Novel Ties is a short series exploring text-heavy games.
The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit came out in June as a playable teaser for Life is Strange 2, and immediately I thought of A Bird Story. Both games are short supplements between larger releases and keep the overall tone of their franchises, but both also follow a young boy on a short and more imaginative journey. So the time is ripe to revisit A Bird Story and its storytelling power. It may seem strange to invite a narrative with no words to my Novel Ties desert island, but stories told without words can have a special and intoxicating power.
2011’s To the Moon will appear in detail in a future column, but Freebird’s story of an old man trying to both recover and rewrite his memories has a more ambitious galaxy brain than almost any other game I can think of. Using techniques pioneered by Michel Gondry in his 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the Freebird team used isolated pieces of scenery, reassembled pieces of the world outside, and contextual lighting and focus to guide players through a dreamlike world that mimics the sensations of remembering.
A Bird Story is considered a sequel, although it’s a standalone episode in the Freebird world. Like Captain Spirit, A Bird Story breaks from its predecessor in mechanics and gameplay but maintains the “feel” of the world it shares. A Bird Story’s art is similar but not identical to the art of To the Moon. Both games are linear and short, although To the Moon is about five times longer. And A Bird Story leaves any gameplay completely behind. You follow a sweet, unsupervised young boy as he makes his way around a strongly foreshortened world like that in To the Moon’s most dreamlike scenes.
In the boy’s world, there is an apartment building whose only active part is the unit where he and his mom live. There’s one path that goes directly to his school, and there’s one veterinarian’s office hidden in the woods. As you make your way through the game’s story, you’re gently limited from going to any of the irrelevant places, as few as they are anyway. The boy finds an injured bird and spends the rest of the game’s short time nursing it back to health.
I know I usually find my bearings in games with a lot of conspicuous written story. But the power of the boy in A Bird Story is his silence. The sprawling worlds of Fallen London or 80 Days need a lot of contextual info, and both games are clever in how they share that information, using smart characters and stories that interweave and grow and change over time to challenge players. But this beautiful short story of a boy solving a problem on his own is inherently a quiet one for many reasons.
The boy has his mom, his teachers, and the vet who helps him later. Mostly, though, he spends his time alone. He’s on the margins of the school playground for reasons that don’t have to be stated in order to be relatable to anyone who’s ever been on those same margins. He comes home after school and goes through a routine like Bill on Freaks and Geeks. I feel like most of our pop culture about kids takes place in worlds with few adults for whatever reasons, but the real kids who spend most of their time alone are no longer excited about it.
A Bird Story is so brief and evocative that I don’t want to say any more about what happens. A sweet, lonely boy finds an injured bird and that sets events in motion. There’s nowhere else to go, no one to fight or talk to, and no achievements to unlock. The art is effective and cute but not cloying, with a muted palette similar to the one in To the Moon. And how well the game works for players seems to depend on whether or not those players are sucked into the narrative.
Richard Eisenbeis reviewed the game for Kotaku and concluded, “It is a sweet, brief experience that doesn’t overstay its welcome.” Cassidee Moser’s review for IGN was more ephemeral: “A Bird Story is told visually, relying on subtle animations, and deliberate art design to craft an effective and evocative narrative.” In fact, I’d argue that the game’s short length and visual storytelling make more room for players to find themselves in its relatable action.