‘A Bird Story’ plays with loneliness of pet ownership

Nov. 08, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

THE PLAYER

A boy's attachment to a pet is explored in the narrative adventure "A Bird Story," out now for home computers. (Freebird Games)

A boy’s attachment to a pet is explored in the narrative adventure “A Bird Story.” (Freebird Games)

There are first loves, which are important, yes, and then there are first pets.

“A Bird Story” documents the mysterious emotional grip of the latter, tracing the connection between a humble winged critter and the little boy who dreams of joining his pal in flight.

The power of imagination, as well as a little ingenuity when it comes to crafting the perfect larger-than-life paper airplane, goes a long way toward forging the relationship in this heartwarming tale, one that just so happens to be completely wordless and textless.

While “A Bird Story,” released Friday, is unquestionably a video game, complete with a nostalgia-stirring look, it isn’t out of line to think of it more as an animated short — the interactive equivalent to, say, Disney’s “Paperman” or “Feast,” the ode to man’s best friend that opened this weekend with “Big Hero 6.”

Like each of those charming experiences, “A Bird Story” makes the most of its medium, utilizing one simple idea to take the viewer, in this case a player, on a clickable journey in which the impalpable bond between human and pet is illustrated by a blurring of reality and dreams. Alternately abstract and surreal — settings just sort of materialize and other humans are rarely seen as anything but a shadow — “A Bird Story” is heavy on emotion over plot. No wonder creator Kan Gao requested the game be played only in the evening.

Another scene from "A Bird Story." (Freebird Games)

Another scene from “A Bird Story.” (Freebird Games)

Of course, there’s also a little cartoon magic, as our adorable bird friend here has a broken wing. That in turn makes each flap of a working wing appear as if our little flight-challenged chum is forever waving hello. It’s the fear of a wave goodbye that sends the boy, who is intermittently controlled by the player, down a path of hopeless devotion.

It all makes “A Bird Story” a much-welcome and rather unique narrative, especially in a week that brought us the high-def presentation and hundreds of hours of reflex-flexing that is a new “Call of Duty” game. There are no concerns about system requirements here. Available for less than $5, “A Bird Story” is an accessible, digestible home computer experience that, as the game’s specs note, will essentially run on “anything more than a baked potato.”

But enough about technicalities. Playing “A Bird Story” in the office made me immediately want to run home and hug my cat, who promptly preferred to climb on top of the fridge and howl at the ceiling. This impulse to be reunited with my pet wasn’t because the game is sad — it’s rather hopeful, in fact — but rather because “A Bird Story” nails a truly unique sensation, which is the mix of loneliness and selfishness that can accompany the joy of pet ownership.

While this is a stand-alone experience, “A Bird Story” fits into a grander universe crafted by Gao and his independent studio, Freebird Games. Memories, and how they linger and shape our decisions, are an underlying concern of “A Bird Story” and a primary focus of Freebird’s 2011 adventure “To the Moon,” in which scientists-for-hire can reshape our memories so we can die in peace.

If that seems like a giveaway that the tone is a little melancholic, pet lovers need not worry. No animals were harmed during the play-through of “A Bird Story.”

Scene from 'A Bird Story'

“A Bird Story” is completely wordless and textless.

Where Gao and Freebird truly excel is in crafting games that can appeal to those wary of the learning curve the medium necessitates. “A Bird Story” is just an hour long, and the player will spend as much time watching events as controlling them. There are clever, humorous interactive scenes, such as when the bird and boy engage in a puddle-hopping game or when the bird tries to make like a duck, and there are lushly illustrated sequences, such as moments that send our boy soaring over cities and arctic terrains, but Gao himself refers to “A Bird Story” as “interactive-animation.”

At the end of the day, “A Bird Story” is about a connection formed solely because the animal is forced out of its natural habitat. The bird is grounded, and while our boy — he is not given a name — rescues him from the dangers of a forest, he hesitates to give the bird proper veterinary care. Will the bird simply prefer to fly away if given the choice?

While this is a feral creature that has been tamed, it’s still a feral creature, and it’s impossible to know if our love is reciprocated. Maybe we’re just captors?

That’s an isolating thought, so it’s no wonder that the boy here prefers to smother his pet rather than face the unknown. Flying on a paper airplane may be nothing but a dream, but no more so than pretending a flap of a wing is a wave hello.

— Todd Martens | @Toddmartens | @LATherocomplex

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