It’s not always easy to make your voice heard in the storm of explosions, bone-rattling bass, and world-ending stakes of most games showcased at E3 2014. But buried within the blockbusters shown during Microsoft’s press conference, a short trailer managed to leave the audience in silence, wondering just what to expect from Ori and the Blind Forest. An unknown, unadvertised arthouse project getting the spotlight alongside Xbox One juggernauts seemed too strange to be real, and even after playing it for ourselves, it’s difficult to tell just what to make of it. But there’s no question that it won’t be the last Xbox owners have heard of it.
It was hard to know just what to make of Ori when its trailer announced its existence to the world, developed by Moon Studios and published by Microsoft for the Xbox One and PC. With ethereal music, and a vibrant art style and animation that blurred the line between indie game and animated film, we went into our behind-closed-doors look at the game with curiosity piqued, to say the least.
Moon Studio’s Thomas Mahler was on hand to explain that while the game’s official reveal during Microsoft’s show may not have suggested it, Ori is not a small-scale, art-focused emotional journey, but a classic 2D sidescroller taking its inspiration from some of the most iconic platformers in gaming history. With a love for the golden age of ‘Metroidvania’ platformers, Mahler explained, a desire to improve on their successes established the foundation of Moon’s first product, and is the true identity of Ori:
“To me, Super Metroid and [Castlevania: Symphony of the Night] had fairly basic platforming. I know lots of people can do crazy stunts in Super Metroid, but generally, the platforming was pretty basic. So we asked ‘why can’t we make those platforming components as diverse as other platforming games?’
“You take a look at the level of design they had back then, and you ask yourself: twenty years after these games were made, people still talk about them; why is that the case? So we had to analyze what it was that made them so special, and at the same time we wanted to push things forward: what has been done? Where can we improve things?”
From the opening moments of the demo, the inspiration of the team was evident. While games like LIMBO or Ubisoft’s Child of Light blurring the line between their game’s environment, background assets, and player-controlled characters, Ori and the Blind Forest aspires to a clearly different goal. The art itself is gorgeous to behold, and the level of detail packed into each one of Ori’s animations shows that next-gen hardware will prove useful to more than just AAA spectacle. But the game’s platforming DNA demands that the player not lose themselves in the visuals.
That wasn’t an issue for the early portion of the game we played, able to do little other than jump from platform to platform, traversing the endlessly-scrolling environment. Yet it didn’t take long to grasp that the later mechanics, upgrades, and customization being teased by Mahler belied the game’s ‘artistic indie’ announcement.
The small-scale, emotionally-evocative, artfully-inspired indie is essentially its own genre at this point, and while the story teased in the game’s trailer will be important (in his words: “we obviously want you to care about our characters”), the team is fully aware that curious gamers will be surprised by what Ori really is:
“I was worried people might have the impression that it might be this artsy game that tries to make you cry. In a lot of ways it is, you know, an artistic expression. It does have a story that touches on emotional tones. But we’ve worked in secret on this game for four years, and for a long time we were just trying to perfect the controls.
“After that, we pushed the story. Typically in a 2D platforming game one thing that you don’t necessarily expect is a big emphasis on story, right? I used to work at Blizzard in the cinematics department. And I loved when a developer put a lot of craft into the world they’re building; actually gives their characters character.”
Details on the characters or overall story weren’t ready to be revealed just yet, but the promise of the mechanics and visuals were enough to turn the brief introduction to the real Ori was enough to prove that Moon Studios was one to watch. Built on Unity, the game’s seamless environments flow from one to the next using a process dubbed “continuous content streaming” with nothing to interrupt play besides the natural ‘Acts’ composing the game’s story. That means that for the duration of the 8 to 10 hour campaign, no asset or background image will be used more than once.
Presentation doesn’t make a platformer, though, and the mechanics of Ori and the Blind Forest aren’t as simplistic as other games in the genre. While the developers have assigned Ori’s attack (projecting out whisps of energy in graceful arcs) to a single button, the team has concocted a few modern platforming twists to enrich the classic Metroidvania experience.
The game doesn’t hold the player’s hand for long, and without the cushion of loading screens, Moon had to create a new take on checkpoints. These arrive in the form of ‘Soul Links,’ the ability to use collected resources to essentially deploy a checkpoint at any location in the game. Besides establishing a location for respawning, the Soul Links allow players to unlock new abilities or upgrade existing ones.
A comparison was made to the campfires of From Software’s Dark Souls, but the true depth of the system lies in its ability to be upgraded as well. If they so choose, players can use Soul Links to restore Health, which means weighing the risk of expending resources for a Health boost now, as opposed to an upgrade later. It’s what the developers call a “resource management buried inside the game,” and while it’s just one example, it shows how old and new mechanics are being combined.
The consistency promised for everything from the controls to the art style is a testament to Moon’s commitment, despite being spread around the world, with employees working remotely from Austria, Germany, Israel, Canada, Australia, and the United States. It’s an unconventional structure that Microsoft has apparently supported, and Mahler claims that at any given hour of the day, someone, somewhere, is hard at work on the game:
“I worked in the industry for ten years as an artist, and there’s always this s****y moment where you’re like ‘we want to hire someone, and we know the exact right person for the job.’ But then you offer them the job, and they tell you ‘I have family, or kids, and I can’t relocate…’ And you have this heartbreaking moment where you realize you won’t get to work with them.
“When I approached Microsoft, I told them I had the perfect team, but they were distributed across the world. It was a surprise, because they basically said ‘we don’t care. As long as you show us progress on the game, it’s all fine.’ And now we’re kind of this ‘virtual studio.’ It’s cool, I mean, we couldn’t really have worked that way even five years ago.”
Even more recently, it would have been hard to believe that a love letter to the early days of Metroidvania game design, influenced by modern mechanics, and boasting an art style that would put indies to shame could stay secret for so long. But after four years in development, Ori and the Blind Forest has been put on display for the world to see.
And mark our words: Xbox One owners will be hearing plenty more before it releases.
Ori and the Blind Forest releases this Fall for the Xbox One and PC.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.