Freebird Games: More Than Storytelling
How Kan Gao’s indie hits have left a permanent mark on the gaming landscape
In 2013, Polygon’s Tracey Lien wrote an article on how indie games had turned mainstream. She stated that “Both Microsoft and Sony have drummed up their support for indie games, bringing indie titles to their press conferences and devoting large portions of their floor space at events like E3 and Gamescom to smaller titles”, which had opened up the stage usually occupied by blockbusters from the world’s biggest studios to companies that would otherwise get little or no acknowledgement.
It was a slow rise for indie games; on the PC front, Steam became a destination for enormous success for some developers. And now, indie games are celebrated across the board. The kind of indies that become highly successful vary significantly, too. From successes such as the first-person exploration experience Dear Esther (2012), platform and puzzler Braid (2008), and more recently, the one-man developer of the critically acclaimed indie hit, Stardew Valley (2016).
The indie boom of 2008 stirred up quite a storm, and while some gamers began taking shelter (with others taking a deep dive into these wonderfully vibrant worlds), it was perhaps in 2011 that a new meaning of gameplay was constructed. One that by tradition, would be better associated with RPGs, but tagged to indie games nonetheless.
With the right tools given to the right developers, magic can sparkle from pixels.
This is a take on Kan Gao’s Freebird Games, developers of To The Moon and its sequel Finding Paradise, and how they’ve left their mark on the gaming landscape in order to tell a story that needed to be told.
The rise and success of the RPG
By the turn of the millennium, role-playing games (RPGs) became one of the biggest selling genres of that time, with the Final Fantasy series leading the way with fluid combat, grand storytelling, and complex characters that were easy to love.
In what is often deemed the ‘golden age’ of RPGs (from the early 1990s to the early 2000s), many gamers saw how the combat system and the way each character interacted with another became a lasting way to tell a story, and in that way, create their own. With gamers, the creativity is endless.
RPGs held great potential. It was mix-and-match, it was min-max, it was trying to get the best out of the system, and making it look cool. And in 1995, gamers were spoiled with one of the best RPGs in the form of Chrono Trigger.
In many ways, Chrono Trigger represented a watershed moment for gaming and gamers as a whole.
It represented more than just pixels on a screen, doot-sounds as themes for your main characters, and gameplay elements that might seem confusing at first.
Chrono Trigger went on to become one of the most beloved games of its genre, and together with the success of the Final Fantasy games, ushered in a new wave of developers to take on the mantle of creating their own diverse worlds through this genre.
The RPG Maker series was first created in 1992 by Japanese developers ASCII, and later succeeded by Enterbrain. While the series may not have seen huge success through its lifetime, it had no doubt left a market on gamers-turned-developers who were waiting their entire childhood to tell stories through games. And now, they finally could. Over the years, RPG Maker saw various changes and improvements, and through those changes, gave life to individual developers, enabling them to show the world their ideas. Through t time, many great games emerged thanks to RPG Maker’s accessibility and ready-made tools — but just like a see-saw, there were games that didn’t make the cut.
Of the developers who made genuine success of the platform, one in particular is worth discussing here: Kan Gao and Freebird Games.
A composer first and a storyteller by heart, Kan ‘Reives’ Gao said in an interview that he set out to write and create a story after having an experience with his ill grandfather, and wondering if one day, when his time came, if the would have any life regrets. The story — spoilers ahead for those who have not yet played To The Moon — tackles the same themes of regret and wishes, in which two doctors traverse through the memories of an old man to fulfill his last wish.
Developed five years before its release in 2011, Kan Gao started with RPG Maker XP, released in 2005. Going back to the interview, Kan said that “It was just the perfect engine for making something like this efficiently — it had all the tools I needed, especially considering the technical side of the game isn’t anything demanding.”
It was true.
While To The Moon contained a story that shined, its gameplay elements consisted of simplified puzzles embedded within its point-and-click system. Despite being heavily criticized for the aforementioned elements, those who have experienced the game first-hand soon understood that its lack of gameplay was in service to telling its stellar story, and that was what pushed the game through the doors of many who would otherwise not have played this “game”.
Even while being a one-man team, Kan sought help from many others in the industry, in particular singer-songwriter and composer Laura Shigihara, who contributed to the games To The Moon and its sequel, Finding Paradise, by helping to create some of the music.
Laura went on to develop her own video game, also using making use of RPG Maker XP, and released hers in 2017. That game was Rakuen, a story about a little boy in a hospital with his mother as they journey through a fantasy world seeking answers to empathy, hope, and what it means to come to terms with your own story by leaving behind a legacy.
Playing an important part in creating the cohesive storytelling project that was To The Moon, Kan truly invoked an essence as he went back and forth in creating the songs to attach them to the powerful moments in the game.
But the engaging thought that players left the game with wasn’t about the soundtrack, the happy-sad story, or the puzzle-based gameplay.
It was a rollercoaster of emotions, and all of the above elements played a part in getting us there.
For most, To The Moon can be completed in roughly 4 to 6 hours, depending on the player and play style. It is also through the 4 to 6 hours that players will be able to experience the wide-range of emotions that Kan had left inside the story of Johnny, the man who had tasked Sigmund Corp doctors Eva and Neil to fulfill his final wish.
It is the thought: what if we never get to live the life we’ve always dreamed?
It is the sentiment: what if I’m not happy with the way things are?
It is the regret: what would have happened had I done this instead?
The way in which Kan methodically placed certain story threads and beautifully arranged music was magic before every player’s eyes. It was a wonder in the game that filled a void that couldn’t be explained.
It answered the question: could video games ever be art? And it answered the follow-up question: could you give a definite example?
In my view, 2011’s To The Moon created a new sub-genre for indie games, and in a way, showed that it could be ever-successful. But that wasn’t all.
One of the best indie games of 2018 was created by Matt Makes Games, the same developers who also created Towerfall Ascension. That game was Celeste, a beautiful 2D platformer in which you play as Madeline, a girl that focused on climbing the Celeste Mountain in a journey that is both heart-rending and challenging, built around gorgeous pixel backdrops and moving music to keep you going.
One of the best indie games of 2017 was developed by Giant Sparrow, a company in which their last release came in 2012, titled The Unfinished Swan. Then there’s What Remains of Edith Finch, is a first-person narrative-driven game that evokes the spell of Dear Esther and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, while giving players reign to uncover the secrets and stories as the last remaining member of the Finch family.
The trend of indie games incorporating story into their vastly distinct gameplay elements continued to set a trend for the gaming industry, and one that deserves to be mentioned.
While Kan may not have directly been involved with the essence of connection through player and game story, he certainly had a hand in pushing it forward.
Indie games, just like big-budgeted games, have taken a conscientious look forward so as to surprise players, and draw them into the world that they have delicately created. Whether it be sound, story, or scenes, indie games prove that its turn in the spotlight isn’t wasted, and impresses with paint brushes that splashed in spectacular colors.
The experience of games have become just as important as how players see it.
By creating a unified experience that draws on all levels of emotional resonance, indie games can leave an impact that no other big budgeted release can, and one that lingers so often you’ll wish you could have forgotten it so that you can relive it again for the very first time.
Kan Gao and Freebird Games told a story through each game, stories that were as brilliant and emotional as it was resonant.
He made us realize that the power of indie games wasn’t just about the pixel art, it wasn’t just about how well they could stack up to the big boys, but about the connection between game and player.
It was the ending theme in Finding Paradise that you’ll cherish.
It was the story of Johnny and River in To The Moon that you’ll remember.
It was the experience unfolding before your eyes, and your imagination taking flight.
And it was beautiful.