In the small (yet slowly growing) pantheon of my favorite video games, there’s Ori, created by Austrian studio Moon Studios. Both games from the Ori franchise (Ori & the Blind Forest and Ori & the Will of the Wisps) are metroidvanias, like Guacamelee!, Axiom Verge (haven’t done it yet but I sure will !), Dandara… and of course Hollow Knight. The two franchises are constantly compared, not always in a very interesting way : for some it’s a bit of a war to know which game is the best. It’s a shame. The two games are diametrically opposed artistically (sometimes I think they’re in perfect opposition), but both are equally good (yet they don’t necessarily have the same strengths), because the quality and consistency of the artistic choices is at the same level in both franchises.
However, I will probably also talk about Hollow Knight in the articles about Ori, not to compare the games in terms of quality (like I just said, I don’t think it’s relevant), but because thinking about one highlights characteristics of the other. They kind of answer each other, and it’s always interesting to see how much artistic decisions make sense in relation to the story of a game.
You can imagine that I’m going to devote a few thousand words to the study of both soundtracks, written by English composer Gareth Coker ; this will be for later, I’ve already started it but it’s very long to write, since there should be a general article and then a focus on specific areas from the Ori universe. Plus I’m chatty when it comes to music. I mean, 10,000 words chatty. You know that (well, if you didn’t, now you do).
One of the key elements of the Ori games is the tension between the humanity and the spiritual nature of the little hero, so altruistic that they will sacrifice themselves for the sake of their family. But before studying the eponymous character (that will be for next article), we’ll start by looking at the world in which Ori evolves, a world in decline but nevertheless almost extravagant, given all that it offers.
(All the images and game files (audio & video) are property of Moon Studios & Gareth Coker. Screenshots and videos are from my own gameplay unless there’s a mentioned source)
An open world
Both Ori games are set in a forest, Nibel for the first one, Niwen for the second one ; we’re therefore in a natural, open world, which shows some rare traces of civilization : doors, levers to operate (and the Gumons’ techniques in O&BF) ; those elements are more developed in O&WW, thanks to the Glades (the village/hub), the Wellspring (a gigantic mill) and the Windtorn Ruins in particular, which is not surprising since the characters we meet are anthropomorphic and thus have some abilities.
Indeed, in O&WW, the NPCs, more numerous, speak (the Mokis, Lupo, Opher…) ; characters closer to Ori (Naru, Gumo and Ku) are not seen speaking (except maybe Gumo who enjoys saying his own name) but their emotions are very humanized, since we see them (notably) laughing, kissing. And suffering.
Except for some of the dungeons (the three dungeons of O&BF, the Wellspring and Willow’s End in O&WW), we can’t talk about rooms (only maybe in Mount Horu), and even for those, there’s a strong emphasis on nature : we are inside, but always in a natural place (a tree, frozen ruins, a volcano, a mill, a tree again – by the way, in the mill we can see the trees outside thanks to the parallax, the place is not completely closed and a large part of the dungeon is actually outside).
Bring me that reverb !
However, all these “non-rooms” are not identical and one can hear changes in the acoustics ; yet said acoustics are rather aestheticized, in particular through music.
To be quite honest, contrary to Hollow Knight where those changes were quite spectacular (each area has a carefully chosen acoustics), I didn’t pay attention to them immediately in Ori ; but looking at my gameplay videos (to make my screenshots and other short videos), there is a place where the acoustics are really distinctive and well chosen, it’s the lower part of the Spirit Caverns, where we find the wall jump ancestral tree in O&BF : the reverb is very strong because the sound waves can reflect everywhere (🧐 and the sound absorption coefficient is low – sorry about that physics moment 📚), and as soon as you come back to the open-air area, the reverb disappears.
What I find interesting about this location and its acoustics is that, since this is where you get the wall jump, you can immediately test it and get an energy cell : the reverb amplifies the foley, which is already enhanced by Ori’s hooves and the texture of the wall they’re climbing. On top of that, the music changes (it evolves and becomes more dynamic, with a soft yet very steady pulse, the next part of the level design being largely focused on jumps), this new ability is strongly emphasized : a new dimension is offered to us, after all.
I did the test, I went through Nibel and Niwen from one end to the other without music (sorry, Mr. Coker, but it was for science !) in order to better hear the acoustics : yet my attention was much more drawn to the more atmospheric layers (for each zone there’s an ambient layer in addition to the music).
Besides, if I go and play the flute in the park next to my house, I probably won’t be very happy, because the acoustics when you’re outside aren’t particularly flattering… But if Ori‘s world had more realistic acoustics (think of the Howling Cliffs in Hollow Knight), it would hardly make us dream, and, paradoxically, would not reinforce the impression we have, looking at the screen, of infinite (and sparsely inhabited) forests. What’s realistic does not always work : when we see Nibel and Niwen, we want a living sound, which never stops, wherever we are, inside or outside ; that’s why the music takes care of it (it’s a reverb feast), as for example in A look inside (it is believed that days after Ori completed the watermill, we could still hear a faint oboe sound in the dungeon. Well, that might be non-canon).
That’s why I talked about aestheticizing the acoustics earlier : the music features a strong reverb which is not necessarily realistic but will better illustrate our vision of the world or sometimes the hero’s emotional state : when Ori finds themselves alone and looks for Kun, whom Shriek sent flying at the other end of the Silent Woods, I find that the reverb really matches the loneliness and fear Ori is feeling (my brain is what it is, it has sometimes strange impressions).
Similarly, some sounds of the diegesis are aestheticized : where Little Nightmares‘ music explicitly used sounds from the game’s universe, here some elements from the game (the heavy stones in Gumo’s hideout, the mill’s mechanisms) are incorporated in the music in a way that’s not completely realistic (especially for the mill, anyway there are sounds of mechanisms, very real ones, in the game, in addition to the music).
A playground for the little spirit
This open world is also shown thanks to the choice of “empty” platforms through which we can jump down, in opposition to the solid, sometimes floating platforms, we often see in other platformers ; the platforming elements are completely incorporated into the landscape, in terms of design it’s one of Ori‘s strengths, even more so in O&WW where the forest becomes even more our playground : each of the platforms has a good reason to be there, it is part of Niwen, and in some areas the design and the level design blend perfectly, even the dangers (the mill’s geysers for instance, which are indeed part of the structure since when the water is purified they discharge clear water).
Very organically, everything isn’t just horizontal or vertical, we even have our head down from the first minutes of the game (Inkwater Marsh is a very, very, very beautiful area), so it’s a more pleasant navigation : anything that allows us to move has an origin in the forest, cyan moss, a Moonblossom that opens elegantly, a branch that we use as a high bar (Ori is a born gymnast). Ori’s sound design, associated with the platforming, the movements… all of it oozes joie de vivre : Ori often emits little cries and makes twists at any time (but I will talk more about it in the following article, on Ori themselves).
Civilization is more present in O&WW (after the technologically advanced Gumons, we have the Gorleks, the builders) so the fact that there are elements such as gates or, more importantly, the mill, seems rather realistic, as well as the Windtorn Ruins, a place of memory where we learn the history of Niwen’s decline before a giant Sandworm happily comes chasing after us. How cute.
Niwen’s inhabitants have mastered fire : in O&BF fire only meant danger (the Mount Horu escape in the burning forest), here it is used in combat (temporarily) and especially to activate some structures in Baur’s Reach. It is also used to make an excellent marshclam soup, the taste of which I do not know ; apparently it is very good, I trust the Mokis on that one. Fire will give a particular color to the game, more nuanced than in O&BF, also helped by the sun, which gives Niwen such a beautiful, often magical atmosphere.
The camera !
Ori mixes 2D and 3D. The gameplay is completely in 2D (as we saw, a very organic 2D), but the universe is almost 2.5D. There is some “hidden” 3D in O&BF : Ori has a 3D model which is then rendered in 2D in such a way that we can’t see that it was 3D to begin with (it’s James Benson who says so), so there is no 3D model in the game itself ; it’s the same for the other NPCs (which leads to some rather funny things). On the other hand, in O&WW, Ori is 3D.
Recently, I was looking at ENDER LILIES : Quietus of the Knights a bit, and although some of the backgrounds were very beautiful (well, beautiful in their desolation), something was missing to give depth to the backgrounds, a mix of several things in fact : the rather abrupt color changes from one layer to the next (the foreground really stands out while the background is immediately much lighter, which however allows enemies to be clearly visible, since their colors are similar to the backgrounds’), the rigid platforms (in their quasi-rectangular shape and their limited physics, even if it rather fits the aesthetics of the game and the world’s corruption) but above all, it seems that there’s no perspective at all, which “sticks” the different layers a bit : there isn’t this feeling of depth we often try to translate in 2D games ; the water in particular is reduced to a simple line, we don’t see its surface, as if the camera was always right in front of the screen. It was probably intentional, given the obvious manga vibe, plus I don’t know the game completely. It just struck me, that’s all.
In Ori, many areas involve water, whether it is a really aquatic area (the Thornfelt Swamp after the Ginso Tree in O&BF and a large part of the Luma Pools for O&WW), a transition (after Kwolok’s Throne Room, when we get to the Silent Woods) or just a small area with some collectibles (that is… almost everywhere in fact) ; the water being 3D, it gives a lot of depth to the landscapes. I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, but I really think that Ori’s water is just the best ; let’s enjoy Kwolok’s entrance, which even makes Ori stagger
Another nice detail : the camera is often slightly tilted or placed in such a way that it recreates a more natural vision of the backgrounds, when we dive in the water and especially when we come out of it.
As for its management in the gameplay… It moves with a lot of fluidity in O&WW, the camera zooms in and out constantly yet very smoothly to give us access to the level design. It is for example quite pronounced in Kwolok’s Hollow where you need to read the level design in order to make your way through the giant toad’s cave thanks to your spirit bow.
Even that is beautiful ; however it is by no means unique to Ori, it’s present in many games and I didn’t particularly pay attention to it while playing O&WW, it’s mostly when I was watching an LP (so without having to concentrate on the gameplay) that it jumped out at me : it is particularly elegant and fluid, never too fast.
This is part of a larger element of the Ori games : they almost look like movies.
More than just a game
Indeed, they are rich in cutscenes, skillfully mixed with gameplay phases : the prologues in particular combines them and require typical actions like jumping and moving forward (even to the point of having to press the jump button only to make Ori move slightly, it keeps you in touch with the playable character and makes you feel the pain more intensely – when you play as Ori, dying at the beginning, it’s pretty intense ; it’s the same at the end of the second game during a completely symmetrical scene) ; similarly in O&WW, the middle section in the Silent Woods, the reunion with Ku and their subsequent attempt to escape from Shriek mix cutscenes and light gameplay ; we discover Ku hurt like Ori does (unlike the prologue we can’t totally skip this part).
In these prologues too, the second game goes further : except when we follow the path of the little leaf at the beginning of the first prologue, after that it’s 2D and until the beginning of the gameplay, we see everything from the same angle ; in O&WW, the beginning is relatively similar, but it already shows much more : there is more platforming, we are introduced Ku’s gameplay and especially, we have a very pretty scene with a rather… twirling camera, as the two characters, Ori & Ku, fly across all Nibel (we pass close to the Spirit Tree, the Ginso Tree, the Forlorn Ruins and Sorrow Pass) to follow the other birds before getting lost in Niwen (my screenshots don’t do justice to the beauty of the game).
This is also true for some key moments of the games : the presentation of the dungeons, especially the first dungeon. In O&BF, the first dungeon is the Ginso Tree (maybe my favorite area of the whole franchise) : we’re already inside, Sein sees how damaged the Tree is and that’s all. The music has a short introduction, but we go on rather quickly (the Ginso Tree will have its own article because I love it) : there’s a little heart to restore !
For the first dungeon of O&WW, the Wellspring, the camera plays with us because we’re still outside when the mill is presented to us (delighted to meet you) : it shows us the extent of the disaster, sorry, of the masterpiece of mill-dungeon that awaits us ; the music also has a longer introduction which completely introduces the musical theme of the place.
So Ori really is a game you want to watch, to the point of removing elements from the UI, to make it almost “feel” like a movie. Each time, the transition between the menu screen and the beginning of the prologue is very fluid : in the first one, the graphic palette changes to show the Spirit Tree under the storm, the key element to Ori‘s plot (in French we would say élément perturbateur. You’re a troublemaker, Ori !) ; in the second one, the camera moves to show us Ori waiting for Ku’s birth. Awww. Yeah, it’s UwU time.
Even more beautiful ! At the beginning of the second game there is no discontinuity between the end of the prologue and the beginning of the gameplay : we see a looped animation of Ori looking in the distance, searching for Ku, it’s a very fluid way to make the transition, when in the first game, we saw “game saved” displayed and a strong save sound was heard : the UI is simplified, making us almost forget that we are playing. Almost.
A less linear world
Open world also means open story ! In O&BF Sein is guiding us, we go here, we go there, and then quickly we have to get something from there : we’re taken by the hand. Like any self-respecting metroidvania, it still offers us the possibility to pick up some nice items once we gain movement abilities, but the main progression doesn’t give us the choice. As Ori grows, in the sequel, although the goal remains the same (collect four orbs, one in each of Niwen’s four big areas), they’re given the choice : there are four large zones to explore and the level design is made in such a way that we can explore them in whichever order we want : they’re completely separate.
The rate at which you get the movement abilities is also faster, which reinforces this feeling of great freedom during exploration (there’s around six minutes between the moment you get the attack and the moment you get the double jump, eight minutes between the double jump and the healing ability, less than ten minutes between dash and bash. We’ll keep a tight lid on the time that passes between the dash and the double jump in Hollow Knight. We’re not counting minutes here).
Loading ? What do you mean, loading ?!
This world is so open that it can be explored from one end to the other seamlessly (hence the idea that there are no rooms, nor screens like in Celeste or more recently in Axiom Verge 2 – where you can sometimes see the playable character stop moving in the middle of a jump) : there are no loading screens during the game – let’s have a thought for the loading times of each Crash Bandicoot 4 level on the PS4 – if you don’t use teleportation, you can run through these forests without the slightest interruption (except if you enter a dungeon) ; it is very organic.
A living world
It moves !
Since we are in forests, we are in living places, where everything moves : the care given to the ground’s physics and the objects’s physics is phenomenal (especially in the second game : plants move all the time, at the slightest touch, with more or less amplitude), as well as the water’s physics (ah, those charming wave fronts that delight the semi-physicist that I am…. and the water splashes !). Even mushrooms move, and that is a bit extreme. But Pretttttty. With that many “t”s.
Objects have physics when necessary : the watermill’s wheels allow us to explore the heights of the Wellspring.
What allows us to move is also alive (Orivores plants – logical, they eat Oris – in Baur’s Reach, the Moonblossoms in all Niwen).
Transitions also emphasize this organic nature ; we see everything and its opposite in a few steps : from the water of the mill to the snow in Baur’s Reach, from the Silent Woods to the Windswept Wastes, transitions that we find in the graphic palette : as in Hollow Knight, in a few steps the colors change, but Ori‘s art style makes these transitions quite magical, underlined by Gareth Coker’s music, who added some specific ambients to areas that are themselves transitions between important zones. I love them as much as I love the “official” soundtrack.
Within a zone, if there is different music, we will go from one to the other with a fade. And of course there’s the breathy “hidden place” audio cue (especially the one from O&WW).
Nature is also present in the foley. Each game has its own sound as far as Ori’s movements are concerned : it’s rather stone and grass for the first game and wood (and snow !) for the second one ; with a stronger presence of civilization, it’s quite logical for there to be a lot of wooden constructions and that you regularly walk on them, not only on earth, grass or stones. Besides, Swallow’s Nest evolves with the arrival of Gumo and Ku, so you can hear how different the sound is the minute Ori starts running in the second game’s prologue.
This foley is quite loud in O&WW, especially when Ori runs on wood, to underline the dynamism of the little hero’s movement (we can hear the fast and regular rhythm of their run), dynamism also visible through their posture (but that will be for next article, about Ori). And simply because Ori has hooves : it makes more noise than if they wore slippers !
(I’m a sound design fanatic. Even the old sound (the interval, rather) of coins in The Binding of Isaac, I thought it was cool. They’ve changed it in Repentance and it was a “meh” moment for me. Even the little sound when you pick up a bomb, I like that – like Velma in the Simpsons – and the sound of the Holy Mantle. I’m not going to list them all)
Niwen seems even more alive than Nibel, especially with its long introduction that allows you to see Inkwater Marsh from different angles, with different lightings : at night in the storm, then in daylight after the storm has ended ; after that there’s a more usual treatment of areas that remain (often) stuck in a definite time of day ; it is never static, however, as there are smooth transitions between different color schemes for the same area, even when it is stuck in a particular climate (if we think of Baur’s Reach and the Windswept Wastes).
What better way to highlight the richness of Niwen than to contrast it with the devastating decline of the Silent Woods ? They like that at Moon Studios (come on, a little Ori x Dark Souls cross-over, just for fun), and to make it even sadder, let’s add an almost petrified baby owl.
A hyperbolic world
This is an adjective that will surely come up very often : Ori‘s world is hyperbolic. Even more so in the second game, because in Niwen, you go from one extreme to the other in a few steps, and above all there is everything : all climates (from Baur’s Reach snowy land to the dryness of the Windswept Wastes), all lights (from Mouldwood Depths to Luma Pools’ vibrant colors) : there’s an entire world in Niwen.
The physics is almost excessive, some objects move in a… disproportionate way (and Ori themselves can do some crazy things), responding to the disproportionate movements of some enemies (the Mantises that jump 15 meters high).
The sounds also encompass everything, from a symphony orchestra to more traditional instruments (for instance there’s some whistle and low-whistle (lucky Baur !) in O&WW and bansuri in O&BF) and a very rich sound design.
And yet it is a world that’s not that big (at least what we explore during the game isn’t that big) : I always get the impression that the maps are big (this is the Hollow Knight syndrome : in Hollow Knight, areas and rooms are really big, which subsequently tends to alter our perception of Ori‘s map), but this is because of their scale, in the end distances are covered rather quickly, Ori being admittedly very small (their sprite is really small on the screen) but rather lively and above all endowed with absolutely crazy movement abilities allowing them to cover even large distances very quickly (and with teleportation, it’s even better).
Nevertheless, this world manages to look huge : for example, if you have fun venturing to the vertical limits of the world, you end up in the clouds (the scenery gets lost in the clouds, it’s a good way to give an organic limit to this open-air world) : it’s not very realistic (or they are very very low clouds) but it’s a nice way to close the world (whereas in Super Mario Odyssey or some Zelda games, it’s the other way around, clouds are down).
Above all, there’s the parallax : of course it’s a very common thing, but the balance is such in the backgrounds that both forests – but especially Niwen – seem infinite.
Look for example at this area just before entering Baur’s Reach, this balance in volumes, colors, it’s just so pretty :
We really have the impression that the world just goes on and on, that there is something behind, that in Inkwater Marsh the huts are not there just to look pretty, that there really is a Moki waiting for us inside and that we can go there if we try. We can’t, unfortunately, but you get the idea.
Sometimes even the gods seem to resent you for exploring it a bit too much, right Zeus ?
From one extreme to the other
Ori’s world combines extremes, in the biomes but especially when you look at its inhabitants. Tiny characters (the spirits, Ku, the Mokis) almost only face huge creatures : all the bosses faced by Ori are huge : Howl, Hornbug, Mora, Kwolok and the Foul Presence, Shriek. It is a little less the case in O&WW since there are many other characters (Tuley, Opher, the Gorleks) but the increasing number of enemies – and thus bosses – ends up emphasizing the gap between small and large creatures and we again get the feeling of a world of oppositions.
Nevertheless, the treatment of these “monstrous” characters is different : some are only seen in a purely animal form (Howl who attacks us because we enter his territory as well as Hornbug who blocks the way to Kwolok’s throne room), others are completely humanized (Kwolok), some are halfway corrupted (Mora) or destroyed by their past (Kuro, Shriek).
This abundance, this excess pretty much everywhere, it’s one of the key elements in tales. Ori’s birth (or their materialization) is supernatural, as for example that of Princess Kaguya, appearing to an old bamboo cutter in a shiny bamboo. This apparition gives Naru a child, Naru who has no family : her father is dead and before that her mother as well ; we see three statues in Black Root Burrows : Naru, her father and logically her mother ; but in the few cutscenes about Naru’s youth, we only see her father : we can reasonably suppose that her mother died when Naru was quite young.
Thus she has no parents, no siblings, no friends, no children : Ori’s arrival is therefore a miracle welcomed with astonishment and then joy by Naru who had befriended spirits when she was little. The harp at the beginning of the scene underlines the fact that this is the beginning of a story, of a tale.
Some heroes in tales are surrounded by fairies, here it’s the Spirit Tree (then Sein) who takes care of them by bringing them back to life, in a last effort before his decline.
Finally, Ori, although well characterized, has typical qualities of a fairy tale hero or heroine, notably their empathy and especially their altruism, taken to the extreme (yes, again, we will see that in the next article).
We get to see Nibel before (and after) its decline, it is shown as a place almost extravagant by its abundance (if only the Spirit Tree : his dimensions are exceptional and the number of spirits seems important, one for each leaf) and especially belonging to the fantasy genre. A fantasy world that has its own, very unique identity thanks to the spirit light.
It is a way to emphasize Ori’s role as the hero : indeed, to save the forest, the forests, Ori has to be a hero (not an antihero) : they’re pointed out as special since the beginning (they’re the leaf which stands out), they accomplish extraordinary things in front of characters who are themselves extraordinary.
Showing them as a very humanized character, especially as a child who has kept a certain “purity” (they have no flaws), allows us to have a lot of empathy even when we eventually see their weaknesses (they’re never ridiculed) and explains why they have powers to acquire : they cannot face the forest right away since they were raised as a child.
This also explains the difficulty of the game : some challenges are quite demanding (but there are many ways to manage the difficulty of said challenges, especially in combat ; when played with all the ablities, it requires little precision, to be honest, but the difficulty can really ramp up if you play on hard difficulty or without shards – I can confirm !), and it is necessary in order for us to believe that Ori is a being with an extraordinary destiny.
However this approach of extremes is nuanced by the richness of the biomes, precisely, especially in O&WW where everything is even more beautiful, even more rich (richer ? Ah, parallelisms…). Of course, the graphic palette can be extremely vibrant (Luma Pools) or on the contrary almost dull (when Ku is injured), but especially within a biome, there are many color changes, some are important because related to a strong modification in the environment itself (Baur’s Reach thaws, zone after zone, thanks to the structures that we activate, so the colors change), others are more natural (the water gets darker when Ori dives deeper), or even metaphorical (like the setting sun when Kwolok dies : in a large part of Luma Pools the blue dominates then as the boss fight draws near the pink/purple takes up more space, it is often associated with corruption).
O&WW manages to give more richness even to the most desolate areas. O&BF would seem almost dull in comparison, when looking at areas which share similar colors ; it must be said that Niwen is bathed in a rather breathtaking light, and that the game achieves the feat of making its first explored area (Inkwater Marsh) look brighter than anything from O&BF, while the whole scene sets a magical night atmosphere, under the storm, in a landscape lit up by lightning, as well as the aura from Ori and some of the flowers, yet warmed by the light of the huts in the background, of Lupo’s candles, but especially, as a first symbol of the little spirit’s function as a forest guardian, of the torch, their first weapon. Indeed, as beautiful as this forest of Niwen seems, it is in decline and needs a guardian, a protector, a Tree.
A world in danger
Laugh ? Sorry, I don’t know that word
It is well known that Ori games are sad games. Get out the tissues.
This is a world of suffering, of loss : the Spirit Tree loses one of his children (Ori themselves). Ori loses their adoptive mother, Naru. The blinding light spread by the Spirit Tree to find Ori kills Kuro’s three children, unleashing her anger. Gumo loses his fellow Gumons following Nibel’s decline.
Shriek suffers from being born in a world already in ashes, her parents already dead, petrified, and rejected by the parents of the little owls (who accept her). Ku suffers from the loss of her mother and the absence of her fellow creatures (she looks at the birds leaving on migration) ; she also feels different because of her right wing, whose plumage never grew following Nibel’s fire when she was in her mother’s nest.
Finally, all the trees that offer us new abilities have appeared where spirits (Ori’s siblings) died after Nibel’s decline, hunted by Kuro. Sad, right ? I’m not done yet !
It is also a world of sacrifices, that of Naru, who gives Ori their last fruit, Kuro who puts Sein back in the Spirit Tree but dies because of the light it triggers, Ku who attacks Shriek… And Kwolok taken by the Foul Presence who took refuge in Luma Pools after being chased from the Wellspring.
But the sacrifice is also rebirth, like Ori themselves who becomes a tree so that the forest is reborn, and Kuro before.
This suffering is already here at the beginning of O&BF‘s gameplay (the forest is already blinded and Ori has already lost Naru), in O&WW it’s a little different : Niwen’s decline is prior to Ori’s arrival, but Ori’s pain is subsequent to their arrival in the forest (as O&WW is a more personal adventure for the hero) since it’s connected to Ku’s attack by Shriek : they don’t know what to do anymore, so much so that they can’t do anything but lie down next to her, as if they wanted to share her coma, share her wounds. Kwolok’s throne room is then given new colors and new sounds, in the image of the sadness of both the hero and the Mokis.
A world to protect
By showing us such a vast and rich world yet beset by decline, it only reinforces our awareness of its fragility. Ori themselves is mortal (we can’t forget that !) and often in danger. In Mouldwood Depths, there are these small luminous insects that guide us as long as we are helpless against the darkness of the area, and that disappear after a few seconds.
In a world in danger, Ori must first protect themselves (O&BF) and then protect others (O&WW), but fighting is not seen as a negative thing.
In O&BF, enemies are not very diversified, the emphasis being rather on platforming : mini-bosses are almost identical and regular mobs contrast with the design of the forest itself, supposedly desolate, but a rather aestheticized desolation (this is no Yharnam). As there are no bosses, all enemies reappear (rather quickly), a bit as if the fight was “inconsequential” (enemies’ corpses disintegrate). There is no empathy towards them, since they are not humanized and especially sometimes… shapeless ?
It’s a bit different in O&WW where there are more enemies and they fit slightly better in Niwen : some of them actually look like animals, possessed for one reason or another : the little Rhino Beetles, the Mantis that jump ten times their own size ; sometimes they are even humans : among Gorleks, some are peaceful, others attack us.
Another detail, enemies have no blood, at most we see (O&WW) a pinkish goo that disappears quickly : no blood that stains (in a very, hem, shiny way) your clothes à la Bloodborne or leaves bright red traces on the ground as seen in the recent Death’s Door.
The scenes where Ori acquires their weapon (Sein then the spiritual blade) are shown in a very positive way : in the first game, Ori must be able to defend themselves (they’re in direct danger, attacked by three creatures of the forest). Certainly troubles are coming, announced by a rather intense musical gesture :
But if we listen to the fight loop itself :
We certainly have at the beginning a good old tremolo (I’ll call it the faithful tremolo) in the low strings (with an ascending and then descending octave that gives some energy), which could not announce anything good (and suddenly Ori plays Mahler’s Symphony n°2 – after all it is called Resurrection), but it quickly disappears in favor of a higher theme, supported by percussions that are never too present and an ostinato that stays within the harmony (unlike Dandara‘s boss theme where the slightly apocalyptic piano warns us that this is no time to laugh) and never sounds frantic since we don’t have anything faster than 8th notes (whereas the piano in Dandara‘s boss theme seems to have 32nd notes at the very beginning. I tried to count. So maybe it’s 16th notes sextuplets ? Try counting yourself ! I’m doing all the work here).
Besides, it’s in 5/4 (or 5/8) and it allows for a particular phrasing for the theme : the division of the bar is 3+2 (better, if we listen to the 8th notes (16th notes if it’s in 5/8), the division is 3+3+2+2, there’s an acceleration at the end of the bar), the accompaniment’s rhythm on the last two beats is systematically on the beat which allows to always restart each bar (with a timpani stroke on the first beat of each bar, honestly it helps) in a slightly cyclical but very dynamic effect, allowing the theme, which is very slow (each note of the theme is a full bar, so five beats), not to lose too much intensity (the first beat of each bar being accentuated, it gives the illusion of a “note after note” phrasing, where each note is emphasized more than the complete melody : this is a very good choice, it’s like there’s a wonder at each note – Ori is not familiar with this aspect of the forest – a more tense, lyrical phrasing wouldn’t be appropriate) while playing on the contrast between the strong accompaniment and the more melodic theme. That sentence was way too long.
There’s still a little tension at the end, a glissando (it seems to me that the – faithful, again – tremolo is still there), ascending and then descending (“Will you finally finish this combat tutorial ?”) ; it is a way to combine the threat, which is very real, with the cathartic aspect of the fight : Ori has to free the forest from creatures that don’t seem to belong here.
In the sequel, it’s the Mokis who guide Ori towards the tree which will give them, finally, their own weapon : the spirit blade.
The whole scene is more developed so let’s analyze it a little more closely : Inkwater Marsh is plunged into the darkness of the storm which separated our two heroes. After fighting Howl with a flaming torch (we’ve known better weapons, but it works), Ori finds themselves in the charming den of the charming wolf they have just triumphed over, plunged in a rather unusual silence (the Ori games are bathed in Gareth Coker’s lush lush lush music. Yes, three times. At least !). While following a Moki, they discover one of these famous ancestral trees from which they get their powers.
While Naru and Gumo understand that Ori and Ku are lost in Niwen, where the other birds are headed, Ori wakes up :
The storm has ended, the graphic palette is completely changed and bathed in a very warm light, and especially the music has returned : the key hasn’t changed, but the pulse is much more perceptible (a way to give more structure, assurance, and thus hope – often in Ori the pulse is rather a motor, not a constraint – as for instance in Little Nightmares ; certainly it imposes a tempo, but here it’s a way to give motion, as it is often played with a soft sound. Note that I said often, I did not say always), and the theme is less closed on the tonic (the cello solo has a nice strong vibrato, kind of a tear-jerker – I’m getting carried away here) : besides, there is no more leading tone at this moment, the B remains natural (which avoids the resolution towards the tonic and allows to hear brighter chords ; plus, there’s no A in the scale, therefore it sounds more dynamic).
Juxtaposing the two scenes is obviously a way to show that with Ori, Ku will be saved : the distress of the two characters is quickly swept away by the joy which emerges from the following shot when the Mokis, convinced of what they’re capable of, surround Ori. There is another similar moment when Naru and Gumo set out for Niwen ; at the same time, Ori enters the dungeon that will allow them to go to the Silent Woods and find Ku : these are important decisions that are shown one after the other.
The Mokis then tell Ori that they have been “knighted” by the ancestral tree, this one has recognized their light (“You are not like the others”), and far from fearing Ori’s fresh new weapon, they want to see them in action (“Now use the light. We want to see !”).
The combat’s sound design takes part in this liberating character, since one can legitimately qualify it as… vigorous, and it is interspersed with cheerful fanfares during obligatory rooms or when you complete a quest : as you attack with Sein in O&BF, there is a sound effect for the emission of a spirit flame and a sound effect when you hit an enemy, it’s a sound design that follows your power increase (it changes when your spirit flame gets stronger) ; in O&WW, the spirit blade makes quite a lot of noise and it seems to me that you hear Ori when they attack.
In the Spirit Shrines, each successful wave is rewarded with a few energy crystals that burst out of the battle arena and punctuates the event with a very dynamic sound.
The hero’s level up in O&BF is accompanied by a very powerful blast : it’s better not to get in Ori’s way.
Another important element is that Ori’s weapons (in O&WW) are all spirit weapons, which means they materialize only when Ori uses them : without attack, when they run or go talk to an NPC, they’re invisible ; this makes them a protector more than someone that would attack or even a knight (they embody the role of protector in the second game, towards Ku in part but especially towards the Mokis and – indirectly – the forest). Far from being a warrior, they’re a guardian, whose strength only materializes when they need it (a bit like Kingdom Hearts‘ keyblades, it seems to me that they are “summoned” by their wielder), a guardian who will then become a “creator” by becoming Niwen’s new Spirit Tree ; they will transcend this initial function.
The fight sometimes almost feels… joyful (!) with the shrines, without any consequences : they can be repeated as many times as Ori wishes, like a training session.
On the other hand, when antagonists attack, it’s clearly different : Shriek does not hesitate to kill Howl (we find him in the Silent Woods… petrified) and to attack Ku (an owl like her, moreover a child) at the moment when she is the most vulnerable.
Kuro has tracked down the forest spirits to prevent them from finding Sein and bringing them back to the Spirit Tree. Similarly, encounters with the bosses can be quite sad (well, maybe not Hornbug), at most we are reassured by a happy ending, as when we free Mora from the corruption that was blinding her : bosses belong to the forest whereas most of the regular enemies don’t seem to. There’s no humor at all during those fights (Hornbug doesn’t have this tragic dimension but it’s not “funny” either).
Above all, Kwolok, very much loved by the Mokis and who leads us in our quest, dies under our blows (the Foul Presence has no hitbox, so it is Kwolok that we must hit. Thank you, Moon Studios. Thank you very much).
This suffering world is not without hope : a negative element is often offset by a positive element (besides, except for the Silent Woods, Niwen, although supposedly stricken by decay, still looks really pretty, the decline is relative when we look at the screen) : Ori dies but the Spirit Tree brings them back to life, just like Naru is brought back to life by Gumo ; Kuro sacrifices herself but Sein is back in their Spirit Tree, saving Ku from the flames. Kwolok succumbs to his wounds, but not without destroying the Foul Presence from Luma Pools’ waters.
Just listen to the theme of the Wellspring Glades : it’s the village, the hub, an area you come back to regularly, it seems quite logical to associate it with a theme that shows the game’s general atmosphere while underlining the fact that it’s a safe place ; generally you’re not afraid of anything in a hub : nobody attacks you in Dirtmouth, not even Zote (well, if you don’t go and visit Bretta…) ; no minotaur comes after you in the lobby of Crypt of the Necrodancer, nor in the melancholic office from Death’s Door. Even Santa Luchita is rather quiet.
Yet in these glades, we’re on another level : of course the oboe is brought out for the main theme and nothing can disturb this pastoral and tender mood as Ori makes many friends in these glades, but especially the initial flute motives, played with a very strong phrasing and a very clear sound (the one in the high register at 0’15), amplified by the echo effect, give us the feeling of a place at the same time very open and completely safe, where only exploration counts and nothing can happen to us (there are some thorns that can be quickly removed, nothing too bad, just don’t touch them, Ori. I told you not to touch them !!). It’s a bit crazy, we hear a first B, then a second one very close, amplified by the echo of the first B, then by its own echo, the effect is very strong. If on top of that you have pizzicatos that bounce so much…
Hope is a recurring motif in Ori‘s world, it is introduced in an almost unrealistic way, by their “resurrection” at the beginning of the first game (very spectacular – so is the music), the eponymous character being themselves a symbol of hope as a source of renewal : starting with something so strong is a way to establish Ori’s status as a hero and to show that anything is possible (Naru herself will come back to life later in the game).
There’s hope again when one of the wisps tries to revive Ku but instead makes some white flowers blossom where the little owl is sleeping : in the same way, a pulse, a soft ostinato introduced by a small arabesque on the flute (2’35), comes to give a structure to the theme that the choir sings afterwards (but everything’s not settled either so we end up in the depths of the orchestra, let’s be serious for a moment, it’s sad, you hear me, it has to be sad ! Ahem, sorry about that). It is a more moderate hope because Ku is in danger as long as Ori has not finished their quest, but it is a guide for the hero.
A world just like its hero, between spirituality and humanity
The world of Ori is on the “fantasy” side : there are supernatural elements, accepted by all the characters ; it is home to a rather realistic flora with sometimes a touch of originality (the Spring Plants), energy crystals, spirit light and especially Spirit Trees from which each leaf gives birth to a spirit. Nibel shows this spirituality more easily : the Spirit Tree rises in the middle of the forest and especially the vegetation shines a lot, like Ori.
In Niwen, this glowing flora is scarcer (except in Mouldwood Depths, but it’s here to help us navigate through the area, and in Kwolok’s Hollow) : the forest is populated, it is built (the Mokis’ huts, the ruins), there’s fire ; Nibel looked deserted.
Ori‘s sound design has of course several aspects : it underlines the fight’s dynamism, its spectacular side, then becomes more readable in platforming, centered on Ori’s humanity, their way of reacting to the worlds they explore and what these worlds allow them to do (you can imagine that I will talk about it in the next article).
We also saw (heard) that the very beautiful foley emphasizes that nature is a key element here (duh !) but Ori‘s sound design must at the same time give a sonic identity to the spirit light which irrigates both Nibel and Niwen. Something strange, unfamiliar, shimmering, but which is finally not that “supernatural” – Nibel’s Spirit Tree actually isn’t unique – and must thus keep an organic aspect, it can’t be synthetic : it is integral to Ori‘s nature.
There’s a moment in particular that I find very pretty, which translates the duality of this spirit light (not human yet natural), it’s during the scene when Kuro attacks the Spirit Tree and Nibel’s small inhabitants, we hear the sound of these rays of light slowly emitted by the Tree, as well as his voice, as if he actually “exhaled” this light.
You can hear the spirit light’s sound here :
This sound, very well done, runs through the adventure, from the slightest sound of the UI to the hero’s spiritual weapons.
When you create a new game, when you select a skill or a shard, when you look at the map, you are bathed in the sound of this peculiar light.
During the adventure, when Sein speaks, their sentences are spoken over a loop that recalls the sound of the spirit light.
Some objects are activated by Sein, spirit wells and doors, and their sound design bears the spiritual signature, for example, the loop when Ori teleports, which superimposes the sound of Ori’s spin and a more crystalline sound :
And of course the small collectibles. They’re crystals so they have to go “ting”. It’s mandatory.
This light is powerful (Kuro knows something about it), so in addition to combat’s main sound design, it sometimes adds a thunder effect when you absorb the power of an ancestral tree, when you level up and when you use the spirit wells.
But there’s not only the spirit light, there’s light, “plain” light ! Niwen’s is more natural, more realistic, like the forest. It is also warmer.
Ori will embody this tension between spirituality and humanity : as a spirit who was raised as a child without powers, they will have to accept their nature and the powers of their fellow spirits in order to restore Nibel’s order and to be able to live with their family, to then totally leave their humanity behind by becoming in their turn Niwen’s Spirit Tree, to allow those with whom they built themselves, with whom they were raised, to stay alive. But all of this will be for next time !