It can be difficult to find time to finish a video game, especially if you only have a few hours a week to play. In our biweekly column Short Play we suggest video games that can be started and finished in a weekend.
Cities at night can be magical. There’s a turning point, after all the late night people have gone home, before the early morning risers head to work, when things start to feel weird. Familiar places don’t become unfamiliar, exactly. But they do feel off. You’ll walk through someplace like Times Square, lit up like it’s trying to artificially appear as though its still daytime, but with no one around to see it.
Bird of Passage doesn’t so much exist in this setting, but mine it for everything it’s worth. The game follows a... person? Bird? Eyeball umbrella? As they wander lost from taxi ride to taxi ride through the late night streets of Tokyo. But all you see of the city is in the night lights reflected in the taxi, and the occasional sidewalk where our wandering protagonist is left by one cab before being quickly picked up by the next.
The narrative unfolds in text through conversations that the unnamed protagonist has with the different drivers they encounter. Like a visual novel, you are given different dialogue options to choose from, that then take these conversations down different paths. Sometimes they provide insight into why the wanderer is so lost, or as to what they might actually be.
Each taxi is different from the last, but as you play things become familiar. The look of the different sidewalks and taxis start to seem similar, but not exactly the same. A cyclical pattern occurs as the conversations with the cab drivers then start to repeat. In a sense this imitates the confused wanderings of this lost passenger, but it also lets you explore different dialogue options you hadn’t chosen earlier. Through this process you learn more about what the wanderer really is.
It’s a clever structure, as visual novels often require multiple playthroughs in order to see the full story, or unlock the real ending. Bird of Passage manages to find a way to fit that experience into a single session, while also tying it into the narrative. This is especially true after you’ve been through the cycle a few times, having seemingly run out of dialogue options and new paths for the story to go down. At this point you start trying to reconstruct in your head the different paths you’ve taken through the dialogue while working your way through the conversations again and again.
In a way this structure mimics the experience of the wanderer in both their frustration and confusion as to how to get to where they are going when they don’t know where they need to be. As the player, this repetition doesn’t last long enough to become frustrating. But it’s long enough that you feel it, long enough that you start to empathize with the wanderer. So that when you’ve finally gotten all the information, and they’ve figured out where it is they’ve been trying to go, it makes that moment all the more powerful and a relief.
Bird of Passage was created by The Space Backyard. You can get it on Itch.io for pay what you want (Windows, and Mac OS). It takes less than an hour to finish.