“Make no mistake; you’ve made your decisions.”
Haunting, unsettling, and thought-provoking, I won’t easily forget my half-hour’s encounter with Where Birds Go To Sleep. Like most demos, it’s tough to get a handle on the full story of this painterly mind-bender — but it’s completely possible here that this feeling is intentional and not a side effect of the format.
I first appear on a boat as a prisoner, and I have no idea what I’ve done to earn this eerie trip through the fog. However, I try to make the best of the ride by making light conversation with a fellow inmate. He doesn’t seem to like me much.
The game is rich with color, and the impressionistic strokes making up the world and characters lend everything a dreamlike quality, which nicely supports the surreal-feeling narrative. I’m not directing my character. Each story beat players out one painted tableau after another where my interaction is restricted to choosing dialogue options or what to investigate. Again, the mechanics support the game. I don’t feel like I’m in control as I’m whisked away to some punishment for a crime I have no concept of. Strangely, when the game cuts to the island jail, there’s not a soul on it, and the mysteries begin to stack up.
With no other action to help bear the burden, the demo hinges on its writing, which measures up to the task. While exploring my inexplicably deserted destination, my conversations snake in unexpected ways, my thoughts explore turbulent themes — like societal desperation, inner demons, and human struggles — and my observations reveal more about the superstition-steeped landscape. For instance, my only companion appears to have been some kind of alchemist in his pre-inmate life and my dreams turn to a small snowy town that burns bird effigies when the creatures make their yearly migration.
The murky story and conceptual inclination might turn some away, but Where Birds Go To Sleep commanded my attention throughout my time with the demo.