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Saturday, June 8, 2024

It’s a big year for birds at E3 and I am here for it

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When it comes to human beings wearing them I’d say I lean strongly towards anti-top hat. But when a bird is wearing a top hat? Different story. I’m pro-birds in top hats, 100%. I’m actually just for birds, in general, which is making this year’s E3 a delight so far: there have been trailers for at least three delightful games starring birds.

The most recent is White Shadows, a black and white cinematic platformer from indie developer Monokel in Germany. “B&W cinematic platformer” is usually where I start to lose interest, but again: there’s a bird in a top hat. In White Shadows’ “fucked up” dystopian city there’s apparently some nasty animal-based classism going on, and birds have been blamed and persecuted for spreading a pandemic. You play as a young raven girl trying to right this wrong against birdkind, and it’s out this year.

Despite the B&W cliche, I really dig the look of White Shadows—it evokes the greebly feel of stop motion animation and meticulously built little dioramas, like Phil Tippett’s Mad God. The developers described it as 1984 by way of Tim Burton. And you know, I probably wouldn’t be very interested if all the characters were human. But put me in the shoes of a scraggly little bird girl and I’m suddenly interested, you know?

It seems like a few developers are on my wavelength, or at least have figured out that I, specifically, am more likely to buy their games if they put birds in them. Another example is the fantastic-looking Death’s Door. What a great premise: a crow who harvests souls with a big-ass sword. You’d think this crow would be some kind of all-around badass who flies around looking for prey, but no—he rides the bus to work and gets his assignments from other crows sitting at typewriters.

The premise does so much to elevate what otherwise looks like familiar (but very good!) top-down action reminiscent of Zelda. The developers of Death’s Door previously made a boss rush action game called Titan Souls, and that was a good little game, but its protagonist was a forgettable human. No one’s going to forget Death’s Door’s crow, and I’m way more interested in the story and how animals mix with human characters, here. Birds don’t get to be swordsmen often, maybe because they don’t technically have hands, but Death’s Door is proof in my mind that that’s been a grave oversight.

Birds do have feet, however, so it’s even more embarrassing that no one thought to put a bird on a skateboard until Skatebird. I mean, the most famous skateboarder of all time is named Tony Hawk. People call him Hawkman. And yet throughout 20 years of Tony Hawk videogames, no one ever thought, well shit, why not let an actual bird do some kickflips? 

Skatebird was announced a few years ago now, but it finally got an August release date at this E3, along with a new trailer. Skatebird is part of a new wave of skateboarding games that depict the blissful movement of rocketing down a halfpipe. The thing is, it’s hard to outdo the best Tony Hawk games, and we’ve seen the same character models—dudes in jeans and beanies and baggy t-shirts—skating a million times. Wouldn’t you rather be a cute little bird that flutters its wings while pulling off tricks in mid-air? Especially if that bird was able to wear a hat and sunglasses? Fedoras are also hats that I’m strongly against in humans, but tell me this bird is not Pulling It Off.

I don’t want to say something dangerous here, like “If every game at E3 2021 starred a bird it would be better.” Because we all know how the videogame industry works: a great idea will inevitably be copied, overused, and bled dry until it no longer brings joy but merely a hollow familiarity.

I don’t want us to do that to birds. They’re in a good place right now: Bird games are thriving, birds are showing up in unexpected places, but they’re still a drop in the ocean of games about humans doing things. I hope we get one, maybe two more bird games at E3 this year—enough to convince the world that bird games are a real movement, no mere flight of fancy, but not so many that we have to deal with all birds, all the time. Too many birds can definitely cause some problems.

Update: As soon as I published this post, my dreams (but hopefully not nightmares) came true: Another delightful bird game was shown at the Wholesome Direct. Bird Problems is a “sitcom narrative game” starring birds doing their best ’90s TV impression. This is a potent combination, because sitcoms are just as underused in games as birds are, and Bird Problems seems to be on point, judging by this description: 

“Navigate extremely simple and straight-forward conversations with very limited and odd response options. Delightfully bungle greetings and social interactions with other birds while attempting to make friends over boba-tea in the middle of the afternoon. Enjoy the goofishly squeaky aesthetic of a late twentieth century sitcom.”

👏 Year 👏 of 👏 the 👏birds!

Check out everything else coming this year on our E3 2021 schedule.

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