Narrative Resolution and the Tragedy of ‘Angry Birds’

At the time of this article’s publication, there are 760 levels in Rovio’s Angry Birds 2. There are also, by my count, at least seven other Angry Birds games in which the basic objective is to kill the pigs who took the Birds’ eggs (not including games like kart racer Angry Birds GO!). These games have been out for years and, like Angry Birds 2, have hundreds of levels. They will continue to be updated with new levels, and entirely new games in the series will be published, which will in turn be continuously updated with more levels. This will make Rovio a lot of money, and it will give millions of people around the world thousands of levels to try and get three stars in.

But has anyone stopped to think about what that means for the Birds?

Angry Birds

760 levels and counting…

The tragedy of Angry Birds started very innocently, I imagine. One day, the team at Rovio had an idea: why don’t we make a game where players shoot birds out of a slingshot to try and hit a bunch of pigs on haphazardly constructed platforms? There will be different types of birds with different special abilities that make them better at destroying different kinds of materials, like wood, stone, and ice.

That’s all well and good, and a solid design foundation for a game: simple mechanics that can be combined in an effectively infinite number of ways to create a huge variety of complex puzzles. But then someone at Rovio asked a question, a question that turned Angry Birds from a light, fun puzzle game into a tragedy of Sisyphean proportions:

But why are the birds trying to kill the pigs?

Rovio decided they were going to need some kind of narrative justification for why these birds were angry enough to go on an epic pig-murdering spree. Their answer to the question: the pigs took the birds’ eggs, which they are going to eat because they’re pigs.

It makes perfect sense. If you’re coming up with a reason for birds to fight pigs, egg theft is the simplest, most obvious answer. The problem arises when you take that simple narrative hook and combine it with a strategy of a seemingly unending number of new installments in the franchise with a seemingly unending rollout of new levels to even the oldest games.

What you get in that scenario is a narrative that can never end. For every boss pig the Angry Birds defeat, there will always be another one waiting in the wings, ready to swoop in and carry the egg off to the next boss level. The Birds will never get their eggs back. They will never find peace. They will be angry forever, forced to murder untold millions of pigs until the end of time so a bunch of game designers can reap the rewards of the next ninety-nine cent microtransaction.

(The flip side here is that the pigs will never get to eat the eggs, either, but honestly? Screw the pigs; they’re a bunch of dicks, anyway)

Angry Birds

“Patently ridiculous, but let’s try to justify it anyway.”

When I really stop and think about the plight of the Angry Birds, it makes me wish that Rovio hadn’t bothered with adding a narrative element to the games, however small. There’s no scenario in which birds shooting themselves out of slingshots at pigs in ice towers isn’t absurd, so why not just make the game without the narrative hook? Why not make a game where you shoot birds at pigs just because? Why give the Birds a goal that the nature of your design strategy will never allow them to accomplish? It’s just cruel.

The answer is a cynical, if completely understandable, one. If there was no narrative element to the games, it would’ve been much more difficult to make animated shorts, and then physical merchandise, and then a CG animated feature, and then more merchandise. When you create characters, rather than just a bunch of different colored birds, people want to own those characters. Rovio could’ve been leaving a lot of money on the table without a narrative element to exploit in other mediums.

And even if they had forgone a story hook when they released the first Angry Birds, they would’ve had to add one when they decided to branch out into those other media, which would’ve ultimately made it’s way into the games from there. The tragedy of the Angry Birds is inevitable.

So what now? Now that the dark truth at the heart of Angry Birds has been laid bare, what do we do? Where do we go from here? I suppose we should take our cue from the Angry Birds themselves: keep moving to the next level, and the level after that, and on and on until the heat death of the universe. We can’t save the Birds from the unending hell that Rovio has designed, but we can share the pain.


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