Why isn’t Ken Gao one of the industry’s leading voices when it comes to writing and directing game stories? Gao’s quirky tearjerker masterpiece To The Moon understood both the importance pathos in game stories and was able to dole it out in the correct measurements. It’s still exceedingly rare to see a game walk the thin line between emotional sincerity and parody, but Gao’s storytelling made the successful leap between both. A Bird Story, the spiritual successor to To The Moon, demonstrates an even deeper understanding on Gao’s part about what was so enjoyable about playing his sweet, poignant stories.
A Bird Story begins with urban boredom. You play as a child with absentee parents, a lack of interest in academics and most other things in life. There's a pile of notes left on the refrigerator that the young boy collects on his table. I can only presume they're filled with excuses about missing dinner or coming home late from work—A Bird Story is a wordless experience, so players fill in the gaps themselves.
If there’s any breath of fresh air in A Bird Story, it’s in the absence of dialogue. To The Moon’s writing was not often egregious, but some characters were written with an air of over-enthusiasm that detracted from the plot. There are no written distractions in A Bird Story. Instead, a wordless play goes on between the young boy and a hurt bird. The experience is a little under an hour, so I won’t spoil the specifics. It’s touching, and it’s one of my favorite stories I’ve seen this year. Gao channels love and loss better than most game developers active today.
Players might be disappointed by Gao’s continued reliance on RPG Maker as his engine and game making tool of choice, but the pixel art is just as personal and memorable as To The Moon. My favorite animation of the game involves the little boy climbing into a potted plant on his deck, checking to see if the bird is in the bush. It’s a quick motion, and it might look goofy in a polygonal product, but it’s an adorable motion highlighting the character's curiosity in A Bird Story.
Another question: Why isn’t Ken Gao making short films instead? The quick and easy answer is that A Bird Story contains elements of surrealism that exist outside of the financial potential of a short film. Also, the limited interactivity is an important point that connects the viewer/player to the experience. The player can only use the arrow keys on the keyboard with an occasional tap of the space bar. Gao himself refers to it as a pixel animation, but it's the player-controlled moments that hit hardest, because they physically connect the player to the boy, and the boy to the damaged little bird.
The limited controls are put to remarkable use. Players fold and throw paper airplanes, jump in puddles, and do other excruciatingly cute things with only a few keys. Doing less with more is not an inherently negative choice in game development (it’s certainly done a whole lot for storytelling) but the balance is something to think about, especially as To The Moon featured many puzzles that interrupted the narrative progress. There’s a happy medium between these two approaches and Gao has yet to find it, but he's making progress.
A Bird Story is a precursor to the true sequel of To The Moon, so it’s possible that we're only getting a small taste of what is to come with Gao’s storytelling. The wordless surrealism is serene, as urban environments blend seamlessly with the natural landscape the boy finds so inviting. This story shared between a young boy and injured bird is absolutely worth a small chunk of your afternoon.