The White Birch. The prototype that I have the largest desire to see evolve into a full game, and yet, it isn’t the game I waltzed over to the Amnesia Fortnight event with an interest in. Actually, I threw some spare change at the Humble Bundle with the interest in Spacebase DF-9 “A space station simulator game? Oh goody!” Well, there’s definitely content in DF-9, but not the kind of content the pitch gave me an impression of.
Looking at the 2-Player Productions episodes that documented Fortnight’s progress, I saw an impressive amount of artistic fidelity. The team leaders came across as so passionate about presenting their stories and experiences to players, that suggestions from their team that would have wavered from the experience actually seemed upsetting to them. Andy Wood and his team seemed to have taken inspiration from Fumito Ueda’s Ico, expressing a love and respect for the simplicity of the game. Ico has no vast or overly complicated gameplay mechanics – both the game and story are simply about saving a girl from a dark demise. The second game, Shadow of the Colossus, is a little different. Shadow’s gameplay is little more than climbing over great colossi and wedging a darkness-vanquishing sword into the beast’s weak points.
Again, there’s very few gameplay features within these games by Ueda, but what is there has been sharpened to a fine point. As such, the result is an amazing presentation, an awe-inspiring tale, and overall it’s nothing less than exceptional. These are games about the story, in which the narrative is told through what the player sees and does, and Wood’s respect and desire to emulate that couldn’t be clearer.
What Is It?
An ambient platform exploration game, The White Birch follows a young girl who is faced with climbing a tower to escape a dark and hazardous forest. Focusing on providing an atmospheric and mysterious experience, the idea is that players climb the tower to reach a prize at the top – an item hanging from a birch tree. Each time the game is completed, players are supposed to find different prizes hanging from the tree.
I confess, the first thing I noticed about The White Birch was the clunky animation. For a game that’s made in just two weeks, The White Birch’s presentation is impressive to say the least, but one can’t but help notice the animation nonetheless. In the starting area, players are encouraged to head to the tower, not that there’s anywhere else to go. At the base of the tower, as well as inside it, the environment is properly lit, while venturing further into the brambles of the forest casts the world into darkness. This simple story guides players with a pseudo-spirit or guardian – it’s a glowing owl that climbs the tower sequentially as the player catches up to it. While the controls handle rather poorly, one must once again remember this was built in a mere fortnight.
“…a sense of being lost, yet being immersed in the surreal, of being afraid, yet curiously bold and fearless.”
The music is what immediately grabbed my attention. Actually, it grabbed it so well that the moment I hit a game-breaking bug, I took it upon myself to obtain the soundtrack before continuing. Music is so often an underrated part of the gaming experience that can even stretch to making or breaking a game on some occasions. It seems everybody says that, but it is true. The power of sound is an idea that – as far as video games go – is still in its infancy. If you’re interested in the topic of music, there’s a fascinating article over on Gamasutra that makes some interesting points on the subject. Still, the prominent use of strings in the ambient music, the hinted urgency in the opening notes and the dreaminess of the piano are all elements that come together to create a sense of being lost, yet being immersed in the surreal, of being afraid, yet curiously bold and fearless. Isn’t the power of music wonderful?
Now I don’t know if something was supposed to happen when you get to the top, like an ending perhaps, but when I managed to reach the top nothing happened. Peculiar, really, considering I could go no higher. There was a rusty girder leading through a window, but I was unable to get out through it, so uh…? I guess I found another bug? Probably, but oh, well.
What It Could Be
While this game is presented as a simple instance of climbing as high as one can, there’s potential for a deep and touching story about needs and fear. If the tower was to seem impossibly tall, sitting atop a hill amongst a forest, a player could easily be motivated by the need to escape a rising darkness. Amongst the panic, fleeing to the top of a godly tower might seem like the only escape for this poor girl. While pitching a player against the clock might make players feel rushed and stop them from appreciating the world and wordless story, the darkness would follow the player progressively, in sections, probably determined by reaching prominent areas or overcoming notable challenges along the way.
“The White Birch is different to most of the games being released at the moment and has the potential to inspire awe in its audience”
A story about displacement, loss and the unknown would fit so well, don’t you think? To be displaced from one’s home and forced into the dark wood for fear of one’s life. Being guided up to an uncertain sanctuary by a spirit, or perhaps just a frightened bird – who knows what could happen, or why it happens. All we would know from the start is that the ominous tower atop the hill and amongst the terrifying wood looks a lot safer that what pursues you.
The experience of climbing and platforming in a 3D world is typically uncomfortable. Cameras tend to be awkward, as they are here, but with the time to correct that and make the player experience a lot less digital and a lot more analogue, I can imagine this handling like the Alice games from American McGee. Motion in this prototype is very stop-start; the character is either running or stood still. Since the experience is designed to be played on a controller, and since there are edges one can fall from, it would be advantageous for the character to gradually move faster the further you push the analogue stick.
Wood and his team have done a remarkable job of making me want to play a game, and be told a story, that I hadn’t even considered a few weeks ago. The team has taken elements of games I loved and enjoyed and made them into an experience of all their own. The White Birch is different to most of the games being released at the moment and has the potential to inspire awe in its audience, yet isn’t so challenging, or lacking thereof, that it would only appeal to a small niche of player.
Sure, I might have taken something slightly different from the experience than Wood hoped, but whether or not the potential I and others see is the same as the vision Wood might have for this, the concept certainly deserves exploration.