Review by Matt S.
Birthdays The Beginning is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever played. It’s not pushing polygons like Horizon: Zero Dawn or any other blockbuster game out there might, and it doesn’t have the vivid stylisation of a game like Persona 5; but what characterises Birthdays is a humble warmth, innocence, and grace. It’s the kind of game that melts the heart and relaxes the mind; a hypnotic, zen-like toybox experience offering the perfect foil to the hyper-real and systems-laden gaming that characterises so much of what we play. It’s a joyful escape and retreat, and in playing it we’ll even learn a thing or two along the way.
The game is the brainchild of Yasuhiro Wada. Best known for creating Harvest Moon, Wada’s clearly hit the point in his career where he is confident with who he is and his sense of creativity. The Harvest Moon games worked hard to present players with a relaxed pastoral experience, but often they would have gamey elements thrown in that seemed at odds with that laid-back pace they wanted players to be on board with. Wada’s work since leaving the Harvest Moon series has been eclectic — everything from Deadly Premonition to Little King’s Story and Valhalla Knights — but with Birthdays it feels like he’s back at home, playing with the kind of experience that he in so many ways pioneered.
Indeed, Birthdays is the ultimate realisation of that initial concept that drove Harvest Moon. What goals this game throws at players are so relaxed as to be easy and guiltlessly ignored. In Birthdays you’re given the job of taking a flat bit of land suspended in space and breathing life into it. At first all you can do is raise and lower land, but soon after you’ll be able to introduce water into the environment. Manage the landscape and temperature well (by raising and lowering land, and by fiddling around with how much water is in the environment), and life will take its first tentative steps into existence. At first it will be the most simple of plankton, but then primitive jellyfish will evolve, encouraged into stable existence thanks to the plentiful plankton food around. The first sea-plants will emerge, and then scurrying shellfish.
In a couple of hour’s play, I went from a lifeless mass of rock to having the first plant life emerge from the ocean, starting to flourish on land. I was overjoyed. Here I was, slowly manipulating evolution into “birthing” more and more complex creations and diverse ecosystems. What were once featureless, dull pools of water were suddenly teeming with life, and while I was a very long way from creating dinosaurs, let alone primitive humans or those adorable ducks that are on the game’s promotional material, I was fully invested in a world that I had no direct control over (I was still only raising and lowering landscapes to manipulate temperature, humidity, and other factors), but was fully accountable to.
To make time advance, I’d need to pull the camera far back, so that I no longer had any control over the environment, and then watch and wait nervously to see how the changes that I’d made to the landscape were impacting on the various populations of animals and plants I was trying to cultivate. As basic evolution tells you, at various points species need to die out and be replaced, but I found myself watching the population numbers for each species with baited breath. I didn’t want any of them to go extinct. This was my world, and somehow complete biodiversity became so important to me. I would say a sad goodbye to some species, even as I was trying to breathe on the embers of the start of another species; a population barely a couple of hundred in size could be snuffed out so quickly — before they even began, really, if I couldn’t cultivate the precise environment that they needed.
I had all the time in the world to carefully plan out what I needed to do to drive evolution the way I wanted it to, so Birthdays was never a stressful experience; but it was an emotional one, and I did feel very involved in what was going on – ironic, given how little direct control I had. The character designs by Ochappi help, of course. Ochappi is one of Japan’s leading clay artists, and every character created by the artist is impossibly bright, cute, and charming. For Birthdays, Ochappi’s models were the perfect choice. Thanks to these designs every animal, creature, and plant in the game conveys a pure innocence, a bright charm you’ll connect with instantly. By the time that I finally unlocked the duck my game’s world was positively teeming with such a variety of ultra-cutesy life that it was almost painfully charming to look at.
At the start of Birthdays, you’ve only got a tiny square of land to play with, but as you hit particular milestones, that space of land will grow bigger, able to sustain more life and more complex ecosystems. There’s a lot to learn in playing the game about the dynamics that control the environment, and that’s another reason I love this game so; it’s so gently educational that you’ll not really realise you’re being lectured as you play. Much like Wada’s Harvest Moon games, which explained to generations of Japanese city kids the basic principles of farming. Birthdays glosses over the nastier side of evolution, and though the number crunching in the background allows for actual mass extinction events if you modify the landscape enough, all you’ll ever see on the screen is bright, happy critters running around. The game does take the time to explain the various species that it represents, however, and is an accurate abstraction of the process of evolution.
The game also offers the most subtle conversations about the most important topic of our time: that of climate change. It’s no coincidence that one of the most dominant factors in determining which species lives or dies is the temperature in the air and water. Throw things out by just a few degrees, and a large number of species that you might have spent hours cultivating may well be headed to extinction. It is a basic reality that this is a very real threat the world’s ecosystems face at the moment, and while Birthdays doesn’t preach, it is so incredibly valuable that this game is able to show people a simulation of just how significant the impact of climate change can be.
What is also appealing about the game is its powerful sense of spirituality. It’s not just that you’re a disembodied “God” slowly manipulating things behind the scenes in order to encourage evolution along particular lines. It’s that it is also a deeply reflective game, almost zen-like in its rhythms and the patience it asks of its players. And, as a Japanese game by Japanese creators, there’s also a very Shinto-toned respect for the value and potency of all life; Shinto believes in kami, or the spirits of phenomena, and thanks to Ochappi’s designs, and the way each and every creature is animated and characterised in Birthdays, it’s easy to feel the spirit and joyful sense of life in each character.
Birthdays could have been a contentious game in some circles, because regardless of scientific reality, dealing with the topic of evolution is a tricky one. It’s a testament to the intentions of the development team that the game demonstrates respect for all. That it can be such a deeply reflective, spiritual game in itself, while also representing evolutionary forces, is an argument that these things don’t need to be mutually exclusive to a person; that evolution is a spiritual experience in itself.
It’s the kind of game that I would sit down and play for hours on end. Explicit achievements are less important than simply watching your digital miniature garden grow and develop, and it’s the perfect game to play to relax after a stressful day, or just as easily, a lazy Sunday afternoon. For players who really can’t enjoy games that don’t have explicit objectives, there are these little “missions” that are completely optional, but can be completed if you’ve really mastered the game’s systems and know how best to manipulate the environment. I find them unnecessary, but thankfully they seem to have been thrown in there as an afterthought anyway.
Properly articulating what Birthdays means to me is difficult. It is the embodiment of the pure joy of gaming, where I can sit down and simply immerse myself within this space without feeling pressure or tension. There’s nothing to “win,” but everything to enjoy while, at the same time, the game is pointing out, in its very innocent and heartfelt way, a very simple but so important environmental message. To Yasuhiro Wada, the environment itself has always been the real protagonist of his games, and Birthdays The Beginning is the ultimate realisation of that philosophy.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld