All screenshots courtesy Outerloop Games

'Falcon Age' Is a Damning Anti-Colonialist Story In Search of a Better Game

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE this cute bird. This bird is like family to me. BUT...

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Apr 11 2019, 4:34pm

All screenshots courtesy Outerloop Games

My name is 0507. At least, that’s what my robotic wardens call me. I’m stuck in a prison operated by the Outer Ring Company, an interstellar mining corporation that hops from world to world, draining planets of their resources. And to them, a number is all anyone needs: simple, clean, universal identification.

But, after escaping from prison with the help of a baby falcon, I meet my Auntie, and she calls me by another name, my full name: Sarangerai, or “Ara” for short. I tell her, “I missed the way you say my name. They always mangle the pronunciation.” She replies, “Machine tongues, girl. Though it’s not their fault. Don’t think the people who built them cared about getting our names right.” But she adds another note: It’s not that they’re ignorant of the importance of names, in fact, “they know they’re important. Especially when they get them wrong.”

Outerloop’s Falcon Age tells a story all too real, a story in which colonizers have claimed an inhabited land for their own, stripped it of its resources, forcing the colonized to "cooperate,” or risk fatal consequences. In this world (as in our own), “cooperation” is expected to be enacted as obedience, subordination, and assimilation. This is Falcon Age at its strongest, in which it illustrates the very real ways colonizers chip away at the traditions and values within the colonized’s culture—beginning with a name.

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It’s a promising start. You set off to shut down each of the Outer Ring Company’s refineries, helping various NPCs with their problems along the way. As you, on foot, explore the world around you, your falcon follows from above.

Although I did not play in VR in my review playthrough, I did get the chance to briefly try it out during my demo at PAX East. As she was perched on one finger, I loved watching the way the falcon’s feathers moved as I pet her, and seeing her hop from finger to finger as I turned my hand was really cool.

Throughout the game, you forage, hunt, and fight robotic enemies together. By pressing L2, you can point her in the direction of cliffside fruits or small rabbits, sending her to retrieve various resources, which can then be used to make snacks to boost her stats, like heath or stealth. Hitting L1 while she soars above calls her to perch on your arm. Here, hitting square triggers one of several different interactions, my personal favorite being one in which she shakes your pinky finger with her claws, as if you’re shaking hands. There are also various hats and toys you can collect for your bird, one of which turns your full-grown falcon back into its baby form (without any changes in stats). It’s extremely cute.

In your attempt to push back against the ORC’s colonization effort, you’ll break into refineries, clear minefields, and solve simple puzzles. To take down drones and other robot enemies, you must first send your falcon in, exposing their weak points, after which you can take them down with a few whacks of your shock-baton. Other obstacles include turrets and towers that release little scorpion-like robots, which you can disable thanks to a whip upgrade on your baton from Auntie. You can also use impact grenades to stun your more formidable foes.

Along the way, there are hidden treasures to be discovered, usually resulting in more hats or toys for your bird. But all the bird-related cuteness couldn’t distract me from feeling like I was waiting for an answer to the questions Falcon Age set up at the start.

Instead, I spent most of my time playing Falcon Age solving boring puzzles and re-clearing the same minefield six times. At one point, I actually grinded this same minefield for scrap to complete a quest that I thought I needed to complete the game, but found out later it was completely unnecessary (a problem stemming from the game’s failure to distinguish between optional and mandatory quests). Several times, I found myself walking around the entire map talking to every NPC, because despite having a system for waypoints, the game doesn’t mark who exactly I’m supposed to turn a given quest into. I collected countless ingredients to cook, but aside from health recovery, I never really saw the effect of the various recipes at my disposal. There was one snack in particular that boasted higher charisma stats, that I had to just make and feed to my bird to figure out what it did. Twice. Did this treat give me the ability to chat with my bird? Or maybe, did this treat mean my bird could now sweet talk our enemies into submission? I later learned it was actually lowering the shopkeeper’s item prices.

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Maybe if I played in VR, I would feel somewhat closer to this world and its people. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so physically stuck to the ground. Maybe I would have travelled through Falcon Age’s world in a way that didn’t feel so repetitive. Maybe, just maybe, getting to pet the cute baby bird in VR would have been enough to put all of these questions out of my mind. But having played it the way I did, I can’t help but feel that through its reductive gameplay, Falcon Age distracts itself from the compelling themes it initially introduced.

All the while, I was focused on questions the game wasn’t interested in offering insight into. What is the tradition of falcon hunters? What was the cultural significance of a hunter’s relationship with their falcon? How do you fight a foe so much larger and better equipped than you? Is assimilation a necessary evil or complicity? What do your various acts of reclamation—in the form of enacting the tradition of being a falcon hunter, or even the act of taking back the refineries for the resistance—truly mean for the colonized themselves?

Unfortunately, Falcon Age doesn’t do enough to explore these questions, failing to develop the very traditions that it puts under threat. It makes an attempt, certainly, in the way Ara tries to observe the tradition of being a falcon hunter, a tradition seemingly dying with Auntie. But by the end of the game, I struggled to understand what exactly it meant to be a falcon hunter. I spent the bulk of the game with a companion that I never really saw grow. Not even in a literal sense: Outside of the prison, I spent one day with my baby bird, and then the next time I woke up, I was told months had passed, and suddenly, she was a full-grown falcon.

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To have left the game asking all these questions about meaning and significance was especially disappointing because of how strongly Falcon Age sets up its themes at the start of the game.

Back when I escaped that prison and met Auntie, she lectured me about what it meant to be a falcon hunter: “Years of training. Rituals. Traditions. Most of it lost now.” But one such tradition remained: The name. She gave me a task, and told me that when I completed it, I will have earned the ability to name my bird. So, together, my bird and I set off to fight as “sisters in arms,” just like Auntie told me, and when I returned I told her that fighting with my falcon was like “singing the same song in different languages.” Soon, I decided on a name for her: Itayam. “It means ‘heart’ in a language you’ve probably forgotten,” says Auntie. She continues, “It suits her. Train her, but respect the demon spirit, the wildness inside her. Promise me, Sarangerai.”

But, aside from this initial moment, I never had the opportunity to call my bird by her given name again. It wasn’t represented anywhere in the game, as Ara primarily communicates with the falcon through whistles. Her name never shows up in the UI and I could never find it in any menus; I had to replay the start of the game just to confirm the name I’d chosen.

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This feeling of a false starts and missed opportunities hangs over Falcon Age. Which is doubly frustrating because to see a game be so forward facing from the start about telling a story of colonizers and colonized, specifically from the perspective of the colonized, is important. Often, we are only granted that perspective in the form of an NPC or two in an entire game (I’m looking at you Shadow of the Tomb Raider).

And though I was at times frustrated with in-game bugs and environmental inconsistencies, it didn’t detract from how much I enjoyed the beauty of its world, not to mention the impressive technology behind the falcon’s animations. The bones of Falcon Age are strong and have the makings of something dense and full, I just wish that by the end of my time with the game, their execution felt more resolved.

I’m happy Outerloop set out to make a game about resisting colonialism, and I hope more developers follow suit. Falcon Age is at its strongest when it avoids the frustrating gameplay loops and leans into building up the culture and history of its world. I only wish they went harder.

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