of Loving, a very short but allegedly very excellent game that does a lot of interesting stuff with storytelling. But what really caught my attention was the fact that it’s the sequel to Gravity Bone (look for the link at the bottom of that page), a game I’d read about many years ago but never got around to trying. I was also delighted to discover that both titles are brought to us by Blendo Games, a developer I became familiar with when trying out the rather relaxing Flotilla.

Clearly, it was time to correct my earlier negligence and play through Gravity Bone.

Gravity Bone is played from a first-person perspective and uses an open-source version of the engine from Quake 2, which makes it a little fiddly on today’s machines. I did run into a few crashes, but after some tinkering I got it to work. It defaults to a low resolution, so you’ll want to head into the options right away to get it set up on something closer to your screen’s native resolution, and to set the mouse sensitivity and balance the volume and whatnot. In fact, even after doing this, I thought I’d set the display incorrectly because my character appeared to be holding a telegram in the bottom right corner of the screen but it was cut off so I couldn’t read it. Turns out I had to click the mouse to “use” the item in my hand (in this case the telegram) in order to look at it.

With that sorted I was ready to enjoy the game. Which I did! Quite quickly, in fact, because Gravity Bone only takes about twenty minutes to play. But what it does with those twenty minutes is quite intriguing. When researching the game later, I discovered that Brendan Chung (aka Blendo Games) had originally built the game more like a traditional first-person shooter, then later changed its focus to hacking (an idea he appears to be revisiting with his upcoming game, Quadrilateral Cowboy), but in the end it came out more like a spy thriller.

With such a short playtime I don’t want to spoil anything that happens, but the important thing is how Gravity Bone feels. It’s not quite like anything else I’ve played, and captures the spirit of espionage perfectly. Not the shootouts, which other games have done to death (ha!), nor stealth mechanics, which are almost as ubiquitous these days, but things like being undercover, meeting contacts, receiving secret orders and other cool spy stuff. And with everyone praising the sequel for its narrative design, I can see the seeds here, with some really interesting things happening later on.

Most of the narrative ideas and techniques used in Gravity Bone are borrowed from film, but I’ve never seen them implemented in a game in quite this manner. It’s a common complaint that modern games are turning into movies, but that gripe is usually centered around non-interactive cutscenes and scripted action sequences. Gravity Bone instead examines how a filmmaker communicates story and information to the viewer and then experiments with how that could be translated to an interactive medium. It uses cuts and cues expertly, without ever (OK, there may be one brief exception) removing the player’s control, which is all the more impressive. I also loved the music, which I thought was taken from the film Brazil, but my research revealed it actually comes from the films of Wong Kar-wai, which I now want to see. The pieces used in Gravity Bone are perfect.

After finishing the game, I went ahead and bought Thirty Flights of Loving, since everyone says it’s even more impressive (spoiler alert: it is, and deserves its own post, coming later). I then discovered that Gravity Bone is included with Thirty Flights of Loving as an extra, so simply nabbing them as a pack (current price $5) is the easiest way to get both games. But if you prefer to try before you buy, Gravity Bone can be downloaded for free from the Blendo Games webpage. I recommend that you do! It’s a worthy use of twenty minutes of your time.