A Metal Musical
The beautiful thing about modern PC gaming is that it presents unparalleled opportunities for developers to experiment, try new things, and get their creative projects into the hands of gamers. In that regard, I’m happy that Of Bird and Cage exists, and I respect the idea of what it’s trying to do. One part narrative drama and one part metal music video, it’s the kind of experience that was clearly made with passion and fills a niche that, as far as I know, has been sitting close to empty. Unfortunately, I like the idea of Capricia Productions’ interactive metal musical more than I actually like it. It’s a downer that, despite taking risks and doing a few things remarkably well, Of Bird and Cage is pretty bad as an actual video game and left me frustrated with what could have been something so much better than it is.
At first glance, Of Bird and Cage seems to have a lot in common with the recent-ish Telltale games like The Walking Dead or Tales from the Borderlands. The characters have the same somewhat-cartoony look, and the story is driven forward by decisions and dialogue choices. It does have a “gimmick,” though, that sets it apart. Throughout the entire game, original music is playing that narrates everything going on. Sometimes it’s in the background, sometimes the characters are actually mouthing the words, but it’s always there, and it’s easily the best thing about the game. Created by industry veterans, the music sounds great and is a mixture of musical-esque narrative singing and more traditional metal jams. I’m not a particularly huge metal fan myself, so not every song did it for me, but the vast majority really worked well. While I ultimately have a lot of complaints about Of Bird and Cage, the music isn’t one of them, and I’d love to see more cracks at this type of experience in the future.
Narrative and Decisions
If it isn’t clear from the game’s marketing and storefront descriptions, be warned that Of Bird and Cage is not for younger audiences and deals with some pretty heavy situations. While the story’s beats can change a bit depending on choices and gameplay performance, expect there to be a ton of drugs, a bunch of physical and emotional abuse, ample murder, and opportunities for mass violence. I don’t mean the warning as a condemnation, it’s just important to know what’s there. The story follows Gitta, a young woman with an abusive, alcoholic father, severe drug addiction, an unhealthy relationship, and pent up trauma surrounding mysteries from her past. A struggling musician trying to catch her big break, Gitta finds herself held captive by a violent captor after a rough night at the bar. While being held, the two develop a level of affection for each other, and Gitta is swept away by his violent persona as she pursues the truth about her mother and father. On paper this sounds great, but in practice the whole thing turns into an unfortunate mix of a few genuinely moving moments, some unfounded twists, and cliche melodrama.
Part of the narrative problem is that a number of the choices don’t matter as much as they should, and certain choices were clearly in mind when writing the overarching narrative. Instead of a truly branching experience, which I understand is incredibly hard to make, it’s like a traditional story was written, and then some choices were added in later and written around. About a third of the way through the game, for example, I had to decide whether to forgive someone for a bunch of terrible stuff or not. I chose to forgive them, and the relationship moved on in a logical (if not a bit rushed) way. After finishing the game I went back to that chapter to replay that choice, curious how the opposite would impact what is a fairly central relationship for the rest of the story. This second time I chose NOT to forgive them. I then had to participate in a roughly 30 second brawl with this character, after which we shook hands and were immediately homies. It was abrupt, illogical gien what was going on in-game, and made the entire decision (that felt pretty major) pointless. This is obviously only one example explained in a vacuum, but I felt similarly about most other decisions that I made.
The illusion of choice, while disappointing, is somewhat helped by a handful of different endings that change based on different decisions, but the two (or four) endings that I achieved for this review were both BY FAR the worst part of the narrative, which is a huge shame. When I reached the ending for the first time I was a bit taken back with how shockingly, comically bad the final minute or so was, so I jumped back in, made some different choices, earned a completely different ending, and was baffled that the final minute or so was equally, similarly bad. It was a different location, and there was something else going on, but the final beat was the same, came out of nowhere, and just didn’t work. The music was bangin’, though, so at least there was that. The part that really is a bummer is that I totally get what they were going for. The game’s description discusses the idea of Stockholm syndrome, when someone being held against their will feels affection towards their captor, and I see bits and pieces here of a story that could really make some meaningful comments in that area. The writers just didn’t have the chops to pull it together in a way that cuts it in a day and age when games are telling mature stories better than they ever have before.
Janky Gameplay and Presentation
Despite the narrative focus of Of Bird and Cage, there’s actually quite a lot of gameplay outside of conversations, and it’s a mixed bag. As you’ve seen come up quite a few times in this review, I love the idea of what the developers were trying to do gameplay-wise, the talent just wasn’t there to pull it off. Outside of dialogue, each section of the game is filled with tasks that work a timer tied to a song playing. It’s actually quite an inspired way to add urgency given the premise of the game, and I liked that it was impossible to accomplish everything. I felt pressure, panic, and had to make judgement calls about which objectives seemed most important in a given situation. The game is at its best when, for instance, you’re in a warehouse and have a few minutes to make a few defensive traps around the building. Finding the what, where, and why for these tasks under pressure felt like an escape room, and I dug it when everything was set up well for it. Poor controls, level design, and physics drag too many of these situations down, though, and they often felt frustrating for the wrong reasons. Good level design knows how to use architecture and visuals to subtly nudge the player in the right direction. That isn’t present at all here, and it’s not fun to feel like a chicken running around with its head cut off because I’ve got two out of three steps of an objecting done and there’s absolutely zero indication of where the last thing I need is. And forget anything that requires picking something up or jumping. Objects would stick to surfaces, snap around, or sometimes make me drag them like I’m walking through molasses when there’s no reason that they should be doing so. Jumping is floaty, and difficult to do with any kind of precision. Fist fighting is janky and dull. Shooting is floaty and unresponsive.
It doesn’t help that the game doesn’t generally look very good either. The environments actually look pretty decent, but the character models are rough, and they’re animated pretty horribly. Half of the characters have locked-in dead expressions, facial hair doesn’t always move correctly with people’s mouths as they speak, and, comically, I’d often find that when I was sitting down my arms were sticking straight out in a t-pose, seemingly connected to shoulders well above my eye line. Like many other aspects of the game, I can see what the developers were going for with how everything looks, it just feels like it was put together by someone with good ideas but no actual experience making a video game. Their hearts were in the right place, it just didn’t come together in a way that’s up to modern standards that players have come to expect from even small independent studios or teams. The exception to this is that the dream-like sequences generally look pretty great. A number of times Gitta finds herself walking through a sort of abstract, cosmic dreamscape that she needs to walk through, and the designers have done a nice job putting these areas together.
Writing a negative review can feel cathartic when it’s in response to lazy, sleazy, or greedy game design, but this isn’t one of those reviews. Of Bird and Cage is very clearly a passion project that aims to do something new and exciting, and, while it does a few things very well, it just doesn’t have a solid enough foundation to make it fun to play. I love the music and I like the story that they were trying to tell, but sloppy game mechanics, poorly developed narrative beats, and disappointing visuals make this a game I can’t recommend for most.
The music is great, the dream sequences look good, and I respect the game for trying something different.
The characters and animation are very poor, the overarching narrative doesn’t always make sense, the endings are disappointing, and the gameplay is quite awful.