Like many game designers, Chandana Ekanayake keeps a big document full of potential concepts, one that he keeps updating as ideas come to him. One that’s stuck around is the concept of being a falconer: having a bird that you could train and care for, while working together to solve problems. “I thought the whole idea of having a falcon as a mechanic might be interesting,” he says.
So when Ekanayake formed Outerloop Games, and began exploring ideas for the studio’s first game, the bird concept came up early. He put together a scrappy prototype using premade assets, and was struck by the sensation of watching the bird fly off, only to come back and rest on your arm when you call it. The effect was particularly pronounced in virtual reality. “Seeing the bird at a distance even early on, with really crappy assets, that scale change was a ‘Wow’ moment for people,” he says. “So now we had to figure out what the gameplay was.”
The result is Falcon Age, which launched this week on the PlayStation 4 and PSVR. (You can play the game both in VR and on a normal television.) What started as a bare-bones prototype has turned into a surprisingly emotional adventure. The bond with the bird is still at the core of the experience; in fact, Falcon Age has gained a cult following on Twitter thanks to a steady stream of adorable gifs, featuring falcons giving fist bumps or sketching pictures in a notebook. Beneath that, though, the game tells a powerful story about a struggling group fighting off oppressive colonizers.
“We get you in with the bird,” says Ekanayake, “and we follow up with the story.”
Falcon Age opens with your character, a young woman named Ara, in a prison labor camp. A skittish robot leads her through the same routine every day, which starts with a series of questions about compliance and ends with hard labor mining for minerals. Then one day, just outside of her cell window, she sees a falcon fighting with a guard drone and in the ensuing battle, a baby bird ends up in her cell. Ara nurses the bird back to health, and trains it to follow her and hunt. Eventually, the two escape prison and meet up with Ara’s aunt — who just so happens to be a master falconer. Her aunt not only helps guide Ara in the way of falconry, but shows how her budding skills can help in the war against the colonizing robotic force.
One of the most frustrating things about modern blockbuster games is their inability to meaningfully explore political topics; games like Detroit: Become Human and Far Cry 5 have used the sheen of political imagery, but failed to actually say anything of substance. That’s part of what makes Falcon Age so refreshing. It doesn’t pull any punches. Early on, there’s a scene that’s disturbing in its familiarity, when Ara — whose full name is Sarangerai — tells her aunt about how her captors shortened her name because they couldn’t pronounce it properly. Later you’ll meet citizens who don’t mince words, saying things like “anyone who would sell a planet’s inhabitants the idea that they’re worthless except as a resource is an entity bereft of a heart.”
Ekanayake has been making games for more than 20 years, and he wanted to form a studio in part to tell stories you don’t usually see in the medium. “For me starting Outerloop, my big focus was also having under-represented characters in stories,” he says. “Having grown up in Sri Lanka, a former British colony, I always liked the idea of telling a story from the colonized perspective.”
He sketched out the initial narrative himself, and eventually he brought on 80 Days writer Meg Jayanth to flesh things out. “She made it good,” he jokes. The two also bonded over a similar upbringing that helped inform the story and its vivid characters. “We both really wanted to make a mean old Asian auntie that makes you feel guilty about your life choices,” Ekanayake says. Later Cassandra Khaw joined to fill out the writing team, having previously worked on games like Where the Water Tastes Like Wine and Sunless Skies. (Khaw also previously worked at The Verge.)
What makes Falcon Age work is how that serious story is balanced with playfulness, particularly your relationship with the falcon. In order to get through the game, you need to work closely with your bird buddy; the falcon can knock a drone out of the sky so you can destroy it, and will hunt for food and gather fruit if you direct her to. The bird feels startlingly real, due in large part to the lifelike animations. The team spent a lot of time studying birds, and even spent a day with a falconer, and the effort shows. Falcon Age’s bird is the most realistic video game creature I’ve encountered since Trico in The Last Guardian, though she’s thankfully not as temperamental and will always respond when you call.
It works well enough as a standard game, but Falcon Age really comes to life in VR. Having your bird partner actually look directly at you is startling, and the various interactions feel that much more engaging when you’re using your body. You can grab treats and feed her, and hold a PlayStation Move controller up to your face to mimic a whistle and call her. Things also get a bit silly: you can dress up the bird in hats and scarves, and there’s a special item that transforms the adult bird back into a cute baby. These lighthearted moments are important in a game with such a serious story. “I wanted to make sure there was this balance,” Ekanayake says.
Throughout development, the team has focused mostly on promoting the bird aspect of Falcon Age; you don’t have to go far to find adorable gifs of a falcon in a hat or shaking hands. Along the way, they’ve discovered a huge community of bird fans that they didn’t even know existed. In fact, the falconer they worked with actually reached out to them after seeing the game announced at PAX. It wasn’t some huge pre-planned marketing scheme, but the game seems to have touched a nerve.
“I’m followed by a lot of bird lovers now,” Ekanayake says.