You can download and play Corbeaux for free on PC, Mac and Linux here!
My girlfriend, Catherine, adores crows. Every few months, I’ll get an update from her about how intelligent crows are, how they form communities, how they remember interactions with humans, how they communicate amongst themselves and trade stories of human kindness or cruelty. In literature, crows and ravens are signifiers of death and portents of doom. In the last couple of years, however, I’ve found it hard to take such associations seriously.
I was never good at piano, but I had lessons for ten years anyway. I rarely practiced, and I didn’t have the space in my brain to absorb any musical theory. Reading notation was my biggest weak point: especially in bass clef, I couldn’t tell you where I was meant to put my fingers to save my life. What I was really in it for was that point after months of practice and scrawling notes on sheet music when I could perform a piece almost-rote, when performance became effortless.
The aesthetic presentation of George Prosser’s Corbeaux ambiguously suggests an urban landscape. Visually, we have the telephone wires and the light grey background; and aurally, we have the background noise of skylarks chirping and cars passing by. But the urban is more of a theme than an actual, concrete location: the sounds of traffic are distant, intermingling with the sounds of nature; the minimalistic visuality of the game at once evokes sheet music and a quiet, unclustered location; and a small melody, playing very quietly in the background, complicates any attempts to ground the game in a definitive location. What the game is aiming for is not a sense of place, but a mood of quietude.
What appeals to me about this is the same thing that I enjoy in games like Kentucky Route Zero and Glitchhikers: it’s the decontextualising of urban motifs in order to illicit the tranquil. In our everyday lives, things like telephone wires have function, and are only considered in terms of their functional relationship to the urban context around them. By putting telephone wires at a remove from an immediate and obvious city setting, Corbeaux has the player consider them as an object with appreciable form, a structure with aesthetic qualities. These qualities are expressed through song.
Speaking of song…
In Corbeaux, the player is given a small murder of crows to move around on a set of telephone wires and a three-to-six note tune that they have to recreate. Essentially, the wires are to be read as a staff in sheet music, the crows are notes, and the position of the crows has to align with the melody that you’re given at the start of each puzzle. As the game’s itch.io page states, it’s a game about “music transcription,” and transcribing a melody correctly is how you solve each puzzle and progress.
Corbeaux is interesting for the fact that it’s a game that uses music mechanically and aesthetically, but isn’t a music game in a sense that we’re familiar with. You aren’t playing along like in Guitar Hero or Rock Band. Instead, the game plays the transcribed notes for you. Neither music as expression* nor performance factor into the way the game works or feels. In a strange way, it feels instead like tuning an instrument, when you’re using your ear to detect the slightest inconsistencies in pitch that you have to fix by just nudging a little crow one note up or down. In these moments, when a small adjustment to your transcription nails the melody and the crows fly off in formation to signal your success, it feels like bringing harmony to something disjointed.
This idea of harmony is what I think ties together the gameplay and presentation. If the goal of each puzzle is to bring order to a disparate grouping of crows, then this can also be read in the way that the game marries the motifs of the urban and the rural, of car and bird. Noise, the noise of the cars and skylarks in the distance, gives way, for a second, to song.
The game’s sound design messes with the boundary between diegetic and non-diegetic, and this is all done in service of creating the “immersive soundscape” that the game’s itch.io page describes. While the crows represent the notes on a musical stave, the sound that they make when their tune is played comes from a sampled kalimba. There’s an obvious practical reason for this: if the tunes sounded like crow calls played at different pitches, that would be terrible. It would turn the serene comical.
This is what I mean by saying that everything serves the immersive soundscape. The abstraction of the game’s sounds is an important part of placing the player in an aural space that evokes the feeling of being alone, in a field, watching crows on telephone wires, without having to slavishly create all those things. It’s all part of the lovely, peaceful ride. Corbeaux motions towards the potential for games to take us to abstract spaces rather than concrete places, and it is this quality that makes the game most like music.
*- Technically, it is possible to come up with your own compositions. If you’re happy to not progress in the game, then you can rearrange the crows as you like, and make all kinds of interesting, weird snippets of music. That’s just not what the game directs you to do.