What is it? A brief, slightly interactive pixel art story with no dialogue.
Reviewed on: Windows 7, Core i5, 8GB RAM, GTX Titan
Play it on: Pretty much anything
Alternatively: To the Moon
Copy protection: Steam
Release date: Out now
Publisher/Developer: Freebird Games
Link: Developer site
If A Bird Story were an animated short—and it mostly is—it wouldn’t be a very good one. The hour-long game tells the story of a lonely boy who rescues an injured bird, befriends the bird, and eventually learns that if you love something, and it’s a bird, your story is probably heading toward a terribly clichéd conclusion.
Though it’s only an hour, the hour drags. There are sweet little moments—the boy suspiciously peeking out to his balcony as the bird pops in and out of a bush—but most of the scenes are soporific, only superficially interactive, and only occasionally interactive at all. Everything takes far too long to play out, showing me too much to say too little; I don't need to be present as every page of a notebook is torn out, for instance.
As for control, developer Freebird Games—also responsible for the much acclaimed To the Moon—is honest about what A Bird Story is: “an interactive pixel animation with the sole purpose of telling a simple story.” It is simple, and it is interactive, in that I got to pointlessly walk around and pick up items on my own for a bit. But it wrested control from me so often it had to flash the arrow keys (not remappable) every time I was supposed to do the moving, otherwise I wouldn’t know.
Being such a hands-off experience isn’t an instant negative, as holding back interactivity can enhance the moments when it’s returned. It doesn’t work here. Except in a couple of scenes, my interactions did little to complement the story, or foster empathy toward its characters.
Even so, I was always clawing for those interactive moments, because the time spent watching was so boring and hokey that I just wanted it over. A Benny Hill chase scene and out-of-place Mario reference give you a sense of how banal it is. Perhaps those were attempts to characterize the boy as playful despite his isolation and self-absorption, but they come off more like cute gags. And when it's not being cute, the pixel art animation isn’t especially fun to watch. The boy's crude walking animation, for instance, kicks in moments after his sprite starts moving, and watching him slowly plod around is tiring.
For a few minutes out of the hour, I did feel A Bird Story come close to succeeding. I appreciated the lightly surreal world, especially. Other characters are shadows of people, and locations aren’t logically connected or constructed; they’re more like shorthand for places, a world built out of fading memories. If A Bird Story had used its world to say something interesting about memory or the isolation of a latchkey kid, I’d appreciate it a lot more. It does present some sincere childhood feelings—I liked hopping in puddles, the way school drags on, and how loneliness is patched with fantasy—but it just sort of looks at those feelings. And then throws a bird in.
Flying over imaginary landscapes is briefly liberating, and I liked some of the pixel art, especially the grass, foliage, and floating hunks of earth. The backgrounds, however, look sloppy (in an intentional, but not attractive way), and they’re all off-perspective with the foreground. They aren’t animated, either, so waterfalls are frozen in time. Meanwhile, creator Kan Gao’s music may be well-composed, but its neverending plunking of bells and strings is too saccharine for my tastes. All of these things could be defended as stylistic decisions, but I find little to like about them.
As a film, A Bird Story is slow, dull, and sentimental. It’s the kind of mawkish story Disney can get away with in shorts such as ‘Feast,’ because Disney’s shorts are A) actually short and B) beautifully crafted. And this isn't a film: it's software that seems to have no interest in being software. There are no options whatsoever. You can hit Alt-Enter to send it to windowed mode, for instance, but it always starts fullscreen.
Many of these criticisms could be made of the much better To the Moon, with its identical engine and very similar style, but it’s much better regardless. Clicking through dialogue choices and wandering around make me feel present in its story—something A Bird Story mostly lacks—and it’s poignant without being too schmaltzy. It’s also much funnier.
To Freebird’s credit, it offers “no-questions-asked” refunds, even if its games just aren't “your cup of tea.” I think a cup of tea might have been nicer. I don’t enjoy clobbering the work of a spirited independent developer, but A Bird Story isn't a good example of the storytelling I know Freebird is capable of. I enjoyed a few moments of expressive animation and sweetness—playing it wasn't a harrowing experience, just not a good one—but got to the credits feeling disappointed. It ends with a teaser for the upcoming ‘Finding Paradise,’ and that’s what the whole thing feels like: a very bloated teaser for another, possibly better interactive animation. In the meantime, go play To the Moon.