I loved To The Moon. I’m pretty sure I cried at the end, because it touched on so many themes I hold dear, and it did so beautifully. That’s why, when I saw that A Bird Story had been released, I didn’t hesitate, I didn’t wait for a sale or anything, I just went in blind and bought it. I don’t do it with many games.
A Bird Story is Kan “Reives” Gao’s new game, made in RPGmaker like its predecessor. It’s a standalone story set in the same universe as To The Moon, but it has no direct ties to it quite yet. Rather, the protagonist will also be the central character in TTM’s sequel, which is teased at the end of the game under the title Finding Heaven.
It’s a short game, it only lasted about 75 minutes, and as such it’s also less ambitious in scope and themes. The story is simple, and depending on your level of cynicism, you may even find it predictable and cliché. After all, if you’ve ever heard a tale about a young boy rescuing a wounded bird and making it a house out of a shoebox… well, it doesn’t go exactly like that, but the first half is close enough. But the driving force behind the game is that simplicity, and it makes effective use of that. The story is essential, and is meant to awaken simple feelings, humble joys, delicate pains, and a soft but pervasive sense of melancholia, fragility and transience. The colours of the emotional landscape are delicate pastels, never overwhelming, never saturated.
The game does a great job of easing the player into its child-like fascination with simplicity, and if you let it capture you the experience is worthwhile. It’s a game meant to be played in one go, so, make sure no one is there to disturb you or break your immersion.
There are no words throughout A Bird Story: instead it relies on non-verbal storytelling devices for characterization. The few visual and audio cues readily convey the importance and tone of each element on the screen, and although it’s always clear what is actually happening, the storytelling allows itself to follow the child’s imagination, so that the geography changes in accordance with the story’s intention, and the fantasies, hopes and fears of the protagonist come alive.
Moments of interaction punctuate the story. If you haven’t played To The Moon, expect to spend about half of the game’s time without your hands on the keyboard. (If you’re of the kind that thinks that it’s not a worthwhile experience because it doesn’t allow for enough interaction according to “Official Game Standards”™… why are you here?) It’s always very simple: most of the time it’s only movement, and it’s used to pace the story and build empathy and identification with the character. Other times you can do a few things, like open a door, turn on the lights, grab an object. It’s amazing how the game communicates so, so much with so little, and how even the simplest of things becomes more significant and meaningful thanks only to the fact that it’s you who are doing it. In this sense, the game masterfully alternates between cutscenes and interactivity.
I’ve mentioned TTM a lot, but honestly I think A Bird Story suffers from the comparison. And not because it’s worse necessarily. But as far as narrative-focused RPGMaker games go, they’re not trying to do the same thing. While the atmosphere and the general feelings it evokes are similar, the way they go about telling their stories are very different, and ABS is also, as I said, much smaller in scope and ambition. If TTM was a novel, ABS is a short fable in rhymes.
The only thing that bothered me, initially, playing it with TTM and other games in mind, was that it doesn’t really reward optional interaction with the world, and that’s mostly a consequence of choosing not to use words. You won’t be able to interact with objects around the house and get some flavour text, for instance, and it’s most apparent during the slow-paced introduction. But I soon learned to accept it and not be bothered by it, and as the story started unfolding I actually forgot about it.
Finally, I need to mention the music, also by Kan Gao. It’s wonderful. It’s mostly a mellow and melancholy piano soundtrack, very reminiscent of TTM, and while it does a great job accompanying the events of the game, I definitely see myself listening to it again, outside of the game.
If you wanted to be mean-spirited and cold-hearted, you could easily tear the game apart, point out how this scene is the stereotypical moment of creating a bond, how this interaction is only there to make the player feel a certain way. That’s all true.
And you’d be a monster.
ABS may not be particularly innovative or unique, but it’s a short and sweet experience, a vision of small wonders and bittersweet memories that stays just as long as it needs to, and it left me feeling glad of the time I spent with it.