Exploring the 'Best Games': Birdland, by Brendan Hennessy

By mid-2015, I had played all 4 of Hennessy’s 2013 Twine games, and I had realized that he was one of the very best Twine authors out there, with Michael Lutz and Porpentine. I was surprised that he had released 4 great games in a year and then stopped.

I was beyond excited when they entered IFComp in 2015. And I was right to be excited; as soon as I started playing, I realized that this was the best Twine game I had ever played. Not just in terms of personal enjoyment, but also in terms of pure craft.

It has attracted attention outside of IFCOMP and the XYZZY’s. Tens of thousands of people have shared Tumblr notes about it, and there is fan art and shipping and so on.

It is set in a girls camp with a 14 year old protagonist who has dreams about strange bird-humans every night, and has to deal with the boredom and awkwardness of camp in the day time.

What’s so good about it?

==Writing==

The writing is just outstanding. The author sets up contrast in as many ways as possible, for instance by having the protagonist act out several outrageous cliches like Cowboys or pirates and have the birds comment on it in stilted and precise English. The writing constantly sets up your expectations and twists it in humorous ways; it reminds me of the stoey that Walt Disney payed Snow White’s animators a bonus for every gag they could come up with; Hennessy would have made a lot. While most xyzzy winners have good writing for an IF game, Birdland has writing that is good among all literature.

==Story==

Birdland is one of only two games to win Best Game, Best Story, and Best Writing. One of Birdland’s strongest points is its thematic unity. In a sense, everything in the game is about people pretending to be something they aren’t, and this is explored from every angle. For example: Bridget is pretending to be the rock star, the college student, the pirate; the birds are pretending to be dreams; Bridget is pretending to be straight; the counselors are pretending to be competent; and so on. As the story progresses, all of the Truth comes out, and everyone receives consequences based on their intents. The counselors are exposed, the birds banished, Bridget is rewarded.

Pacing is aided by the rhythmic Twine structure of night and day, and parallel situations. Daytime usually involves a teaching situation in the camp, with conversations in the background, while night time involves some ludicrous scenario or another. The cycle keeps repeating, but it also keeps building, with threads of plot running through and gathering together (like when the birds reference a previous dream, or the girls in camp ask about something you did the day before). When you get to the final day (s), the changes to the rhythm are almost shocking and give the game a sense of excitement.

==Characters==

The birds are very strong characters, and this is almost entirely on the weigh of Brendan’s humorous writing, which I discussed earlier.

The human characters are well-described. Each had some very strong distinguishing characteristics (like calmness, valley-girlness, apathy), but each has moments that throw off their stereotype in a realistic way. The author apparently read dozens of books in this genre to get a feel for what audiences wanted from their characters and it paid off.

==Depth of mechanics==

Most Twine before this point has either relied on ultra-branching narratives or plot coupon collecting that was finished by lawnmowering every option.

Birdland succeeds because it has a linear story that branches and bottlenecks at every day, with all the branches you miss clearly labeled. This is made not awkward by labeling each branch with a stat and locking some if you have low stats. This makes it a game to see if you can come back later and unlock certain options.

This gives the player an impression that there is more to the world than what they are seeing. And there really is more; I replayed a few days in the game last night, and met a lot of new scenes that I hadn’t seen before. This game is very deep; the author says they started writing it about 3-4 months before ifcomp, so they must have worked very hard.

==Conclusion==

Birdland succeeds because of its impressive depth and it’s strong storytelling. It is the most successful twine game ever in terms of awards and popular culture recognition, and truly earned it’s spot as a best game.

Tomorrow I’ll write up a conclusion post that talks about patterns and thoughts on all the Best Games as a group.

For a first experience playing Twine games, I think I was a little spoiled with this one. Thanks, guys.