Pelicans. They’re big, they have beaks so gargantuan that they come with their own interdimensional pockets, and they’re massive dorks with a penchant for eating fish and probably small children. So naturally, these monochromatic non-passerines were chosen by Australian author Colin Thiele in 1964 as the emotional centre for a tale that would go on to be a much-loved classic. That tale was Storm Boy, and such is its enduring legacy of friendship, growing up and connection with the Australian landscape that it has inspired numerous adaptations.
With the release of Storm Boy: The Game, Blowfish Studios are the latest to have a crack at bringing this tale to life. Centring around the titular child, his father, Hide-Away, and their indigenous neighbour, Fingerbone Bill, Storm Boy follows their seemingly idyllic, but isolated existence along the south eastern coast of South Australia. After being disturbed by gunshots one day, Storm Boy encounters a nest of three orphaned pelican chicks, and decides to raise them, christening them Mr Proud, Mr Ponder, and Mr Percival. Although the three Mr Ps grow to adulthood and Hide-Away declares that they need to be returned to the wild, the runt of the nest, Mr Percival, develops other ideas. Witnessing the bird’s devotion to his son, Hide-Away allows Mr Percival to stay with Storm Boy, and together the two develop an extraordinary bond. What ensues is a subtle metaphor for the connection between humanity and the environment, the impending anxieties of growing up, and the challenges that inevitably arise for both.
Set against gorgeously rendered coastline, and accompanied by snippets of the original text, players control Storm Boy across the dunes of his home. Although exploration is limited as the only way is straight forward or backwards, nevertheless, it’s an organic means of advancing the story over turning a regular old book page. In addition, these snippets of narrative are interspersed with a variety of minigames that attempt to capture the whimsy of Storm Boy’s day-to-day life and the bond between him and Mr Percival. Despite being largely inconsequential distractions, with little to no incentive to replay, there’s something charmingly simple about just drawing in the sand and playing fetch with a pelican. Besides, how many other games this year will players be able to proudly proclaim that they played as a bin chicken?
However, ultimately, Storm Boy isn’t a call to adventure, or a fable about a chosen one; it’s just a boy and his relationships with a bird and nature. Changing or removing any elements of its story would inevitably be to the detriment of such a simple, lean narrative, but unfortunately, that’s exactly what Storm Boy: The Game does. Gone are Storm Boy’s origins, any depth to Fingerbone Bill and his involvement in crucial moments of the story, and the little glimpses of Hide-Away alienation from society. Above all, Storm Boy’s conflict around the idea of eventually being sent to school, away from his beloved ocean, invites inevitable comparisons to the harsh reality of growing up. Removing these core themes removes much of the emotional centre, and whilst the game remains superficially faithful, characters feel like ciphers, and even Storm Boy’s bond with Mr Percival feels too transient.
Although the game’s minigames attempt to bring some substance to the table, considering the blistering pace at which the condensed narrative moves, they bring everything to an unfortunate halt. Only two of these segments feel like an organic part of the wider story, and out of these two, only one tries to implement any consequence for failure in making players retry. Whilst these minigames can all be skipped, the transition still doesn’t feel smooth between the narrative segments as the pacing differs wildly, and their longevity is inconsistent. Although the game has a Remember Mode unlocked upon completion, that allows players to revisit minigames and parts of the narrative, considering everything can be completed in five-ten minutes, it sadly feels redundant.
Which begs the question Should Storm Boy: The game be examined as a game, or as an interactive novel? Because whilst perfectly functional as both, it doesn’t quite feel fully realised in either capacity.
Storm Boy remains one of my all-time favourite works, I love Blowfish’s work, and I hate to decry any video game offering from our tiny pool of development talent here in Australia. Lamentably, however, whilst visually the game is beautiful, it sadly misses much thematically in the transition to a digital medium, and I wish it had been so much more. That said, Storm Boy is still fundamentally a children’s story, about a child, for children, and not for an embittered, jaded 20-something year old. As such, it will probably still succeed at being a welcome distraction for a short time, and, more importantly, introduce a new generation to a great classic.
Storm Boy: The Game is available now for Playstation 4, Xbox One, Steam, Nintendo Switch, iOS, and Android.