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Music Games 2021 Part Two: Of bird and cage

Compared to The Longest Road on Earth, Of bird and cage (OBAC) seems to be a completely different proposition; where TLROE is immediately recognizable as indie, OBAC is AA through and through. Graphics that look good from afar and terrible up-close? Check. An assortment of gameplay and narrative ideas that show great ambition yet deliver dull and uninspired outcomes? Check again. Where one game reflects the adventurous nature of its contemporaries in the indie scene, the other reflects the reasons AA games have largely disappeared and have only recently made a comeback – those being an overtly ambitious nature without any satisfying compromises made when they need to be. However, I really like AA games for those reasons yet I really disliked OBAC; why?

Mostly, I think OBAC lacks the charm and character of those AA gems I love like Voalition’s The Punisher game, or the “aim for the stars and strap two firecrackers on your boots” attitude of Total Overdose; its neither too ambitious or competent enough to earn the right to get that sort of treatment. As a product, OBAC describes itself as a playable, 2-hours long music album; purely as a game, it’s a narrative-driven, decision-heavy reimagining of Beauty and the Beast about a waitress who is a junkie and ends up being abducted by a dude for reasons. It’s split up into different acts and scenes with each one being a different song and it has quite a few ideas it tries to execute on; there’s chasing, driving, shooting, melee combat, puzzle solving, and exploration. None of those features feel great; the chasing and driving is stiff and unresponsive; the shooting and fighting lack any sense of power and feedback; puzzle solving and exploration feel frustrating and are often about looking at places you don’t need to or next to where you should be. It just never felt good to control or interact with the game, especially considering the developers made the worst possible decision: limit the levels to be as long as the songs. So, not only is the game average to bad, it is also on a timer and the timer is set by the music which is one of the primary reasons to be interested in the game, but you can’t linger and listen to the music or experience the scene because each level is filled with stuff to do and barely enough time to do it in; the music did not excite me as much as I had hoped, but there are a few good tracks that I liked. However, the biggest issue is the decision to have multiple endings for the game, based on reactions or completion of specific puzzles and sequences. Timers are bad enough on their own, but making a game about experiencing a musical album in a new, interactive setting reliant on exploring, solving puzzles, and interacting with mediocre combat sequences to earn achievements and endings is bad. There are moments where OBAC nails what it wanted to be, sequences where the “game” parts are pointing you towards creating a scene that the music capitalizes on and those moments are great, but they are the exception; mostly I was restarting levels constantly because I didn’t have enough time to do what I wanted or trying to interact with the game sucked and I kept getting frustrated. I eventually gave up and accepted all the failings (earned or not), because I simply could not be bothered anymore.

As a game then it’s not great and as a way to experience music it doesn’t fare any better; does it work as a “music game” though? Those aforementioned moments, when the music and lyrics tell of a person weakened by hardships taking her strength back and the game has you flushing the drugs that rendered you helpless as a sign of getting over your addiction, it does feel great. But both game and music elements don’t really merge or elevate each other in any way; where TLROE’s music informs the vignettes and forces the player to interpret, OBAC simply doesn’t do that. Playing a bad game with good music is still a bad experience, and listening to the less interesting tracks while playing the game at its best is still not a great experience, while merging the two mediums results in neither feeling great. Where TLROE feels uniquely like a “music game”, OBAC feels distinctly as a project that had no vision to be that and instead wanted to be an ambitious AA game with a unique gimmick rather than being a “music game”.

Having said all of that, OBAC does show a glimpse of what could be a really cool trend; games being seen as artistic mediums worth exploring by other artists like musicians or filmmakers. Not as ways to earn a paycheck or gain a reputation with a potential customer base, but as a way for specific stories to be told in unique ways through unique mechanics and interactions. Both games are great examples of this, even though I like only one of them, I still want to see more from the devs of OBAC, because I do think their ideas and vision of what a “music game” can be, are very exciting, and although OBAC isn’t particularly good it is their first game together and it is incredibly ambitious, so failing was a big possibility. But I like devs that want to take risks and aim for the stars – who look at new possibilities and try to deliver their own vision. Both games have done this and I’m glad I spent time on both of them.

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