I’m lucky to have some very motivated and lovely friends in The Gauntlet who want to play all sorts of strange games. Noella was motivated to play Strange Birds, and fortunately they reached out to me and the timing just worked!
What is Strange Birds?
Strange Birds (currently in beta form) is a short story game written by Gauntleteers Lauren McManamon and Kyle Thompson. It’s a duet game about weird birds honoured through the lens of a nature documentary. I had heard Lauren talk about it in relation to some of the endearing extinct and near-extinct birds - such as the Kakapo - a species of large, flightless, nocturnal, ground-dwelling parrot, from New Zealand.
Noella definitely gave the game some thought, and I just want to give a shout out to the organized nature of the session. As someone who is normally a facilitator, and I daresay I’m a good one, I am often times not the most organized. I was thoroughly impressed and felt supported as a player in this session. They’d thought of everything in regards to order of play and had done the research on the game play (and meta-game play) so I just didn’t have to! It was lovely.
We had met online the day prior to do character generation, which first involved a few steps that included an exploration and decision on biomes, doing some online image searches and making collages, and writing down some setting traits; we settled on the Vasyugan Swamp which is mostly in Siberia, after seeing some stunning scenes.
After that was creation of two strange birds. We were chatting as we looked at some swamp birds, and although ours may not have come directly from that same swamp, we borrowed some birds, tweaked some traits and weaknesses and eccentricities, and settled on the Black Grouse and Spoonbill. The character keeper made it easy to dump the images and keep track of all the various details.
That’s where we ended, spending about 30 minutes just doing some setting and bird creation in preparation for game play the next day.
We first had a conversation about safety, and Lines and Veils, and although we didn’t have any explicit lines, we decided that due to the brutal nature of the animal kingdom, we’d use veils for: sexual violence, violence against children, and explicit visera and gore. We wouldn’t explore any of these gratuitously, and if they came up, it would be in the background.
In the Introduction Scene, we settled on the narrator being Noella and the cinematographer being me. Noella started with “We bring ourselves now to the frigid waters of the Vasyugan swamp, located in the southwestern part of Siberia, Russian. The swamp is located in the Novosibirsk, Omsk, and Tomsk regions of Russia along the west bank of the Ob River.” From there we went back and forth, me describing various scenes, including those with hints of our strange birds, and Noella giving more National Geographic inspired verbiage.
We continued through rounds of play, where in each round we took turns playing out scenes. During the scene an individual player was responsible for, they’d do the setting of the scene. The instructions allow you to choose that round to be solo scenes (where each bird is scene separately) or duet scenes (where we see the birds interacting in some way). There is also this guidance:
Solo scene (active player plays the bird, the other player plays the environment)
Duet scene (active player plays their bird, the second player plays the second bird)
Although we started by trying to follow these instructions, we ended up just going back and forth, each playing aspects of the bird and environment as felt appropriate, and really just taking turns with story beats.
One of the clever things about these scenes is that you choose a trait (or weakness or eccentricity) to highlight during each scene, so it really helps guide what you see in the story. Additionally there are a number of great nature-show type scene prompts to help spur ideas.
How our story played out
If you are interested in the minutia of the game, here is a bit of a summary. You actually are made to write up little summaries as you play, which personally I love, as it makes it easy to review and relive later! (If you are more interested in the actual play video, just scroll down below.) This is what we wrote:
Round 1: Starts with foggy (mysterious) weather; solo scenes. Scene 1 (Tomes): The Spoonbills are feeding, when a Golden Eagle watches and takes flight to attack a smaller male. The female uses her intimidation defense mechanism and scares it off, but it circles and takes a Black Grouse instead. Scene 2 (Noella): The black grouse flies up to a branch in a tree. Two female grouses fly up to a branch above him, but he is afraid of heights and is nervous. He works up the courage to go up there, but does not stick the landing and gets his feathers in a bunch trying to land. The two females are not impressed and end up leaving for a different tree.
Round 2: The weather turns clear and slightly warm; focus on birds interacting; duet scenes. Scene 1 (Noella): The grouse is grooming himself by the water, when he sees the spoonbill. He puffs himself up to look good, and they seem to be chummy with each other. He slips and falls into the water. The spoonbill swims away, not looking very impressed. Scene 2 (Tomes): A spoonbill is seen approaching its nest and babies. An injured grouse falls from the tree nearby, and the spoonbill adopts it temporarily, bringing it into the nest for feeding. During this time all are fed, but a turtle that has unwillingly been adopted strikes the spoonbill’s beak, and leaves the nest, upset.
Round 3: A stranger enters and a chase; solo scenes (but tied together with a shared stranger); The weather becomes a storm. Scene 1 (Tomes): A young wolf pup, curious about the spoonbill. The bird makes some sounds and an initial display, but then tries to take flight. She crashes through a smaller branch, and ungracefully lands on a larger one. Flying is not her strong suit. Scene 2 (Noella): The grouse is sitting under a tree, taking shelter from the rain. The pup, “the great predator” approaches. As the pup gets closer, the grouse notices his presence. The grouse bolts into the rain, and while the little wolf gives chase, the grouse has speed on its side. Our last shot is of the puppy sitting in the rain, looking dejected.
Round 4: The weather changes yet again hinting at spring and sunshine; A moment of confusion, and shared traits: raised in same nest, weird parents. Scene 1 (Noella): We see the spoonbill chick and grouse chick snuggling in the nest. Baby grouse hops out of the nest and goes towards the water, and attempts to start feeding like a spoonbill. However, she can’t swim and starts to drown. The narrator comments “unfortunately, despite their closeness, some things can’t be learned.” Mama spoonbill lifts her up back onto land. Mama grouse ushers her over, while pushing baby spoonbill towards the water. Scene 2 (Tomes): What we learn from each other. Times are tough as the weather becomes dry and the swamp bed thing. The spoonbill learns to eat insects by imitating the grouse. Although times are lean, they make it through together. We see both birds emulating each other, with the grouse pecking the ground, but in the back-and-forth manner learned from the spoonbill.
The end scene
The end of the game has us asking questions, first about the greater world and humanity, then some self-reflection questions, such as how we see ourselves in these birds. It’s a great little ending which gives us some of those same feelings we get at the end of a great nature documentary.
And the game ends. Back to our human lives.
If you are interested in the actual play of the session, you can view it below.