A decade can feel short, but it’s still plenty of time to build out an artistic catalogue. As AAA studios labored towards creating bigger and more expensive games in the 2010s, one indie developer helped shape how we think of video games stories, using narrative subversion, clever editing, and an overall sense of playfulness. The developer is Brendon Chung and his independent studio, Blendo Games.
Blendo Games has been around for an entire decade now, but Chung’s catalogue of work extends far before that. Chung worked at Pandemic Studios, the development studio behind games like the original Star Wars Battlefront series and The Saboteur. Before that, he was a prolific modder for games like Quake 2 and Half-Life. He made the Citizen Abel series, which uses old-school shooters to play with level design and provide quirky twists. There were levels with low gravity and rotating spaces, final bosses that weren’t actually final bosses. That playful quality only grew over time, leading to fantastic experiments like Gravity Bone and Thirty Flights of Loving.
Gravity Bone technically released in 2009 but it’s the start of Blendo’s official oeuvre. Video games, particularly in the AAA space, mostly operate on what has become conventional wisdom in narrative design: the player is the most important individual. Chung’s games question that assumption, placing emphasis on the world the player is in. Gravity Bone is ostensibly a grand space-spy game in which players masquerade as waiters at cocktail parties and sneak into hotel rooms to find secret intel. There’s signature quirk and a bright, blocky style, and at first, players would be forgiven for thinking it will play out like any other tale of intrigue—levels and objectives, cool gadgets, tangled webs of conspiracy that reveal important truths. That doesn’t happen. Instead, after completing a portion of their mission, the player is shot and their intelligence is stolen by a rival agent. A chase plays out and right when success seems in reach, players turn a corner and they are shot again. They fall of a balcony and that’s it. No grand plots, no world-shaking truths.
[Note: In order to talk about Blendo’s games, I’ll need to talk about their endings.]
This friction, this disappointment is important and it’s a lesson that AAA games are still puzzling out. It runs counter to a player-first mentality, one which values choice and control more than anything else. A twist like this one had arguably happened earlier in the AAA space in 2007’s BioShock, but that game is ultimately still one in which player decisions are prioritized. You make moral choices and shape your ending; you have various abilities and the freedom to use them as you will. Even when control is wrested from the player, BioShock allows them to eventually assert themselves again. Gravity Bone rejects that idea. That rejection is found today, in fragments, within games like Red Dead Redemption 2, where player comfort and success is not always assured. But it’s never been bolder than in Gravity Bone.
Gravity Bone was followed by Thirty Flights of Loving, which I think is one of the most important games of the last decade for establishing what can be done with a game’s presentation. Another piece of conventional game design wisdom is to treat story and gameplay as separate pieces. You had action scenes, and then you had cutscenes where story was relayed. Half-Life bucked this trend by having everything happen continuously, dropping cutscenes entirely. Thirty Flights of Loving builds on that idea but brings back cinematic techniques like hard cuts and time jumps. It’s a story of a failed heist, with rapid-fire scene changes and blink-and-you’ll-miss it revelations. That structure, which embraces film technique in the context of games, is part of the reason games like the wonderfully tense Paratopic can exist. It is partially why God of War can experiment with the opposite idea, never cutting the camera at all.
It might sound like I’m overstating the importance of these games, but I don’t think that’s the case. Chung’s output has consistently challenged how games operate, never disrespecting the classics that set the initial framework. 2016’s Quadrilateral Cowboy is structured upon the idea of using a hacking terminal and writing basic code to solve puzzles. It is, in some ways, a game about loving the behind-the-scenes structure of games. It’s about enjoying the world, enjoying the code, and appreciating how a single change can create beautiful things. Blendo Games creations, for all of their challenges and subversions, are also about loving games. Loving the strange worlds we make, poking at them and remixing them into new shapes. That playfulness hasn’t just created a collection of cool games (I haven’t even mentioned Flotilla!) it’s also helped move games forward. Here’s to another ten years.