There’s more to Outerloop Games’s Falcon Age than the titular falcon, but there’s no denying that this adorable alien bird is the main attraction. In VR or with a controller you’re giving scritches, doling out treats, and slapping on a variety of adorable hats in order to maintain a close bond with this growing bird that helped you escape a jail cell, and it’s cuter than a cat in a bowtie. But cute don’t pick locks or lead revolutions, which is the narrative backbone to this game and something creative director Chandana Ekanayake and the entire team worked very hard to undergird their bird buddy simulator.
As the young protagonist Ara, you wind up in prison because of a minor crime against the robotic colonial overlords. It’s this anti-colonial spirit that powers the game and propels the journey to liberate the various zones in a world about as large as Firewatch, Ekanayake says. As the team is almost entirely comprised of team members of Asian descent, exploring a fictional colonialism was a direct method of addressing the very real colonial histories throughout that part of the world. To do that they incorporated various elements of their own familial histories, from a wide variety of asian foods you learn to cook for the bird to the demanding love of Ara’s aunt, who is liberal with her critical wisdom and instrumental in Ara’s falconry education.
Though a little safe in setting the colonialists as non-humanoid robots, it is invigorating to have a game confront colonialism directly from the point of view of those who grew up as children and grandchildren of colonial occupation. Will Ara and her feathery companion be able to reclaim their planet, and even if so, what will they do with the sapped husk that remains? While structuring this narrative presented a challenge to Outerloop as they worked on Falcon Age, Ekanayake says that nailing the verisimilitude of the bird was by far the most difficult part of this game’s development. They spent a lot of time with actual falconers to best present the falcon’s tics and hunting instincts, from the whistle to heel or physics-based attacks on drones, robots, and wildlife, as well as working with falconry bell-makers to get authentic foley for the audio.
The Outerloop crew knew crafting a pitch-perfect feel for the falcon was key to this game’s success. The player would have to care for the bird above all to really be invested in the world being spun, and their effort shines. Ekanayake acknowledges too that the team touched on games like The Last Guardian as well (particularly with the petting-as-healing mechanic), but Ara and the falcon are a duo working in tandem—when you aren’t directly commanding the bird it will often go off to hunt on its own but always returns when you need it. Falcon Age doesn’t go nearly as far as The Last Guardian in giving the falcon a simulacrum of independence. Any such oneryness would have to end up off screen anyways, which defeats the point a little as well. Rather than go to such lengths, they focused on keeping Ara’s time with the bird as fresh as possible with a wide array of animations and a variety of scripting that helps the bird feel like a independent-minded creature that still helps you reliably tear down drones from the sky.
Ekanayake admits that most highly-trafficked gifs of Falcon Age are of the infinitely squishable bird, and a lot of playtesters really just wanted to pet and coo with this fabulous friend. Who are Outerloop to deny people the presence of a sweet bird friend? And while the falcon has been impeccably crafted and worth the price of admission, people shouldn’t sleep on the narrative of resistance around Ara and her family. There’s always time to pet feathers, but Falcon Age doesn’t want us to forget that there’s real work to be done in dismantling the long-term effects of imperialism.