Today is my Birthday has had a troubled start. It’s had both indiegogo and Kickstarter campaigns, trying to raise a relatively modest $15,000. Both failed, but the game persisted, and it’s finally available now on Steam. This is the story of Thomas Wilkes, a photographer who decides the best way to celebrate his birthday is to revisit Wonder Park, a place where he and his father spent so many happy hours. After so many years, the park is now abandoned, and Thomas casually strolls into a waking nightmare.
To their credit, the atmosphere is fantastic – Thomas arrives at the outskirts of the park in the middle of the night, with a thunderstorm rolling overhead, sparse lightning crashes illuminating the otherwise pitch-black wood. He makes snarky comments about being in a horror game when you pick up a flashlight helpfully placed in an obvious location, and at first, it seems like Today Is My Birthday is winding up to deliver some good ol’fashioned scares.
The movement might be a little clunky, picking up items is hit and miss, but the atmosphere is hitting all the classic notes and the edge of my seat is under increasing pressure.
Then Today is my Birthday decides to immediately beat me over the head with a killer clown (who is also a human organ trader, a fact the game needed to point out to me explicitly despite all the visual clues lying around) and all that atmosphere goes right out the window. There are so many ways this sequence could have been improved, and almost all of them just boil down to not doing something.
Don’t show off the creepy clown five seconds into exploring the woods. Don’t point out that he’s an organ trader – let the player figure that out themselves through the cues left scattered through the environment. This is what allows real horror to gestate in the mind. As soon as you’ve shown your hand – especially with a cartoonish pop-up explaining exactly what the scary dude is doing out here in the woods – all of that potential mystery and discovery is gone.
Then the clown spots Thomas, and delivers a voice-line worthy of a Newgrounds flash cartoon, strolling around behind me swishing his weapon through the air, replaying the same stock sound effect every time. That precious feeling of fear the game instilled in the opening moments is entirely obliterated. You can temporarily blind enemies with a camera flash, but there’s no sense of desperation or much motivation at all to get away. The clown kills me, and the camera slopes awkwardly to the side to illustrate that yes, I am indeed dead. Shucks.
The Today is my Birthday loading screens tell you that you will have to rely on your own wits to solve the mysteries and then proceeds to immediately throw just how scary and bizarre the place is right in your face. You’re gathering evidence as you explore the park, but why? Why is Thomas so invested in a rundown theme park that he doesn’t immediately get the fuck out and walk back down the road as soon as the toothy clown appears? My granddad used to take me to McDonalds on my birthday, but I wouldn’t walk into an abandoned one with Ronald standing in the doorway swinging a circular saw around and whistling to himself.
It doesn’t help that Today is my Birthday is so uncomfortable with silence that everything has to talk, and the voice acting subtracts from whatever atmosphere the game instils as soon as it comes up.
Today Is My Birthday overall thoughts
A promising concept; Today Is My Birthday wears the proof of its troubled development in almost every corner. The game wants to scare you, it wants to show you all the spooky things it has in store, but without the time and pacing required to build a proper sense of dread you might as well be showing me a nasty subreddit slideshow. The voice acting and clunky controls really undermine what could have been an excellent horror story, and I really hope that the team behind it can put their considerable atmosphere-crafting abilities to good use in future ventures.