You know what’s rare in English Visual Novels? Stories about childhood. Not adolescence: childhood.
There are various reasons behind this, but it comes back to the reliance on familiar tropes to sell a story and most of those tropes are reliant on a cast older or around the legal age of consent…make of that what you will. However, a visual novel focused on honest-to-God children and their adventures is a rarity: a throwback to the influences of creators like Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki. So, when a developer steps up to try to tell such formative stories in interesting ways, I tend to take notice.
Enter InvertMouse. The Australian developer has been extremely busy over the past few years working on the Unhack series as well as Cursed Sight: a visual novel I covered a few years ago that tells the story of two children coming of age as slaves. Their latest project, The Last Birdling, continues in the mold of Cursed Sight but is also looking to be a bit more ambition in terms of narrative. At the moment, all we have to use as a barometer is the demo for Birdling, so let’s see what we can expect!
The biggest selling point for The Last Birdling are easily Tayo and Bimonia: its protagonists. My biggest gripe with any child character in most fiction these days is either they’re basically shrunken adults: usually being the sole voice of reason or the more responsible foil to their brash and rebellious older siblings. Tayo and Bimonia are not even close and their open immaturity and sheltered lives up to this point creates complexity in the overall narrative that wouldn’t otherwise be there.
Selling the audience on these two requires a lot of work and for IM to step up to the plate here shows a great deal of ambition. We’ve talked before on the over-reliance on tropes and cliches, but even trying to combat them in plotting a VN puts a heavy focus on the overarching storylines to break the cycle and not the smaller character details that separates your bargain bin anime tropes from a fleshed-out, complex character: especially when that character is a child.
Tayo is a good barometer of this; if only because she puts up a more mature front than Bimonia. She is the daughter of a respected village widow who is determined to live up to her Mother’s reputation. Her archery skills help back that up, but as I said leading in this is a front. As popular as her mother is, it’s interesting to note that Tayo doesn’t seem to have any friends of her own and is often mocked by others in this village for her shallow pride. It’s a character we’ve seen in action before, but what gives Tayo an edge in potential is the source of said pride, because it doesn’t come from her alone. A lot of it seems to be fed by her mother, who is apparently trying to foster an independent spirit in her daughter.
The reasons for this are unclear. Tayo’s Mother has to know that her daughter’s upbringing is isolating her, but instead of trying to correct or guide her, she pulls back. Tayo’s independence is important to both, however as the demo goes on it’s clear that same sensibility also increases the danger for the girl. Discovering why she was this way will be a major part of the audience’s experience with her, but for now we see an immediate reaction from her upbringing in her fast friendship with Bimonia.
Bimonia is very similar to Tayo. Like Tayo she idolizes her Mother, who raises her alone after the death of her Father. Also like Tayo a great deal of her self-image comes from her shallow pride as a birdling: basically a humanoid with wings, senses, taste buds, fashion sense, etc. Unlike Tayo, she is extremely dependent on her mother and isn’t allowed far outside of their home in the forest. And while we still have to learn about Tayo’s upbringing, we know exactly why Bimonia is being hidden away from the world.
In this universe, birdlings have apparently been hunted and fought to the point of near extinction as Bimonia’s Mother spends most of her day looking for more of her kind with no results so far. For all intents and purposes, once her Mother passes away, Bimonia will be the last of her kind (hence the title, I’m assuming). So, it’s clear to the audience from the jump why Bimonia is the way she is.
The ‘why’ of this conflict will apparently form the overarching narrative of the game. Bimonia’s inner monologue has a lot of strong opinions on the human race that clearly comes from her mother who may or may not be justified in her hatred. Tayo contradicts this by having no fear of Bimonia at all, but also won’t tell her Mother what she’s been up to. Her inner monologue suggests that most people are afraid of birdlings, but her actions make that difficult to take at face value. Because the story promises some exploration into bigotry and the two maintaining their friendship despite the world’s view, I’m betting it’s actually a mixture of the two and both humans and birdlings shoulder some blame for the current events.
Of course that’s my speculation. It could be a very cut-and-dry ‘look at how mean the humans are’ package we’re getting here. But I’m choosing to hope for the best thanks to the depth of the narrative we’ve gotten so far in the demo. A lot of that is due to the decision to switch perspectives between Bimonia and Tayo. Both character’s inner monologues and separate decisions fleshes them out well. Currently, I love this approach and look forward to seeing how it will affect the storyline and different endings to come.
The biggest potential drawback to Birdling is what happened in Cursed Sight. The second act crushed the tension the first act worked so hard to build, leaving the endings to resuscitate the game with varying degrees of success. As I said, this is a very ambitious project, so in the end success will depend on the editing side of the table: as in what should be taken out of the final cut and what should be left in. For now though, I am very impressed with its story and characters, as well as the direction IM seems to be going with this. This developer really enjoys this Ghibli-esque approach to their projects: focusing on childhood and coming-of-age stories with a slightly darker twist. Even the Unhack series (which I will be getting to soon) has shades of this and their vision and ambitious is commendable. My only hope is that The Last Birdling will live up to their apparent goals.
If you haven’t played The Last Birdling demo yet, I strongly suggest you do so by downloading it from the official website here! JP3: OUT.