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.