When Kan Gao was young, he stumbled across a bird that was injured and couldn't fly on its own. He took the bird home, tried as best he could to build a suitable nest, and made some rice so the bird wouldn't go hungry. But the bird didn't make it through the night. Years later, he's made a game, appropriately called A Bird Story, about a young boy in a similar situation. Only in this case, the boy and the bird become an inseparable pair. "I guess in a way, making a story about something, and perhaps one that turns out differently, gives some artificial closure in a cathartic way," says Gao.
A Bird Story is both short and simple. It only takes about an hour to complete, and the interactivity is pretty limited. It's sort of like a really long cut-scene that looks ripped out of a Super Nintendo RPG. But describing what A Bird Story is doesn't really explain what it's like to experience it. The game starts out with you watching a lonely young boy go about his days, while everyone around him — at school, on the street — is rendered as a dark shadow. When he goes home he's all alone except for a note his parents left on the fridge. It's heartbreaking, but when the bird enters the story, it feels so perfect. They form a connection and watching the relationship build over the course of an hour is a joy.
"I wanted for it to be a simple but universal story."
What's remarkable about A Bird Story is all of this happens without a single word spoken. There's no voice acting or text dialog of any sort in the game. Instead, Gao tells the story through animation and other visual cues. The world is a mixture of the real word and a childish dreamscape, which gives you a deeper sense of who this kid really is. It's surprisingly sophisticated storytelling, and I can't help but smile when I think about the boy and the bird sharing an ice cream cone on a park bench. A Bird Story also uses the language of video games to make you even further invested in the story and characters. You'll press buttons to rip up pieces of bread to feed the bird, and you'll have competitions over who can hop over the most puddles. The way the game jumps back and forth between charming humor and sadness is masterful.
Gao previously gained a cult following due to the similarly touching To The Moon, a game about delving into the memories of an old man so you can fulfill his dying wish. The two games are similar visually and thematically, but To The Moon relied heavily on text to tell its story. With A Bird Story Gao wanted to try something different. "I think what ultimately made me decide to have it be completely dialog-free is that I wanted for it to be a simple but universal story," he says, "one that everyone, regardless of language or even culture, would be able to understand and hopefully connect with." Of course, the process of simplifying a story isn't exactly simple — "it was a lot more difficult than I expected," Gao says — but the resulting experience is a tightly woven, wonderfully endearing game. A Bird Story also takes place in the same universe as To The Moon, and a grown up version of the young boy will be a character in Gao's next big release.
Though they use different storytelling techniques, all of Gao's games have at least one thing in common: there's an incredibly strong chance that you'll end up crying by the times the credits role. A Bird Story is no different, and it's likely that Gao's future games will tread similar emotional ground. "I'm producing a brand of hot sauce with tears as the main ingredient," he says.
A Bird Story will be available on Steam later today.