Very few games have truly mastered their form of storytelling. There are, of course, a few notable exceptions, but this young artform has yet to reach its maturity and many creators are afraid to venture out of the conventional storytelling forms consisting of too much exposition, telling over showing, and relying heavily on tropes. In another post, I talked about how Freebird Games’ To The Moon and the way that it used a form of reverse chronology as a unique form of storytelling in the scope of their game. In another leap, the recently released A Bird Story uses yet another technique that is rarely seen in gaming: a complete lack of dialogue.
From the moment that the game loads up to the moment the credits begin to roll, hardly a single word is displayed on the screen or spoken aloud. Very few characters are actually even displayed on the screen; only “The Boy” (the protagonist) and a few other characters even have fully designed sprites. The only companion that the boy has at all through the story is the titular Bird, whom the boy stumbles upon wounded in the forest. The chirps of The Bird are the only attempt of anything else in the game attempting to communicate with you. Due to this forced isolation, the connection between the player and The Bird becomes strong. The game creates a fixation on the Bird by simulating the loneliness the Boy feels and cultivating a stronger relationship in two hours than most games manage to foster within forty.
There is not much love around the trope of the silent protagonist in gaming; many gamers see it as “boring, doesn’t develop bonds with other characters, lazy writing, boring to watch really and [they] don’t care about their struggles.” Many developers believe that silence creates a sense of isolation that connects a player to the character. Silence, in general, is not the most popular technique that most games use. That being said, this is not the first time an attempt at cultivating loneliness has been attempted in a game before. Most notably, Shadow of the Colossus utilized a lack of non-diegetic music outside of boss battles to drive home the feeling of solitude. Other games, including almost the whole of the survival horror genre, really try to push loneliness in order to get the player invested in their avatar.
However, this is a total, complete silence outside of the score is not something that is utilized in big budget games, or even many indie games. It forces the player to feel what The Boy is feeling. For example, there is a moment early in the game where The Boy is at recess, sitting alone on a seesaw. Around him everywhere are the shadows of people too busy (or simply too uninterested) to play with The Boy. He looks around, sees these shadows having their own conversations and living their own lives, and his head falls downward. The player feels the same exclusion that The Boy feels. If the player walks to these shadows, they cannot interact with them at all, because The Boy is just as invisible to these people as they are to the players.
It is not a storytelling technique that will reinvent the wheel, nor is it the best game I have ever played. However, Freebird Games managed to make the first silent protagonist that I have ever been able to connect with. In a gaming world where this trope is seen as a perennial negative, it is refreshing to see this get turned on its head while also creating a silent world that grabbed my attention from the opening moments, and that it is receiving the praise it should.