Wot I Think: A Bird Story

Freedbird’s To The Moon is one of my favourite games. A beautiful, moving and intricate tale of memory and loss, it has made people weep in their thousands. This second game from Kan Gao, A Bird Story, is not a sequel, but apparently tangentially related. After a three year wait, I was pretty excited to play it.

A Bird Story is one of my least favourite games. It’s… I’ve no idea what it’s meant to be.

It is, ostensibly, the tale of a young boy who finds an injured bird, befriends it, and then wanders around incredibly slowly with it in a meaningless, meandering dream sequence that behaves as if it’s rich in impenetrable metaphor.

There’s something about paper aeroplanes, something about school, parks, a vet who appears to want to allow an injured bird to heal safely, and floating islands, all given a bonus sense of pomposity by featuring no dialogue at all, from start to finish. Locations move around, bedrooms appear in parks, corridors turn into forests, reality fades in and out around you, all of which could have been potentially interesting if there were a) any reason for any of it, and b) anything for you to do.

Here’s a typical sequence from the game:

View of balcony. Kid runs in and out of door, trying to spot bird popping up and down in a bush. Kid goes in. Bird comes out of bush, flits around on the balcony.

Camera pans slowly to right, eventually to another balcony, with ghost birds flitting about. Camera pans slowly to left, to original balcony, bird flitting about.

Slowly fade to black.

Slowly fade to kid in bedroom doing nothing at all.

Slowly fade to black.

Slowly fade to balcony. Bird flits about. Bird thinks about a question mark. Bird goes into house.

Kid runs out of door with bird, jumps off balcony, opens umbrella as he falls, and floats down to park below.

Interaction! Can move umbrella to the left or right an inch, to no effect.

Moments of interaction are incredibly rare, only ever irrelevant, and worst, never made clear when they’ve ended. The game wants to play itself from start to finish, but occasionally deigns to allow you to click on a door, or laboriously move across a scene. It’s so unclear when you’re allowed to do anything, it has to flash up an icon of cursor keys. However, when it’s taken over again there’s no indication at all, leaving you pointlessly clicking for a while like an idiot. On about four occasions it flashes up the cursor keys with an instruction to press two of them at once. You do that and it gets on with playing itself again. In one scene in its brief hour or two, you are tasked with pressing the spacebar to jump in some puddles.

Perhaps it’s meant to be whimsical? The boy and his bird having their careless little adventure. He folds paper aeroplanes, which get large enough to ride upon. This leads to the game’s second worst moment, where you’re tasked with holding the right arrow down as you float past island after island, so you can learn the surprising fact that already-built nests tend to be occupied by the birds that built them. Just sit there and hold right until the game’s done with this bit.

(The worst scene is the bewilderingly incongruous Freleng Door Gag, accompanied by a not-quite-copyright-infringing reworking of Yakety Sax. Entirely non-interactive, naturally.)

But in the end, the whole endeavour comes across like a moribund exercise in emotional cynicism. I think you’re supposed to care about this kid, the bird, perhaps both. But there’s no given reason, unless a bandage on a pixel bird’s wing is enough to whirr up your tear ducts. The sense of unreality to absolutely everything means that nothing has any weight – alongside the ever-shifting nature of locations, all other characters are shadowed ghosts, and the main characters’ face disappears at one point which I assume I’ve fallen short of interpreting. If it’s a dream, and a dream bird, then who could care less if it learns to fly again, or whatever Hallmark movie sentiment we’re supposed to be digging for here?

It may as well have been a game about a three-legged puppy with cancer. Tugging on heart strings is a delicate affair, but A Bird Story is a rampant bell ringer on a sugar high.

And none of this makes sense! To The Moon showed off a sophistication and understanding of humanity that gaming rarely touches. (And without killing children to achieve it!) It was almost unbearably sad, but it earned it, deserved it. As you made the connections, realised the depth of the tragedy, wrestled with the ethics of the response, then embraced the joy of hope, it wove itself around you. A Bird Story does none of this – in fact, it does almost nothing at all.

I’m not saying ABS had to be as good as TTM. Not at all. The comparison is made to explain how this game appears to want to short-cut to an emotive place, but without doing the work. Plink at the high piano notes, add some cello, imply the boy is lonely, make the bird look sad. Nope.

It’s only £4, and I’m in no doubt that what felt to me like a cynical result didn’t come from a cynical place. My guess is it came from too small an idea, too ambiguously delivered, created with a passion that doesn’t reach the player.

It’s a game that doesn’t want to be played, and when it resentfully lets you, it’s slow and clumsy as if in revenge. There may well be some who connect with it, and for them I am genuinely delighted. I suspect they will be few. Let’s hope the true To The Moon sequel it awkwardly teases at the end, Finding Paradise, can live up to the extraordinarily well-deserved reputation Kao earned himself. Then we can pretend this one didn’t happen.

42 Comments

  1. AugustSnow says:

    It’s not TTM, but IMHO it does have some worth. The music is splendid, (LIGHT SPOILERS) the question of what’s going on with the boy’s parents was strong enough to pull me through, and if it is elaborated in the sequel it might be worth it. I do agree that the interactivity going on and off was annoying, and many sequences are too repetitive and\or too long (supposedly to establish a routine, but COME ON). There were some clever uses of interactivity, especially the skipping ponds bit, but they’re few and far between.

  2. Melody says:

    I don’t agree with your sentiment at all. I found it ok, nothing special, but enjoyable.

    I mean, yes, ABS is not trying to be TTM, and its story is a lot more cliche and lacking in TTM’s ambition. But I read it as a sort of experiment in storytelling on the part of Kan Gao: trying to tell the story effectively without words. And the interaction, limited as it is, added to the experience for me, and I’m sure that’s what it tried to do, even if it didn’t work for you. It built identification between me and the boy, because *I* was the one fetching the stuff for the vet, I was the one doing this and that, even if it was extremely streamlined.

    And I didn’t find the pacing to be a problem. Its biggest fault, IMO, remains the plot itself, but the game tried to focus on the delivery of its story, more than the content. I do agree that you have to be in the mood, and that you have to be immersed to enjoy it, or being cynical about it becomes very very easy.

  3. jezcentral says:

    I got nothing from the game. I get he was a latch-key kid, but not how it was supposed to affect the story. On the plus side, it made an hour of my life feel like six, so that was five hours of my life I didn’t waste.

    The Yakety Sax bit made me laugh. It was, like, SOOOOO LAME.

    “The game wants to play itself from start to finish.” That’s the game in a nutshell, John is absolutely right. However, he said it best when he wrote “My guess is it came from too small an idea, too ambiguously delivered, created with a passion that doesn’t reach the player.”

    TTM still has me interested in what they do next, but any more of this sort of thing will make me think TTM was a glorious fluke, rather than something they can replicate.

    • Melody says:

      “The game wants to play itself from start to finish.”

      To be honest, I was kind of surprised that this kind of criticism would come from JW, of all people. I don’t care how much interaction I get, or if I’m watching a film, I care if the experience is worthwhile. And in comparison with TTM… I don’t know, I feel like you could strip TTM of all the interaction it had and you’d lose next to nothing, except for the text when examining things, which would have to be delivered in a different way, if important at all.

      I don’t know, it seems like the kind of criticism you wouldn’t level at this game, if you liked the predecessor, and if you like streamlined story driven games in general.

      • bleeters says:

        This kind of thing always makes me wonder how much gameplay something with vaguely gamelike qualities needs to have to be considered sufficient, even if the end product isn’t really trying to be a game in any traditional sense. Apart from the returns policy and the name of the development company, such as it is, I’m not sure I see the word “game” on the store page. I do see the words “light interactive animation” and “interactive pixel animation”, which sound a lot more fitting.

      • AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

        It’s not about how much gameplay the game has, but how much it lets you feel like you’re playing it. You can make a game that asks for minimal input and frame it in such a way that this input feels meaningful and interesting to players. Meanwhile you can have a linear shooter in which you have a wide array of options (you can shoot, reload, duck, run, etc) but players still feel like they don’t have agency and are just being led down a path with small shooting gallery stops. A game should ask for as much input as it needs to, but it can fall short of what the player feels should be asked of them.

        I haven’t played ABS, but I’ve played a lot of games that feel like they should give players a lot more freedom than they do, as well as a lot of games that give players minimal freedom that feels sufficient, so I see what John is getting at here

    • mukuste says:

      EVERY worthwhile piece of art ever is a glorious fluke. There is no simple procedure in 17 steps which, when followed, will produce a Piece Of Worth. Creating something, no matter the creative field, is always strenuous and painful; sometimes it works out and a majority of people find that they get something out of it, and sometimes it doesn’t. I think many people who haven’t ever seriously worked on producing some creative work underestimate just how hard it is.

      • Melody says:

        Heh, I think you’re over-generalizing. There is no ‘method’, sure, but it’s undeniable that some people tend to make worthwhile stuff more than others. Occasionally it’s a fluke. More often, though, there’s something else at work. Something less fixed and ‘scientific’ than a method, but something very much real nonetheless.

        (I hate to call it talent, because it makes it sound like a) it’s natural, needs no effort and b) it’s natural, cannot be achieved by others; I’d rather call it “craft”)

        • Emeraude says:

          I like the old sense in which people used to use genius.

          You *weren’t* a genius. You had genius. And that genius came from somewhere. Someone that manifested the English genius was someone uplifted by the whole community of people behind him/her, someone that manifested, though personal, accidental elements a salient point of the culture that had raised him/her.

          So, yeah, one may have talent, dedication and hard work. But it all comes down to a giant collective accident.

      • Emeraude says:

        The worst moment is when it works for you and seemingly no one else.

        You worked hard, for once you managed to do exactly what you wanted, you find it beautiful, and no one else does. Or no one else get it.

        It’s heart-shattering.

  4. Jeroen D Stout says:

    I really, really enjoyed A bird Story and cannot help comment as I think it was one of the most enjoyable games of the year to me.

    I found that the interaction was really well inter-woven with non-interaction. Like Thirty Flights of Loving, I never felt a jolt as interaction was established or removed. The story of the bird was just innocent and pure, very simple but touching… as was the story of the boy and his parents himself. It just felt very touching. The merging locations was a really good alternative to jump cuts (along with actual jump-cuts) and I just really found myself mesmerized and fulfilled by playing it.

    Going with that, I find this whole review terribly cynical to the point where “a three-legged puppy with cancer” to me reads like “bah, humbug.”

    • jezcentral says:

      Interesting. I thought this game was a waste of my time, and I hated Thirty Flights of Loving. (I was really surprised at how indignant I was at RPS for recommending it in their end-of-year advent calendar, which is why I bought it. I thought it was utter DRECK).

      I’m cool with other games that are dismissively waved-off as Walking Simulators, so I have no idea why my reaction to 30FOL was so vociferous. My first time playing this sort of thing, I guess? At least it was too short to be as boring to me as ABS was.

      Still, I am glad ABS spoke to someone, even though I can’t agree that the “interaction was really well inter-woven with non-interaction”. That comes as close to objectively wrong as I can think of. There were times when you just couldn’t tell when your interaction was required or not. I had several false starts with the keyboard, when I thought I was needed. However, each to their own. You were right about the fading-in of rooms being better than jump-cuts, for example.

      • Jeroen D Stout says:

        We might disagree in our taste of games, I really like Thirty Flights of Loving. For me there are almost no games worth playing coming out, so I certainly do not have an easy or forgiving taste.

        But! “That comes as close to objectively wrong as I can think of.”
        How so? I do not think that this is a fully objective matter. That it did not mesh well for you does not mean it did not mesh well with me. I thought it was excellent and exactly logical. I see it more as an interaction style you can feel comfortable with or not… much like there are many games which people say are well designed that on an interaction level just do not work well with me.

  5. Timbrelaine says:

    Aw. I guess I won’t pick this one up, but fingers crossed for the TTM sequel!

  6. Tom De Roeck says:

    I wish my game would get a review like this one, instead I have to make do with horrid steam reviews.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    I liked it. It’s just a little story about a lonely kid and a bird, but I don’t think it wants to be more than that. I even found the scene in which the kid looks for the bird’s mother genuinely touching.

  8. J. Cosmo Cohen says:

    I also thought the game was garbage. So much so, in fact, that after the swift realization that I wasn’t going to enjoy my time, I made up my own story for it.

    • ExParrot_1337 says:

      Did it involve tits or boobies? A lot of gamers would enjoy that more. Although of course for most of us it’s more about integrity in gaming journalism.

      • J. Cosmo Cohen says:

        No. It involved Haley Joel Osment, however. I’d link to it but for some reason I can’t paste the link from my phone.

      • dglenny says:

        I find that hard to swallow.

    • Jamesworkshop says:

      ‘swift realization’ pun intended?

      • dglenny says:

        Doesn’t matter whether it was intentional or not; we’re swooping on it. Possibly a bit too eggerly.

        • ExParrot_1337 says:

          Well, you know what they say; a pun in the oven is worth two on the bench.

      • J. Cosmo Cohen says:

        For once, no, but nice catch.

  9. PhilKenSebben says:

    Well reading this certainly gave me caws to reconsider grabbing this at full price.

    • dglenny says:

      Perhaps read some other reviews. Someone else might be raven about it.

      • ExParrot_1337 says:

        I’m not going to be gulled into buying someone’s art-project disguised as game.

  10. Eery Petrol says:

    To call the game “a meaningless, meandering dream sequence that behaves as if it’s rich in impenetrable metaphor” seems to judge the creator for assumed intentions. I found the game quite clear in its simplicity and enjoyed it as just that.

    The idea that “the sense of unreality to absolutely everything means that nothing has any weight” surprises me, as does the question that “if it’s a dream, then who could care less?”. A Bird’s Story seemed to give way to personal associations over descriptions. It was like visiting someones memory and seeing how the world intimately did and didn’t matter to one person. Unreal is different from surreal. Surreal can choose subjective realism over objective realism. And in a very meaningful way that can be even more real.

    To say that the game is “given a bonus sense of pomposity by featuring no dialogue at all, from start to finish” seems like a very misplaced judgement. Silent characters are a well understood narrative tool used to put focus on physical dialogue. It’s a tool that fits the more private vision of the game well. I wouldn’t call Bin-Jip or Disney’s Paperman pompous either for using the exact same tool.

  11. zapatapon says:

    “To The Moon showed off a sophistication and understanding of humanity that gaming rarely touches. (And without killing children to achieve it!)”

    Did I play the same game? Or do you intend to say that TTM would have been even better without *that* part? (a sentiment that quite a few share, from my own impression)

    • Wedge says:

      Hey some people really think painfully unbelievable characters created to make idiotic plot contrivances work are a form of “sophistication”.

    • Twisted says:

      I haven’t played To The Moon or A Bird Story, but now I see that remark as a sinister insight into the development process behind ABS.

  12. sirdavies says:

    I thought it was incredibly frustrating to play and extenuatingly uninteresting to watch. A story about a lonely kid and an ill bird that goes exactly as you would expect a story about a lonely kid and an ill bird to go; a succession of plain looking, very slow scenes with the limited dynamism of RPG Maker and a lack of interactivity that becomes all the more apparent because of those things. It’s everything that was wrong in To the moon highlighted by the removal of everything that was good about it. It’s quite the disappointment.

  13. AXAXAXAS MLO II: MLO HARDER says:

    Well, I thought To The Moon was pretty bad, so now I suppose I should feel avenged.

    Yeah, here it comes.

    Aaaaaah.

    Okay, carry on.

  14. chuckyfreak says:

    This game is a prequel to the sequel! Because it’s taking so long for the second one to come out they put part of the story out! It says at the end Finding Paradise coming one day! That’s the sequel and this was a look at the sequel!

  15. party noob says:

    I had just hit the “Install” button when I glanced down for a second and saw the “Wot I Think” link in my Steam interface. Cool, I thought, RPS did a bit on this one. Right before the “Read More” link, I saw the phrase “apparently tangentially related” and my heart kinda fell a little. Damn it, they wouldn’t have used that wording if they’d enjoyed it, I thought. Still, I figured I had better play it myself.

    So I did. And I liked it. I thought it was very moving.

    I really have to disagree with your characterization of A Bird Story as some kind of lumbering, deaf mute wearing a To The Moon hat and desperately trying to grab your attention by drawing exclamation points in a notebook and thrusting it into your face. I found it simple, enjoyable, relaxing, and most importantly, a nice emotional trip. I feel like you got hung up (as I’m seeing a good deal of the negative comments here) on the control interface and didn’t bother putting that aside to focus on the important part; namely, the emotive content attached to the story.

    Maybe it really is a “to each their own” kinda dealio, but seriously, that “typical sequence” involving the ghost birds and the kid sitting alone in his room was the first moment that shocked me, probably because I’m a big softy. I find it kinda hard to see how you fail to grasp the symbolism there, what with the bird staring at its peers and family across an impassable gap and the frustration of being left behind. That plus the kid in his room surrounded by darkness, all the people in his life just ghosts, his family invisible. Ugh, I mean, they slather it on, but it gets it done, y’know?!