Inside Pulse 12

Review: A Bird Story (PC)

A Bird Story
Developer: Freebird Games
Publisher: Freebird Games
Genre: Adventure
Release Date: 11/07/2014

Telling a story without using any words presents a special challenge, because that precludes any dialogue or narration to carry the characters and plot and convey them in a manner that’s understandable to the audience. That’s exactly what A Bird Story sets out to do. Given this game is by the same developer who did To the Moon, comparisons between that game and A Bird Story will be inevitable. While I’ll try not to overdo it (and probably fail), yes, I will be mentioning To the Moon at various points, and yes, I am aware this is not To the Moon 2. Let’s see how this game measures up.

The basic premise is that a little boy finds an injured bird and gradually bonds with it. Naturally there’s more to it than that, but in the interest of avoiding spoilers (this is a story-based game, so it’s best you experience it yourself), I’m refraining from detailing too much. I will say that even though the game itself is only an hour long, it does manage to weave in both poignant and humorous moments (including a chase scene set to a rendition of Yakety Sax). I got invested in the characters and wanting to see how things would end up. Unlike To the Moon, there’s no text in the game at all except in the menu and a little teaser at the very end (well, and credits). So there’s no witty snark repartees between Eva and Neil or any other spoken (in text) dialogue. However, the events that unfold are still apparent, even if you have to read the body language and fill in the blanks yourself. The pacing is streamlined and always moving. As the store description itself says, this isn’t To the Moon 2, and Neil and Eva don’t appear in this game. However, the boy that stars in this game will grow, and there’s even a little teaser for To the Moon at the end showing him at different ages (presumably as a preview of what’s to come). But then, Kan is no stranger to different narrative formats, having done an abstract style game (which also featured a bird) focused on exploration and no other characters to interact with onscreen and a non-interactive story with little dialogue (at least on one end of some conversations).

The visuals and music work well together to establish a dreamlike feel. The sprite work consists of 16-bit sprites similar in style to Freebird’s previous games. Without text, the character sprites and environments have to do all the work in conveying what’s happening. The environments are seamlessly integrated together, which helps both with keeping the story flowing without long transitions and also contributing to a surreal feel. There’s also some panoramic paintings that are used as some points which look really nice. Only the boy has facial expressions, with everyone else either entirely rendered as shadows or have shadowy visages. The boy’s sprite in particular is expressive, and just from his eyes alone you can tell what he’s feeling (eyebrow raise, narrowed eyes). Little thought bubbles occasionally appear over a character’s head with an image, usually acting as a prompt for where you need to go or what to get during the brief times you’re in control.
 
I loved the music in To the Moon and still listen to the soundtrack sometimes. The soundtrack in A Bird Story is piano heavy with strings in the background (and vice versa depending on the track). The results complement the overall mood of the scenes well and are aurally pleasant, and it’s something I’d listen to outside of the game. However, there isn’t one defining motif like the various versions of “For River” in To the Moon (although you can sort of hear underlying notes of that song in this track). That’s understandable given this game has less time to build up such a theme, and it doesn’t detract much from the quality of the music.

There isn’t a whole lot of gameplay to speak of, as the emphasis is more on watching the story unfold than puzzle solving or thoroughly exploring an area (though to an extent you can do the latter). When you are in control, though, icons of the keys you need to press will flash on the screen for a few seconds as an indicator of what you’re supposed to do. Mostly it’s either moving from one place to another or walking up to and interacting with certain objects, but there are variations in the interactive bits (e.g. breaking up bread, jumping in puddles). A couple of parts (particularly the end) felt like they had more weight with me actively pushing the buttons to move the scene forward rather than just watching it occur. You can also hit Alt+Enter to go into windowed mode. Since this is meant to be seen in one sitting, there’s no saving, so make sure you have a full hour to spend with this.

A Bird Story is exactly as advertised: a one-hour short. As you might expect, the experience is entirely linear, so there’s really no new content to be seen on a replay, unless you just want to go through the story again. The narrative style and lack of dialogue might feel esoteric for some. There’s even a very generous return policy where you can ask for a refund even if the game just didn’t click with you. For me, that just makes me want to give him more money, but it also goes a long way towards encouraging people who otherwise might not consider this their type of game to at least give it a try. There’s also the games I mentioned, as while neither of them are exactly like A Bird Story (Do You Remember My Lullaby is a bit closer, but still not exact), they are free. If you’re looking for an extension of To the Moon, the Holiday Special would be closer to that, since that does occur after the events of To the Moon (I would recommend finishing To the Moon before playing that, though). It may not be to everyone’s tastes, but it does tell a heartfelt, if short, story.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Despite a lack of any words whatsoever, A Bird Story takes what seems to be a simple story on the surface and turns it into a evocative experience. The sprites convey a lot without any dialogue or narration, and the music sets the tone well and is pleasant to listen to even outside of the context of the game. No, this is not To the Moon 2, the narrative structure and scope are different, and it’s a shorter game. But the difference in presentation was a interesting one. Ultimately, A Bird Story serves more as an interlude than a full followup for To the Moon.