The story-driven 2011 release To the Moon
touched the hearts of players and developers. Despite its relatively primitive look and feel, thanks in part to the RPG Maker engine running under the hood, this tale from creator Kan Gao pulled off a video game narrative that really gelled with the imagination.
Three years later, and Gao has just rather silently launched a follow-up. A Bird Story
is once again built in the same engine, and is quite clearly a Freebird Games creation.
Without spoiling the experience, A Bird Story
is the tale of a boy and his bird -- and how that friendship helps both of them get through hard times.
But here's the twist: While To the Moon
was rather wordy, A Bird Story
doesn't feature a single line of dialogue.
Gao describes the game as "the simplest but most difficult thing I've had to make," and it's not hard to see why. This hour-long spectacle manages to convey narrative through its visual cues, without a single letter or digit to drive it.
I spoke with Gao about how he approached a completely wordless-yet-narrative experience, and the design that went into it.
Why did you decide to go in this direction after To the Moon? How difficult was it to make an entire game -- a narrative-driven game, no less -- without words?
: I think it was less of an active initial decision than a gradual adaptation. There was a particular story I wanted to tell, so that's what I did -- and as I worked on it on one stormy night, I suddenly came to the earth-shattering realization that the boy, in fact, does not speak bird (and vice-versa).
While there were other opportunities for dialogues, that got me thinking... and I think what ultimately made me decide to eliminate dialogues altogether was the universality of it; that anyone, regardless of language and perhaps even culture, could go through this simple story and potentially connect with what is happening.
I think the most difficult aspect is the limitation of the graphics. In most non-lingual storytelling mediums, there are a lot of visuals to work with to make the "show, don't tell" approach shine. But with A Bird Story
, there is one fixed camera angle, and about nine pixels per character's eye (one for the bird).
It often took many tries to convey something I originally thought would be easy to show (and I wouldn't have even known had it not been the testers' feedback toward the very end of development). One particular example is a blanket being put around the asleep boy's shoulders at the first night; hopefully that came across okay now, but it went through so many iterations of being incomprehensible.
Is it important to you to explore the possibilities of narrative in video games? Do you think the industry as a whole is pushing towards better narrative in games?
: Sure -- I'm more of a supporter for letting things be what they could be rather than having arbitrary limitations as to what they should be. In that sense, I guess I try not to think too much of the line between one medium and another, and just try to make things using whatever's at my disposal, with the end goal in mind.
I'm far from wise or knowledgeable enough to judge the industry in that sense, but I do think there're some things to be learned from either side -- in fact, I think it'd be interesting if at one point, instead of thinking of something as an movie-esque game, people'd think of something as a game-esque movie.
I'm certainly not saying that should be what all games should one day be, that'd be crazy (read: "some of my best friends are fun games without any stories!"); but I do think there's room for everything without affecting all the vast possibilities it has to offer. After all, games objectively contains all the potential genres of movies, plus an entire additional dimension of categories.
I adored the brief "gamey" bits -- the cupcake lives, pulling apart the bread etc. What were your thoughts behind including these elements? It felt a bit like you were maybe making a statement that games don't necessarily need to have gamey elements if there's a strong narrative - but maybe I just read that entirely wrong!
: I'm glad to hear! To be honest, while there might've been something to that with certain parts of To the Moon
(e.g. a fake RPG battle with a squirrel), most of them weren't made with the thought of an explicit statement, but just fun tributes. (With the cupcake one, I also tried to arrange a tuba parody of the chest-opening Zelda music effect, but most said it was too subtle unless they were listening for it, hehe.)
That being said, I did hope that some of the other bits, such as pulling apart the bread, would have an actual effect in the actual storytelling. As trivial as they are, I feel like the act of actively doing something to achieve certain actions does ingrain certain scenes a lot more, as opposed to a completely passive viewing. I think that's the biggest potential help from interactivity in it -- the sense of involvement.
It's amazing how much the pixelated facial expressions, and other subtle bits and bobs like this, came together to add a real flavor to the tale. How did you decide on what level of attention to detail like this was needed to give the story that added oomph?
: The short answer is that I stop and call it right as I feel like I'm about to go blind! [laughs]
I must've played every scene at least 50 times at various stages of it being put together, and I just kept on tweaking things until they felt "right". It's a bit scary when I think about it, since I don't know if that meant it'd feel right to others too. There was definitely more subtle details in A Bird Story
in anything else I've made -- necessary, too, since they're all it's got to convey the scenes in and of themselves.
I just did a file search, and it seems like there're over 200 sprite sheets for the boy and birds, with each having numerous frames -- most are really subtle, though. Still, it's quite a change of pace from To the Moon
, which had about five for each of the doctors. I won't miss all those nights of lining up pixel after pixel, but I'm very glad and relieved that they did convey the subtleties that it needed.
What are you hoping players take away from their experience with A Bird Story?
: I hope the game objectively proves, once and for all, that the bird is, indeed, the word.