Birdland is a weird game.
I’ve never written a romance before, and I didn’t set out trying to write one when I started on this game. In the original-original concept the main character was kind of a blank slate, there was nothing about sexuality in there at all, and the story was much more focussed on forging platonic friendships and building your competency at camp activities. There was no Bridget, no Bell, no bird stuff, and no dreaming.
There were things I liked about that original idea but it always felt really incomplete and uncompelling and I never got far when I tried to write it. Eventually I realized that the problem was that it was totally unmoored from the actual emotional experience of being fourteen. None of the anxieties and preoccupations I had back then were in the story at all. So when I set back to write it again this year I scrapped pretty much everything I’d already planned and just focussed on building up a main character that could serve as a vessel for all that awful teenagehood.
I knew very early on that Bridget was going to be someone struggling with her own queerness, but I had no plans for any kind of love interest. I had originally conceived Bell as gay back when I was writing Bell Park, Youth Detective (all the “best friend Cassidy” lines were supposed to be evidence of a straight-best-friend crush headed for disaster), but when I first put her in Birdland it was just going to be a little cameo appearance. Then I realized she was a great foil for the main character and gave her a much bigger role. Then I was like, well let’s give Bridget a little crush on Bell and see what kind of humour I can get out of that. Then it became a mutual attraction that neither party was quite ready to act on. (The head-on-the-shoulder moment at the campfire was originally going to be as far as it got.) Eventually I went so far down this path that it no longer made any kind of story sense to stop short of an actual relationship. And all of a sudden I had committed myself to writing a cute gay overt romance with a happy ending.
And it was weird. Once that romance was in the story, everything else that had been floating around in my head suddenly made perfect sense. Bell and Bridget became this emotional centre to the story that everything else could orbit around and take meaning from. All the weird bird dialogue and goofy camp nonsense worked so much better once they were living alongside something nice and earnest. That was kind of a revelation for me, even though I’m sure it’s a total “no shit” moment for people who are actually talented writers. I expect this experience is going to have a big influence on whatever I decide to write next.
Some other thoughts:
-Bell Park was a rushed game and I think it showed. This time I took months to write the game and having time to execute and iterate on ideas really paid off.
-The script format was kind of the perfect limitation for the story. Having all the narration happen in stage directions meant that I could completely seal off access to Bridget’s inner thoughts and let all of her hopes and insecurities come out organically through dialogue. It would have been difficult for me to have the romance happen at the pace I wanted if I’d been able to explicitly tell the player what Bridget was thinking or feeling. Having Bell gradually show up more and more in the dream sequences was a much better way of showing Bridget’s growing obsession than any sort of explicit inner monologue would have been. Likewise navigating all the boy conversations would have been a lot less interesting if you could have seen Bridget’s actual thought process. On the other hand, I think this format left some moments feeling somewhat under-described. That second kiss especially doesn’t really have the impact it could have had.
-I hired an artist by the name of Izzy Marbella to draw character portraits for everyone. She is basically a genius and I cannot recommend her highly enough. I think having her art in there really helped people get a sense of these different characters. That said, I made the decision to have art very, very late in the process, and so I never really found a good way to incorporate it into the game. That definitely is a big weakness of the game in its current form.
-I can trace back a lot of ideas that got in this game but I literally have no idea why I put birds in it. I don’t remember making that decision or anything. What could this possibly mean???
-This is something I’m sure you’ll hear from a lot of Twine authors, but it’s reaaaally tough to signal how much and in what ways your story branches. For example, that campfire scene was maybe the largest and most complicated thing I’ve ever written, and I’m not sure anyone really noticed just how much things could branch there. Here’s a node map I made for a thread in the author’s forum:
I think this is a really big problem for choice-based stuff overall and personally I’m not sure how to deal with it. Like some people have come into the game expecting “romance options” or the ability to get an alternate ending and I just don’t know how to tell them that’s not in the cards.
-I cut a whole day of camp and a seventh dream for pacing reasons. I hadn’t really written most of those scenes but I did have to cut the line “The purpose of the archaeologist is to arrest the rise of fascism in Europe?”, which was a great tragedy.
-The game got posted to Tumblr around a week ago and the response there has been amazing. A lot of kids there seem to be finding the story really relatable, and that’s hugely gratifying for me. (For a while there one of the related terms for the Birdland search was “Same”) Also they’re like making fan-art and it’s really cute and one girl even recorded one of the dream songs and I’ve seen several people say they it’s made them want to make a game of their own and one person has even said they’re going to write a fanfic in Twine and it’s just like oh my god.
Overall I like Birdland more than anything else I’ve written and I’m extremely happy with how this year’s competition went.