May contain mild spoilers.
If you asked me whatʼs one of my most favorite aspects of modern gaming is, itʼs the way gameplay is being utilized as an effective part of storytelling. If I could name another aspect, its also the cinematic feel and influence from other forms of media that are reshaping how games are getting a narrative across. Ori and the Blind Forest (2015), created by indie studio, Moon Studios and published by Microsoft Studios, is a prime example of such as it draws heavy influence from classic gameplay as in Rayman and Metroid to traditionally animated films of the 1990ʼs such as The Lion King and The Iron Giant in its unique animation, (which Moon Studioʼs animator, James Benson discusses the process at the Game Developerʼs Conference in 2015).
While describing the early prototyping process of the game, Game Director and CEO of Moon Studios, Thomas Mahler stated that “introducing graphics, story, etc. is all just ʻplussingʼ the core of the work, which should always be first and foremost based around one thing and one thing only: Interactivity”. He continues with other games that not only influenced the gameplay of Ori, but where he and Moon Studios built and innovated on. “We adored Nintendoʼs Super Mario Bros. 3 and we very much liked what Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes were doing with Super Meat Boy-but naturally, we wanted to take everything a step further”. With the creative teamʼs goal in mind to discover the “technical and creative tricks” they could muster and juxtapose with the cinematic style of animation, is it any wonder Ori and the Blind Forest was met with such high critical acclaim? Well, to understand what makes Ori a true marvel of a game and a fine piece of animation, letʼs examine how its cinematic and gameplay elements go hand-in-hand.
Upon starting a new game, the menu screen consists of a landscape view of the forest and the Spirit Tree in the center. Once you select ʻnew gameʼ, the scenery transitions from warm colors to cool as the image of the tree dissolves from the menu screen to its establishing shot. The scenery goes from sunny and bright to dark and stormy. As how Disney and Pixar transition its color coding based on the changes of mood in the setting and/or scene through color scripting, the color scheme of light blue, orange, green switches to dark velvet blue and black with the bright lighting. After Oriʼs spirit is torn from the tree due to the strength of the heavy winds, the camera guides the viewer in the direction he is heading. Upon landing in the forest, we are introduced to Naru, who serves as a mother figure to Ori. She is first seen alone sitting on the cliff in the middle of the storm. Oriʼs arrival prompts her to leave her spot to find the spirit creature.
When Naru gets up, the player does not passively watch her find Ori, but rather guide her to where Ori is. There are two things going on at this point: 1) A basic gameplay tutorial and 2) a game mechanic inviting the player to be an active listener in the story. In other words, this is more than just simply helping you get familiar with the gameplay, but the game developers are turing a mechanic customarily used for gameplay navigation into a story telling device. As the prologue progresses, similar basic gameplay elements move the story forward via player participation. It also serves as a more empathic way of playing a game as the player and Naru are both curious to know what or who that light is.
Similarly, when Oriʼs strength is slowly fading away as he wanders through the forestʼs remains, the player presses the left key to move a bit further as much as possible. For the player to move Ori adds to that empathic feeling to the game mechanics. Rather than just passively watch Oriʼs suffering, the player is put in his position to move at the pace in which his energy is failing and is at his most vulnerable.
The camera position in the gameplay is displayed at a long shot. Through this perspective, the player is able to get a sense of the environment the characters inhabit. The setting and placement of the characters is slightly similar to Charles Cecilʼs Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (1996) and its second sequel, Broken Sword II: The Smoking Mirror (1997). Both the first game and its successor were also made in the style of traditional animation and during the gameplay, the player gets a full view of the scene they are interacting with. Even so, much like the transition from room to room and/or setting to setting fades in and out like in Broken Sword, the same cinematography technique is used when the player controls Ori leaving the cave once he is awaken.
The usage of color in Ori and the Blind Forest effectively comes into play as the tone and emotional changes start to shift. Early on, we see Ori and Naruʼs son and mother relationship and the awe-inspiring liveliness of the forest. The bright color scheme (as seen in the menu screen) shows the forest is full of life and well nourished. It sets the feeling of warmth and security as being the type of environment Ori and Naru inhabit.
The change of color depicting loss of life gradually transforms the vibrancy of the forest and turns everything grayish, brownish and pale green. It feels all signs of life has been drained so slowly, yet in so little time. The moments building up to the main gameplay when Ori is struggling to stay alive as long as possible, the color scheme is similar to the one used in the gameʼs opening sequence during the storm, but less softened to match Oriʼs state of mind and health at that point. As Ori is being revived by the spirit tree, the black and blue is brightened with white and blue lights, symbolizing his rebirth. Getting into the main gameplay goes from less obscure, to warmer colors.
The narration throughout the story is used sparingly, only to appear through text and a deep voice over to tell the story.
On occasion, the narrator will tell the player what is happening in simple sentences without getting wordy or talking down to the audience. More so, it speaks to the player on an emotional level based on what is taking place at the time and the effect the moment has on the characters. For example, when Ori is alone after Naruʼs passing, the narrator briefly describes the emotional impact this loss, as well as the psychical impact the decay of the forest, has on him. The text can also be read much like what is used in comics/graphic novels along with the sense of how much time is passing going from scene to scene. Aside from the non-diegetic narrator, there is another character Ori meets after completing a few tasks to strengthen his fighting and survival skills were text is also being used. When the player leads Ori to the end of the screen in the swamp, he meets Sein, a spiritual being who serves as a guide for Ori. When a specific item of importance appears, it will prompt Sein to describe its significance or what sort of task Ori will need to complete in order to access it. Her dialogue will come up when something important to the story comes up, be it something pertaining to gameplay or a location. The most important words are highlighted in orange as an indicator for what the player should pay the most attention to. Again, another similar technique akin to word balloons in comics when specific words are bold, or italic when a characterʼs emotions are intensifying.
Another solid aspect of the relationship between the gameplay and the cinematic elements being juxtaposed is how well balanced they are. The game developers know
when to allow the player freedom to take on the challenges and engage in combat as well as when itʼs time to slow things down a moment. Much like how in traditional animated movies like that of Studio Ghibli and Disney where thereʼs that moment to cease into silence and just have the spectator listen, Ori and the Blind Forest takes its moment to step away from conflict. This encourages the player to bask in the story, characters and the world they live in. Why does it matter to us? Itʼs the reason the player identifies with Ori as a character and why his role in the game is worth connecting with. In the past, most games would place more emphasis on the gameplay with little to barely any story. The early Super Mario titles for example, was a basic rescue-the-princess trope and barely paused to further develop the story or flesh out the characters. The only time players would read a piece of information, it would consist of Toad telling Mario that the princess is held captive else where, but nothing major to build the characters up beyond archetypes or roles. With Ori, the moments where the player pauses from the gameplay to listen to the cinematic elements serve a greater purpose than telling the player they still have another task ahead of them. They serve as the moments where the player assesses and sees how Ori grows from being a rather helpless child to developing a sense of independence as he learns to fend for himself. This gives the player some time to grow more invested in Ori as a character and the world he is trying to survive in.
This brings us to further analyze how the gameplay and character development go hand-in-hand. The best question would be to ask ʻhow does the gameplay help Ori grow as a character the same way the traditional storytelling elements doʼ? As with any other game, the player acquires new skills. Progression makes the game more challenging, forcing the player to build up on the previously acquired skills. However, in the case of Ori and the Blind Forest, thereʼs more to this skill building than what meets the eye at first. With every new ability bestowed upon him, Ori is seen growing stronger, both in strength and emotionally. Ori not only gains a new means of self-defense from enemy characters, but he is gradually learning how to survive on his own. At the start of the game, Oriʼs early life is seen as somewhat sheltered, care-free and simple. The changes in the environment and the loss of Naru serves as his motivation to grow in character development, hence where the coming-of-age theme shines through. With each new obstacle Ori faces, the player is rewarded for each accomplishment. However, itʼs not only reflecting the playerʼs progress, but how Ori is changing and growing throughout the story.
Ori and the Blind Forest has all the right components that help make a story a masterpiece. With the combination of gameplay, mixed with cinematography and comic book techniques, it represents the epitome of storytelling and the art of 2D animated films rising up to a new level. This juxtaposition of classic gameplay and animation fits the tone and ambience of its narrative. With stunning visuals and gameplay used to express the evolution of its titular character and how his journey is reshaping him, Ori and the Blind Forest demonstrates video games certainly are capable of delivering an emotional experience as movies or any other art form. Perhaps the REACT Channelʼs video sums up the emotional response the best, especially how one of the guest players, Eric Beckerman described the experience: “The animation and the character work and the way they managed to portray so much emotion and context without words was amazingly done and it just looks like youʼre in a fantasy world…it feels like itʼs spiritual”. For a video game to receive such a compliment and praise that would mostly be directed at a Disney or Studio Ghibli film, thereʼs no denying Moon Studios has accomplished their goal to match such high standards and leave such a profound impact on their players.