In Return to Bird World, players are brought back to the floating kingdom of Bird World thousands of years after the events of the original game to find the once-brilliant island has fallen into ruin. While the darker setting is a departure from the original Bird World, the new game still has one key trait in common: it doesn’t actually exist. But its soundtrack does.
Return to Bird World comes from musician and Twitter personality Leon Chang, who’s been releasing video game-inspired albums for the past few years. His first big project, 2017’s Bird World, was ostensibly the soundtrack to an SNES-era game about a tiny bird embarking on an adventure. Even though you’ll never play it, the soundtrack offered an idea of what the nonexistent game might be about. You’d journey across a playful island, help out residents of a small village, and ultimately face a world-changing battle before saying goodbye to all the quirky characters you met along the way.
Chang said the idea for making a fake soundtrack came out of the music to which he was already writing and listening. “I like to write music that sounds like it comes from a video game, so why not make an album that’s based around a fake video game?” he told The Verge.
For the sequel, Bird World has jumped to a new generation. The album has PlayStation-esque artwork and a sprawling length — an hour and a half — to match the expansive soundtracks that’d score games like Final Fantasy and Chrono Cross. It’s also more varied and less relentlessly cheery than the original. “The Mushroom God” seems to depict a melancholy deity whose land has fallen to ruin; “Sesame City” is fit for a bustling town with a futuristic edge; and “A World Descends Into Chaos” pretty much sounds like the name implies.
Chang said he started planning a Bird World sequel almost as soon as the original came out (he teased a follow-up as far back as November 2017). Feedback on the original was good enough to warrant the sequel, he said, but there was also plenty more he wanted to do. While writing the first album, Chang found that he had ideas for more songs that, as an amateur musician, he was still figuring out how to actually create.
“On Bird World, I wish I could have done more orchestral stuff and more soundtrack-y type of stuff, and now I have the ability to do that,” Chang said. “This next album just feels like taking all of that into as big of a thing as I can do.”
The album came together with the help of a “long-running Google Doc” where Chang sketched out the plot, characters, and settings of Return to Bird World. While you won’t get to read the whole thing, you can get some of the details from a 28-page game manual that accompanies the physical release of the album — a double CD package that’s likewise meant to emulate those classic PlayStation RPGs.
game manual teaser:
table of contents~
mastered by me
mixed by me
engineered by me
recorded at my house
saxophone on “a world descends into chaos” by steve pardo pic.twitter.com/yz3Mdd85jp
— leon (@leyawn) November 21, 2020
Listeners won’t know the whole story by the time they’re finished, but Chang designed the album so that there’s a narrative running from beginning to end. “I’m hoping people can get some of [the plot] out of the tracks,” he said, “but a lot is left to the imagination still.”
Some tracks were created specifically to score locations or events Chang had in mind, while others started as songs that he later worked into the plot. Chang hired artists to create the album’s cover and the game manual illustrations (Aliana Wong and Titas Antanas Vilkaitis), and he wrote the copy himself. “I put all the copy and design together, and that took me forever to do,” Chang said.
The result is another album that ought to leave you wishing you could play the game to which it belongs. The album comes out today on Bandcamp and will be available on other streaming platforms starting Saturday.