Wednesday, 1 December 2010

These birds are ANGRY

I've recently become obsessed with playing Angry Birds, which I realize makes me pretty late to the game, but I can't be on top of trends about everything (or very much at all, really).

Initially the game was mindless fun, but rapidly its details began to disturb me.

If you've never played it, the premise of the game is this, told in a series of flashbacks at the start: some nasty pigs have stolen the eggs of their kindly, nuclear-family oriented (and one may presume solidly middle-class and heterosexual) red bird neighbours and so the birds begin to wage a war against the pigs.  It is not clear, from the original flashback, whether the ultimate goal of the war is the return of the stolen eggs or a more Greek-tragedy cry for revenge following the eggs' destruction.

The pigs, as is their fairytale wont, are inveterate house-builders, choosing to construct elaborate henge-like structures whose complexity increases as the war continues.  However, these are not your grandwolf's piggies: they employ glass, stone, brick, and wood.  There's no straw in sight.  Furthermore, the pigs are social creatures rather than eccentric loners who only turn to their siblings when they are literally homeless.  These pigs cluster together inside of their houses, peeking out of the windows so that they appear from the perspective of the player (and by extension the birds) as disembodied, chortling heads.  Their defensive strategy calls for no surrender, and as such they remain undisputed champions unless all of them are dead.

The birds, meanwhile, take up position at a location some distance (it is unclear how this is determined or who in the birds' chain of command determines it) from each Pig House and erect a slingshot.  They then climb, one by one, into the sling and launch themselves at the Pig House.  Their goal is to kill every pig inside.  For the birds, this is a one way trip: the launch of the sling marks their final flight, for they are inevitably killed in the violence of their attack.

The first hint that something inside of the Angry Birds world was very, very wrong came when I played the game in a silent room with the media volume turned up.  As soon as each level began, I realized that the birds were chirping with a sinister intensity as they awaited their turn in the slingshot.  Glancing away from the field of battle (the Pig's House) towards them, I saw that they were arrayed along the ground behind the slingshot, hopping up and down and chittering in an almost-orgiastic frenzy as a solitary bird -- presumably closely related to those on the ground, as a husband, wife, neighbour, friend... -- hopped into the slingshot and readied him/herself for the drawback, precise arc of last flight, and demise upon the broken remains of the Pig's House.

At first, I didn't begrudge the birds' their suicidal frenzy.  Historical precedent from similar types of soldiers (think: Viking berserkers) suggests that, prior to entering battle, they must have taken some form of mind-altering substance, perhaps due to their own desires or perhaps on the orders of a higher ranking official.  Tripping out of their tiny bird minds, terrified of their impending doom, they express themselves as best they can with a series of hops and chirps that may be societally coded.  We, the human player, cannot fathom these without being culturally embedded in the world of the bird -- and the game's entry level is low enough that we are allowed a glimpse into the warfare practices of this society without having to learn the language.  So while it disturbed me, I put it aside for several levels, thinking it was a cultural misunderstanding.

The level where it became impossible to ignore the birds' agitated clamouring for blood was when the original red birds -- the wronged parties whose eggs were allegedly stolen by the pigs -- were joined at the slingshot by smaller blue birds.  To say that this development disturbed me is to understate the case.  The introduction of the blue bird allies was jarring and their bloodlust, if anything, appeared even more frenzied than that of their red bird counterparts.  The sight of their tiny bodies -- only a few pixels in size -- gyrating in motions of simulated and overtly sexual acts of violence -- began to sicken me, as the true nature of the birds' campaign against the pigs began to reveal itself.

Why would the blue birds, who in a normal social order are prey species of the red birds, join in if the goal of the war was to rescue the red birds' eggs?  Successfully hatched red birds' eggs result in dead blue birds.  The carefully constructed narrative -- complete with its propagandic documentary -- began to crumble.  If the blue birds were there to help the red birds, then the eggs of the red birds must be dead, and the war is not a rescue mission at all...

The next obvious conclusion is that the red birds know that their eggs are dead.  Biologically, if the campaign goes on longer than a few hours, this must be true -- the eggs will have grown cold.

The passage of time is unclear in the game.  It is difficult to tell whether the attacks against the pigs' houses are simultaneous or taking place over time.  Given the fact that all parties involved are dead at the conclusion of each level, there is no reason to believe that the attacks are not simultaneous; however, the pigs seem to have some notion that time is passing and of the tragedy of their fellows' deaths, for, as mentioned above, their houses become more and more elaborately defensive as the war goes on.

The increasingly desperate defensive erections of the pigs brings us to another disturbing point, and that is the nature of the birds' enemy, the pigs.  In the flashback, a single pig family is depicted as having stolen the birds' eggs and yet the war seems to be a genocidal one, with the birds not resting until all the pigs are dead and their houses destroyed.  In fact, this may explain the presence of the blue birds -- they may be a slave species, pressed into service at the hands of the red birds in order to ensure the total destruction of the pig race.  The red birds may even be holding the eggs of the blue birds hostage.

And even if the pigs as a race have a long history of egg stealing, why would the red birds leave their eggs in plain sight of the pig territory in the farmyard?  Why wouldn't the red birds make an effort to incubate and raise their offspring in a safe, pig-free environment?  Unless... those initial eggs were somehow bait for the pigs, placed there deliberately by the red birds so that they would be stolen... and would provide a convenient excuse for war?

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