Of Bird and Cage

Of Bird and Cage Review

Diluted symphonic power

Opera is theatre dialed in past 11, clipping human emotion well into the red. Celestial human voices catapult the distilled essence of our experiences across the sky, trimming plot to a minimally essential flow chart. All of this melodrama serves to make a palpable metaphor of the driving force behind so much of our lives.

Symphonic heavy metal bolsters the swelling and soaring voices of opera with the full spectrum of guitar, galloping bass, thundering drums, rock-crushing growls, and whatever pieces found in the orchestral pit to accent the eloquence. Growing out of the early days of prog rock, goth, and death metal, this music crafts stories out of darker themes that bloom from chugging riffs and keyboard crescendos. There’s a tall tree of bands that connect through these sounds, and you’ll find more than a few of them involved in Of Bird and Cage, a recent first person narrative game built around a two hour concept album looking to recontextualise Beauty and the Beast.

Of Bird and Cage takes a respectably big swing, relying mostly on the power of the soundtrack. The music frames the narrative and momentum of main character Gritta, a young woman caught up in some awful circumstances since birth. Most of the game-aspects of this project find you as Gritta exploring various locales, memories, dreamscapes, makeshift prisons, and more, the majority of which are backdropped by a song that serves as the timer for your exploration.

Too much game

It’s this timer, and the amount of game-like elements, that really holds Of Bird and Cage back. The immersive narrative seems to be the point, but the experience overall is crammed with quicktime events, mazes, platforming, first-person brawling, environment exploration and puzzle solving. Though symphonic metal is known for having extended play times on songs given the operatic nature of the genre, in the context of a game where you are meant to thoroughly search for clues, it’s not enough, and as such the game often feels rushed. And since it seems compelled to cram all sorts of mechanics in, the knowledge gained in one scene doesn’t always translate to the next because there’s too much to take note of. You’re constantly relearning what it means to have a fistfight, how exactly to open doors, or what all the quicktime symbols mean. At one point you’re left to explore an entire warehouse/prison in near total darkness to find what you need to turn on the power, which took me two full playthroughs to not completely fail and still barely enough time to accomplish much else.

Beyond even that technical frustration, the short musical timers leave the player sprinting around a stage like a contestant in Supermarket Sweep. They’re barely able to listen to or appreciate the music at the forefront of the narrative, let alone feel fully immersed. That sense of complete musical saturation is also shaken off by the early framing. Gritta, a woman surrounded by uncanny NPC puppets who hates her diner job but will never take off her diner apron, is presented as the most naive yet musically ambitious survivor of childhood domestic abuse who has gone on to a life of deep drug abuse, workplace abuse, and relationship abuse. Of Bird and Cage attempts to humanise her, but you are fiercely cajoled into making poor decisions for her, such as choosing between depleting your sanity or getting firewalled off from different areas by ghostly crows of psychotic dependency.

Needs more soul

It’s not that these themes aren’t worth exploring, but the game reduces Gritta to her addiction and little else—we know she has music inside of her that she’s desperate to have heard, and has a demo CD, but bemoans to herself that she can’t afford any lessons because what little she earns goes to her dealer or her dealer-boyfriend (who are two different people, by the way). Of course, the stories and humanity of addicts should add up to more than the sum of their traumas, and it’s possible that Of Bird and Cage wants to deliver such a read for Gritta by the end. But the game itself is working against the player from the very start, burying story elements in timers and thin tricks meant to encourage replay and therefore increase its value as a product. All it does, however, is dilute its symphonic power and discourage playing through to the end.

I suspect Of Bird and Cage works best as an album first, and maybe a speed runner video as a distant second. Perhaps by the end Gritta escapes her prison and finds the support she needs to reclaim the light of her life in one of the possible endings, but given the oppressively deep hole she starts in, I’m not convinced that the game believes she deserves it. Though she most certainly does.