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Designing for the draw of evil in Where Birds Go to Sleep

Quiet Little Feet's debut game dives deep into the psychology and banality of evil.

Calen Nakash , Contributor

August 11, 2023

6 Min Read
A screenshot from Where Birds Go to Sleep. Cormo drowns in the water.

Where Birds Go to Sleep is a narrative adventure RPG with mystery and survival elements that tasks players with acting as a smuggler’s subconscious while stuck on a mysterious island. The game focuses on Cormo, a broken man who arrives on a rickety boat with a reluctant companion to a prison colony and finds it deserted. The game explores the themes of class struggle, eugenics and morality but also love, family, abandonment and suffering.

The developers at Quiet Little Feet, Veronika Šuchterová and Martin Šuchter from Slovakia, were eager to discuss how the game came about and its most unique design concept:

"(Our game’s) most interesting mechanic," Šuchterová says, "is that you are not in control."

Players will not play as Cormo directly, but instead guide him through thoughts and opinions, and Cormo will be an active participant in those discussions. The game is presented in a variety of third-person camera angles, which work in tandem with the dichotomy that you are not Cormo, only his subconscious, and it’s your job to guide him on his way.

If he is not satisfied with your answers, he will call out his own subconscious, and by extension, the player, for any inconsistencies, leading to winding internal conversations where both he and the player can prove their ideologies right: fail, and he may even override your decisions in a crisis. "He always has a degree of autonomy," says Šuchterová, "(so) the things he says hit that much harder."

The player’s lack of control over Cormo becomes a bit more worrying when you realize one thing: he can be a right bastard.

Quiet Little Feet wants players to "see through a villain’s eyes"  

Cormo does not begin the game as a pleasant person. The first decision in the demo is whether or not to share a joke with Dunlin, the man rowing a boat with you. The joke, which turns out to be extremely off-color, may lead players to the realization that going with Cormo’s first instincts is possibly not always the best plan.

"Games rarely have their protagonist be a realistically not-so-great person—morally or skill-wise, despite us playing games in a very calculating way," Šuchter says. "Our tagline is: ‘Become what you hate.’"

A screenshot from Where Birds Go to Sleep. It shows a colorful soldier's tent. A line reads

Games with an "evil" or "good" route might feel jarring when the protagonist is, at their heart, a good person. But Cormo starts the game deeply broken, so both options make narrative sense.

"The players will find the "good" options are hard to choose, but evil comes easy—narratively for Cormo and mechanically for the player. And the biggest theme of Where Birds Go to Sleep, Šuchter says, is "the nature of evil."

"What is evil? Is evil real? Who's responsible? And how do we deal with the answers we find?"

Behind the INSIGHT system

Where Birds Go to Sleep follows in the footsteps of other unconventional RPGs like Disco Elysium. Its INSIGHT system doesn’t feature stats like health, defense or magic, but instead relies on six character traits: sincere, insincere, empathetic, cruel, direct and manipulative. These traits increase over the course of the game based on Cormo’s decision making and conversational choices.

"They’re not six sliders," Šuchter explains. Becoming more sincere doesn’t decrease insincerity, but they nonetheless "all affect each other."

Telling a lie to keep someone calm could be seen as manipulative, but doing it to save them from something they couldn’t handle? That would show empathy, according to Šuchter.

This allowed the team at Quiet Little Feet to have a much more nuanced system than old RPGs which might show a conversation bubble with, for example, the top options being 'the good option,' or the bottom being 'the evil option,' but it took a lot of experimentation to achieve, Šuchter noted.

"Quite early in the game, Cormo finds an injured bird on the ground," Šuchter says. "The player can choose to leave it, save it or kill it." Saving or killing the bird could be seen as the empathetic choice, while leaving it to die might cause a cruel Cormo to ignore your empathetic tendencies in the future.

The team at Quiet Little Feet noted that despite taking inspirations from Disco Elysium, The Outer Wilds and Pathologic for their exploration of "grounded, everyday morality" and tackling of "cosmic questions," a genre like Where Birds Go to Sleep probably hasn’t been made before.

"We’d love to just invent a new genre and call it a ‘Bird-type game’, Šuchter says, "but alas, the world is not ready."

Where Birds Go to Sleep is built on a beautiful, painted world

The game’s exploration of darker themes is enhanced by the art style, which is fully painted and features ambient, haunting dynamic music. It’s ethereally beautiful at times: a deserted beach littered with abandoned shoes, a rancid carnival pavilion and an unlit bonfire are just a few of the set pieces Cormo visits. 

Šuchter handles the art, sound and music composing of Where Birds Go to Sleep, while all engine-related tasks such as programming, implementation, prototyping, and are handled by Šuchterová.

The game's inspirations come from real-life locations, as well. 

A screenshot from Where Birds Go to Sleep. It's a painterly image of a woman looking back against a pink sunset.

"We have a wonderful setting in the game, inspired by the Near East (the nexus of Europe, Africa and Asia) and Near Eastern culture and myth. We’ve done a lot of research and worldbuilding, and a lot of the places in the game are real places in the world, or places mentioned in ancient writings," Šuchterová says.

There will be multiple endings, but the developers say it’s more important that every route leading to an end feels complete and rewarding: "If we feel a choice (a player can make) is lesser than others, we replace it with another one. Sometimes that’s not possible, so we cut it. We value quality of choice much higher than quantity."

That replayability will mean that players will be getting to know Cormo very well.

Like an actual person, Cormo isn’t entirely bad or entirely good, but carries with him a long list of insecurities and burdens that only surface briefly in the demo, a glimmer of the man he was, a stranger you’re stuck working with. When he calls you as his subconscious out, he begins by berating you, but ends by calling you a lion, staking his own powerlessness against your apparent confidence. It’s an eerie, striking sequence made starker by Cormo’s weary, bitter words.

Šuchter and Šuchterová hope that when players leave Where Birds Go to Sleep, players will not only end up challenging Cormo’s beliefs, but their own as well. As the game's steam page puts it, the difference between 'trying your best' and 'being a terrible person' is empathy, and whether players find a begrudging acceptance for Cormo's behavior or something further, it's excellent practice for our own lives.     

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