The creations of Kan Gao are a perfect example of the power of video games as a storytelling medium. 2011's To The Moon was a warm buffet of soul food and had us hugging our loved ones long after the end credits rolled. Freebird Games' follow up, A Bird Story, tells the story of a young boy and his unlikely friend, a bird with a broken wing. While it doesn't feature the humor (in fact, there is no dialogue at all) or explore video game tropes as readily as To The Moon does, it's a wonderful display of unique developer talent and a showcase piece for the medium as a whole.
A Bird Story exists in the same universe as To The Moon, chronologically prior to the adventures of Dr. Watts and Dr. Rosalene and serves as bridge between that first episode and the yet to be released episode 2. It shares the same style, a modernized, sprite based RPG, flavored by a moving score that begs for a listen outside the world of the game. The actual gameplay is limited to select moments of moving your sprite (the young boy) and pressing the action button. It is definitely in the category of interactive storytelling (a la, Gone Home) but it separates itself in one very important way: the act of playing the game enhances the storytelling experience in a way only a video game can.
Just as Limbo, Braid, Journey and To The Moon before it, A Bird Story uses the participation of the gamer to explore its themes more deeply. When we discuss games as an art form, I always point to the games that take advantage of the fact that someone is actively playing them. Movement and player death in Limbo are symbols, tied to the eerie story that elicits more questions than it answers. Braid asks the player to continuously manipulate time, which culminates in one heart wrenching realization at its conclusion. Journey introduces you to random online players who come and go throughout your adventure--a mechanic so meta to Journey's thematic core it's mind blowing. And finally we have To The Moon, which features the occasional bout of tedium that requires the player to collect scattered memories. In playing the game, it felt like work, which, it turns out, was exactly the point. The reward is so much sweeter when you have to work for it.
A Bird Story chooses the moments it asks the player to interact with wisely. I found myself so enamored with the relationship between the boy and the bird that when the game asked me to press certain buttons to achieve certain results, it always hit home. I wasn't watching a cinematic, I was the boy and I had to press the space bar because it was the right thing to do. The game wasn't going to do it for me. This marriage of physical interaction with an artistic medium is unique to games. We are active spectators.
At just over an hour in length, A Bird Story moves at a steady clip, never requiring you to retread your steps. Transitions from set piece to set piece are creatively implemented. The first time you walk from the schoolhouse to your high rise apartment, you must walk through hallways, yards, woods and roads. As the game progresses, this passage of time and space is condensed. You walk outside your apartment door right into your school classroom; everything else is implied. This not only adds to the surreal, is-it-or-isn't-it a dream world, but it keeps us to the parts that matter, just like a well written screenplay. There's even a cute Disney-esque montage to boot.
It goes without saying that A Bird Story will move you. The human condition is a Pandora's box of trial and tribulation and Freebird Games is one of the few video game developers bold enough to dip into the darkness and serve us something meaningful. Like Thoreau said, "Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth."
Gao could pen (hell, even direct) moving modern cinema. But I believe I speak for all of the gaming community when I say "more video games, please."