Developer Kao Gan's previous title, the nigh-universally lauded To The Moon, was a long, poetic missive on the nature of memories, human interaction, the power of fantasy, and the acceptance of death.
A Bird Story is, technically, a follow up. It's running off the same classic 16-bit RPG engine, with only one button and the arrows/joypad required to move around. The same dreamy logic and aesthetic carries over here, where the world is one of constantly shifting landscapes, where trees move themselves out of the way to guide you along the right path, where rooms and forests bleed together, where there's unspoken magic being utilized by every character, and other humans are little but faceless shadows. The score is hewn from the same sweet, uplifting stuff as before as well. And about there is where the comparisons end. A Bird Story's lofty ambitions begin and end with the fact that its most fantastical set piece involves taking a trek around the world on a giant paper airplane made from the pages of a schoolbook. Past that, it's almost laughable how much simpler a concept it is: A lonely boy plays hooky from school one day and finds a bird with a broken wing being chased by a badger. He scares the badger off, goes off on his merry way, and finds out afterwards that he has a fine, feathered stowaway in his backpack.
Knowing what we know about human-meets-fragile animal tales, knowing what we know about A Bird Story's creator, you probably know every step of the way exactly where A Bird Story's going to go long before it gets there. It's a thoroughly uncomplicated tale. But this is not a game about goals and twists. It's the journey. A Bird Story's strengths are all in the execution, the narrative playing out in silence but grabbing you anyway, encouraging you to never miss a chance to develop the protagonist, to discover him as a playful, thoughtful child. He's the kind of kid who keeps to himself at school but can't leave a room in his house without jumping on the bed once or twice or pretending he's The Legend of Zelda's Link when he obtains his lunch for the day.
To The Moon's density of plotting is completely muted here, leaving only the silent, untranslatable actions of both the boy, and the tentative trust of the injured bird to fill the narrative void. There's a power in that minimalism. Actions have to speak louder than text boxes here, and there's a master's grasp on how to make interactivity mean something again here by giving control back to the player only for maximum impact, be it letting the silent young protagonist skip through puddles on the way home from school, breaking apart the bread so that the bird can eat, or the hard gut stab that comes from the game's final sequences, a long, literal flight of fancy to try to find the bird's family. The effects of our protagonist being a latchkey kid play itself out only in his reaction to the consistent, growing piles of reminder notes scattered around his apartment that need to be collected when he returns home, and it all seems pointless until the pile of notes turns into a hollow, desolate feeling near the climax.
Earnestness is the programming language that A Bird Story's written in, with every design decision made to give what could very easily have been a sweetheart of a short film a crucial, bracing shot of player agency. There is not a single disingenuous moment in the game's short length, not a single play for emotion that feels manipulative so much as earned by what the player's had to do for the sake of a burgeoning friendship. And the game is effortless in its ability to coax the emotional investment necessary to make A Bird Story work. It strips away the need to tell its audience what childhood feels like and what a new friendship looks like and engages them with it, lets them play with sheer innocence for a while and consequently have to deal with the moments when that innocence is no longer useful or even the best decision.
The end result is a small, simple, but incredibly affecting story that showcases the power of the ability to encourage empathy through the most basic expressions of humanity and imagination. We could've gotten A Bird Story in any other medium, but the experience of it would've been diminished as anything but a game.