Being a solo game dev sounds like it could be a very lonely profession at times. As such, it’s no surprise that the adventure puzzle game Birth by solo developer Madison Karrh is about exactly that. The WINGS Interactive published game is a beautiful exploration of loneliness, a feeling that I imagine many of us are all too familiar with.
Birth deals with a very specific kind of loneliness though. The kind of loneliness that comes as a result of living in the big city. And it’s ironic, isn’t it? You’re surrounded by people at all times and yet it’s a place that can be incredibly lonely. If you’re like me, and you live in a big city, or maybe even grew up in one, then you will know exactly the kind of feeling that Birth is addressing.
Birth starts with a diary entry stating that our main character can’t deal with their solitude anymore and that they’re going to craft a companion for themselves. The way to do this, apparently, is to enter different buildings in the city, may that be a library, a restaurant, or the apartment of a stranger, and to look through their stuff for bones and organs, to create your own little Frankenstein buddy.
As you can probably tell from this description, Birth is a game with a rather macabre world. The people all wear masks that look like animals skulls (or maybe that’s just their head?), insects are frequently seen crawling around the environment, and more than once you take apart bodies to get what you want. There’s a sense of decay that is present in the world, but don’t let any of that fool you into thinking this isn’t a beautiful looking game.
While all of the things I just described are accurate, it’s a very beautiful, cute even, stylization of these things. Think maybe the animated work of Tim Burton (in what it’s trying to do, not the exact visual style). The environments, which I assume to be hand drawn, are stunning, and every new room you enter is a sight worth taking in. With the general aesthetic I’ve described, and the colour palette that screams autumn, I could certainly see myself revisiting this around Halloween.
Birth follows the classic video game structure of having the main street, the overworld, with which you can interact to a limited degree, and then the different buildings, essentially different levels, which present puzzles to you. Usually it’s a series of smaller puzzles that together form one bigger puzzle in every room. Now let me be honest, the majority of these puzzles aren’t challenging in the slightest, or at least they weren’t for me. So if you like what you’ve read about this game so far, but maybe aren’t usually a puzzle person, give this a try regardless. Conversely, if what you’re looking for is a tough challenge that will force you to rack your brain, then you might be better off with other options.
But the puzzles aren’t the main draw anyway. What makes exploring the different rooms engaging, even if the puzzles are rather simple, is the environmental storytelling the game provides, and the world it builds through it. We’re looking through heirlooms, personal belongings, or even just simple everyday items the characters might be interacting with, and they give us a glimpse into their lives. Something that in the real world we don’t usually get. And coming back to the theme of the game being loneliness and alienation in the big city, an environment in which we so often have no idea what even our next door neighbour might be up to, the ability to see all these little microcosms of other people’s lives is weirdly therapeutical.
There’s another level on which I related to the game deeply, and I don’t know if this was the creator’s intention, or if I projected something onto the game, but I want to throw it out there anyway. I started this review by mentioning that being a solo game dev must be, at times, a lonely profession. Well, I’m not a solo game dev, but I’m an artist (or at least I claim to be one), and one of my disciplines is writing, another profession that can be quite lonely. Seeing this story about someone looking at the world around them, picking up bits and pieces from it, and creating something out of it in an attempt to find a connection with someone, impacted me emotionally quite a bit, whether that was Madison Karrh’s intention or not.
Birth is a very short game, it took me a little under two hours to finish it, but in that time it explores its themes of loneliness better than many, much longer, games do. An effective, if simple, meditation of what it means to be all alone in the big city.
Nairon played Birth on PC with a review copy.