There’s no shortage of memorable moments in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. One of my favorite scenes from the classic horror film happens right before the feathered foes launch their first coordinated attack. Outside of the schoolhouse, Tippi Hedren’s character Melanie observes a small group of crows perched atop a jungle gym. Nothing of note; she casually lights up a cigarette. When she looks back the climbing frame is covered by a mass of black birds. It’s a warning — a threat of the attack to come.
Birds… You can’t trust ‘em. At least that was my cinematic takeaway. I’m aware of other readings, of course. Slavoj Žižek, bobbing up and down in a rowboat, explains the birds are the mother’s libidinal energy given physical form. It’s all part of an elaborate oedipal plot. I don’t disagree, but I think there’s also a far simpler reason why the film is so effective…
In a recent article for The Atlantic, Jenny Odell says that the more we “understand about their behavior, the more inaccessible their world seems.” Observing bushtit nests, she compares the “dark, enigmatic shapes hidden in the leaves” to the “alien ship from Arrival.” Birds are a deep mystery, from the strange games and rituals played by crows and blackbirds, to a bizarre perceptual world of unseen colors, and their uncanny ability to anticipate hurricanes months in advance.
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Most importantly, Odell points out that, whilst birds like crows see very different worlds to us, “we inhabit the same one, our alien universes stitched together at the point of contact.” Birds are undomesticated, truly wild. Yet whether you live in the country, a town, or a big city, they are everywhere living alongside us, constituting a kind of eerie background noise. Perched on the periphery, they watch. When we watch back from behind our binoculars, they have the habit of being inscrutable. Video essayist Grace Lee follows a similar line of argument. “Birds occupy a unique space in our human world.” They are outside invaders of our domestic spaces. As part of nature, they’re also irrational, chaotic, and Other. They peck at the edges of human order and control.
From Poe’s “The Raven” to the cursed gulls of The Lighthouse, birds are ominous creatures that have long been seen as harbingers of death and symbols of fear. And whilst they have a strong literary and cinematic history, the feathered fiends are just as prevalent in the world of video games. Here are the worst among them: the biggest virtual assholes with wings.
The birds of Alan Wake are probably the closest to the feathered entity from the Hitchcock classic. No doubt directly inspired by the film, there’s a “boss” composed of giant flocks of dark birds that murmur in the night sky before dive bombing you. It’s classic horror stuff — birds as Other, a swarming, indistinct mass of angry animality out to kill you for no particular reason.
Unlike a lot of competitive games, where things play at a blistering pace, Hunt is a slow, tense, even intimate affair. Whilst it’s a game that requires you to keep your eyes peeled at all times, what really makes Hunt unique is its focus on sound. Every little noise seems amplified. It’s a game with three different ways of opening doors: quickly, normally, and quietly. More importantly, there’s an amazing sound alert system involving birds.
Wading through the Louisiana swamps you can end up scaring rafts of ducks, who will take off into the air, quacking loudly as they go. It’s an easy way of giving up the jig. Not only is it noisy, but crafty hunters can work out the position you’re travelling from according to the flight trajectory. Of course my favorite animal to spook are the crows. Sitting atop a rickety fence at the perimeter of a dangerous compound, these literal death omens are the ultimate alarm system. With such a busy soundscape and a myriad of other threats, it’s easy to lose track of the blighters, menacingly perched there and eyeing you up. Before you know it you’ve wandered too close and startled them. Now that sleepy compound suddenly lights up with violence.
Together the original Resident Evil and its 2002 remake run a masterclass in tension-building. As is often pointed out, a lot of the legwork is done by the games’ fixed camera angles. There are a couple of rooms in the Spencer Mansion that I remember vividly — a lot of which is down to the presence of birds. There’s the Bird Cage Room, where the camera looks down at you from atop a set of stairs, creating a sense of anxiousness and vulnerability. A group of squawking crows perch high up, presumably after escaping the room’s large empty bird cage, add to this.
The second bird-related area is the Painting Room. The environments in the remake are fantastic; the whole mansion is baroque and deliciously dilapidated. In the Painting Room we have another extreme high-angle, staring down at you from the picture rails, upon which several more crows also sit. Whilst the crows in the Bird Cage Room are more of an eerie presence than a threat, the ones in the Painting Room attack if you get the area’s puzzle wrong. I get the sense both areas really belong to the birds. You’re an outsider intruding into their world. Whilst you might be able to avoid a direct confrontation, their constant surveillance makes for an uneasy experience.
The Legend of Zelda
In the world of Zelda chickens are called “Cuccos.” Whilst they appeared in A Link to the Past, my first encounter with them was in Ocarina of Time. At first they’re a faint, friendly-faced novelty. You hold on and use them to swoop and glide around Kakariko Village to explore hard to reach places. It’s often by mistake that you realize how terrifying a Cucco can be… Hitting the birds one too many times with your sword causes them to gather into a great, furious clouds and retaliate against you. Amassed, they’re a devastating prospect, pecking Link to shreds, or at the very least sending you high-tailing out of there. It’s one of those moments where you realize that, despite being a “Children’s” game, there are some truly dark aspects to this classic. So deadly are the Cuccos, in Breath of the Wild crafty players have found ways to weaponize them against bosses.
Shadow of the Colossus
“Avion” is one of the most memorable bosses in Shadow of the Colossus: an enormous stone hawk that swoops down, momentarily allowing you to leap onto one of its massive wings and clamber up to a weak spot. But that’s not what I want to highlight here. I’m more interested in the game’s small birds. These are the regular and ordinary feathered folk. They are neither explicitly frightening nor even sinister, but enigmatic all the same. There are the birds that buzz around the head of “Gaius” — the game’s iconic stumbling man-colossi — forever out of reach. But also the doves and hawks meet you within the Shrine of Worship and out on the great plains. The doves in particular are odd companions. As you slay each colossi, more of them appear in the Shrine around your lover’s body. Usually the white birds are a symbol of purity and innocence. Yet as you stumble on in your futile quest to revive her, things become anything but.
The Long Dark
The Long Dark sees you eke out a cold and miserable existence in the harsh Canadian wilderness… after things went a bit funny and a solar flare ended the world. The birds in the game are one of many parts of a complex ecosystem. Birds of prey hover high above carcasses, both human and animal, alerting you to potential sources of food and equipment, but also danger. Where there is dead prey, there are often predators. There are also the sounds of crows in the forest who turn raucous whenever bears near. Perhaps my favorite bird-detail in The Long Dark is found in the main menu, when you first choose a game difficulty. The hardest difficulty, “Interloper,” is represented by a crow pecking at a human skull. Presumably this is what it feels like trying to make a half-empty can of beans last a week.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar’s epic Western would definitely win the grand prize for “most detailed gaming birds.” They bear an uncanny resemblance to their real-world counterparts. It’s to the point that even genuine twitchers get something out of the game. Each bird is given a wonderfully detailed scientific illustration. There are so many of these that a distinction is made between the “Western Raven” and the “American Crow.” And all are cataloged in true Victorian style. Tagged, classified, anatomized, and brought under rational control (like I’m attempting to do with this list!). But if there’s a final point to all of this twittering, it’s that birds aren’t so easily explained. The harder you attempt to understand them, the more enigmatic they appear. Birds are an inscrutable force, and in Red Dead, as in reality, I’m not entirely sure where their mysterious presence begins or ends, or what complexities drive their simulation.