BY NICK McCOY
One of the most contentious arguments in the entertainment industry is whether or not video games can be considered an art form. There are plenty of arguments from both sides; those who don’t consider video games art argue that they are meant to make money, or they are made just to be fun, not evoke emotion. Some argue that video games are meant to be interactive and have rules, therefore disqualifying them as art. On the other hand, it can be argued that certain games provoke just as much emotion as a painting or sculpture and that creating the video games themselves is, in fact, an art.
Myself, I absolutely believe that video games can be considered an art form. By definition, art is anything that expresses human skill or creativity, and takes many different forms. The process of programming, developing and creating a game is 100% an art form in my eyes. Plus, there are so many games out there that evoke so much emotion from the player. Whether it’s because of beautiful graphics, a poignant narrative or how the game is played, it’s not hard to find proof for the argument. And to me, no better video game exemplifies how games can be art than “Ori and the Blind Forest.”
I remember back in 2013 when my family and I went to Seattle over Spring Break, and we visited the Museum of Pop Culture. One of the exhibitions showcased various demos of independent games, one of them being “Ori.” I played it for a bit, loving its graphics and platforming gameplay. A while later, when it was released, I got my hands on it for myself, although I never really finished it.
Having finally finished it so many years later, I can say with full confidence that “Ori and the Blind Forest” is one of the most beautiful games ever made. Featuring an emotional story, gripping visuals, an absolutely touching soundtrack and satisfying platforming gameplay, “Ori and the Blind Forest” is proof of how games can be classified as art.
“Ori and the Blind Forest” was released on March 11th, 2015, for PC and Xbox One, and later for Nintendo Switch on September 27, 2019. The game was developed by Moon Studios, an independent Austrian company with no set location, and published by Microsoft Studios. Thomas Mahler, Moon Studio’s co-founder, directed “Ori.” He was inspired to create his own company during his time with Blizzard Entertainment, after seeing the success of indie games such as “Limbo” and “Castle Crushers.” “Ori and the Blind Forest: Definitive Edition,” an updated version with more areas and abilities, was released in March of 2016. “Ori and the Will of the Wisps,” a direct sequel, was released on March 11, 2020.
The game’s story follows the titular Ori, a white spirit guardian, and Sein, a small orb who accompanies Ori. After a cataclysmic event leaves their native forest withered and in decay, Ori and Sein work together to restore balance to the land of Nibel and the forest’s Spirit Tree, by reviving the elements of water, winds and warmth. The player must traverse the various landscapes of Nibel, defeating enemies, solving puzzles, and gathering new abilities to progress. Other characters in “The Blind Forest” include Naru, Ori’s adoptive mother; Gumo, a spider-like creature from a race called the Gumon; and Kuro, a large, vicious owl who hunts Ori.
The story in “Ori and the Blind Forest” is just one of the many factors that make the game so engrossing. The game overall features very little spoken dialogue; the only text we get is commentary from Sein to Ori, and the narration from the Spirit Tree. But other than that, the game unfolds right before the players’ eyes, and perfectly exemplifies the phrase, “Show, don’t tell.”
Ori’s journey is also quite the emotional roller coaster. The game hits you with an emotional gut punch right from the start and yet has one of the most heartwarming endings ever. It is a true testament to Moon Studio’s storytelling abilities when they are able to portray so much emotion and garner so much empathy and passion towards characters who, for the most part, don’t speak a single word. Kuro is the perfect example of this, as her tragic backstory is shown to us, giving context to her hatred of Ori and the Spirit Tree. The parental bond between Naru and Ori is also nothing short of beautiful. Moon Studios didn’t skip a beat when crafting such an emotional, gripping story.
What really makes Ori stand out, however, is its presentation. This game is absolutely gorgeous. Not in the sense that it’s graphically impressive, or that it features ridiculous amounts of detail in its environments; It is just beautiful to look at. Every single part of Nibel is a marvel, filled with bright colors, breathtaking landscapes and an awe-inspiring sense of depth. There is also a feeling of comfort that’s present in most areas; even in zones filled with enemies or hazardous obstacles, the beautiful art style and detail present in each zone can’t help but feel comforting. There is one part of the map which looks onto the massive spirit tree overlooking the forest, and it’s impossible not just to sit and stare at the marvelous sight. While Ori isn’t the most graphically impressive game, its beautiful aesthetic more than makes up for it.
It can’t be overstated just how much of an awe-inspiring and serene experience “Ori and the Blind Forest” is. While the game definitely picks up the pace during crucial moments, mainly after restoring the elements and during the game’s final act, the majority of the game develops at a slow pace. You are given plenty of time to appreciate the game’s gorgeous scenery, as you traverse across Nibel. This type of calm and serene environment is only made even more prevalent by the fact the game features virtually no boss battles, instead throwing slightly tougher enemies and some escape sequences. Due to the game’s heavy emphasis on exploration, it is encouraged that players take the time to scour every end of the map. The clear amount of effort and time that went into the game’s world can never be understated.
Oftentimes, games with a focus on beautiful visuals and an engaging story falter in the gameplay department, solely because the developers spend so much time on the former two traits, they don’t leave room for much else. However, “Ori and the Blind Forest” is just as fun to play as it is enjoyable to watch unfold. “The Blind Forest” is a 2D platformer, with gameplay inspired by other popular games in that same genre, namely the Rayman series. It is also a Metroidvania: a type of action-adventure game with an emphasis on exploration, backtracking, and acquiring new abilities to access previously locked areas.
Nibel is a large, interconnected map with various zones that the player can explore at their will. As is the case with most Metroidvanias, certain sections are inaccessible until the players gather the right abilities. Once you gather all of Ori’s abilities, however, the entire game opens up to you, allowing you to fully explore every single corner of Nipel at your own pace. As someone who has little to no experience with Metroidvanias, I found this system incredibly enjoyable. Exploring Nipel is made easier with the use of Spirit Wells, which in the Definitive Edition, can warp the player to different areas of the map. Whether you’re traversing the map on foot or through the spirit wells, it is an incredibly satisfying experience to behold.
The main way to traverse Nipel, aside from the scattered spirit wells, is by running and climbing. The platforming featured in “Ori and the Blind Forest” is incredibly satisfying to pull off. Ori is a delight to jump around as, as they feel light as a feather yet have a decent amount of weight to them. The platforming is made even more engaging through the use of the several abilities Ori acquires. This includes being able to bash off of light lanterns and enemies to quickly navigate treacherous terrain and a super jump that allows for greater heights as well as the ability to break through certain walls.
Aside from platforming, players also must combat various enemies scattered throughout, with Ori fighting them using Sein’s “spirit flame,” a type of projectile that can hit enemies from a certain distance. One of the game’s most unique aspects is the “Soul Link.” By spending some of Ori’s energy, players can save their progress at any time, given they’re away from danger. At these save points, players can also upgrade Ori’s attributes using XP gathered from slaying enemies or finding orbs. These upgrades include being able to target multiple enemies at once, detecting hidden areas, or reducing damage taken. It also culminates in a system that makes it all the more rewarding to fully explore the game’s world.
The real Metroidvania side of “Ori and the Blind Forest” comes from backtracking and navigating through every single layer of Nipel in order to grab various collectibles and pickups with the right abilities. Aside from the containers that give you extra XP, you can find across the map, there are three major collectibles for the player to grab: Energy cells, which increase Ori’s energy meter; Life Cells, which increase their health bar; and Ability Cells, which immediately grant the player ability points to upgrade Ori at soul links.
Collecting these different cells undeniably helps out later in the game, as it becomes quite difficult during the final section. Getting all of these orbs is also crucial to 100% completion, given that there is no post-game following the main story, this gives completionists an extra incentive to explore as much as they can during the main game. For me, constantly backtracking and accessing different areas didn’t feel gritty or tedious, probably because I just love the game’s atmosphere so much.
Saving the best for last, the soundtrack for “Ori and the Blind Forest” is simply perfect. The game’s music was produced by British composer Gareth Coker, who added so much to an already phenomenal experience with his orchestral and piano-heavy soundtrack. Coker is able to invoke so many emotions with his music, from happy and triumphant to somber and depressing, and even dark and sinister at times. The games’ amazing music already shows itself the second you open the menu, with the excellent main theme. And then, it keeps your attention with “Lost in the Storm,” which plays at the start of the prologue. It only gets better as you play through the game, with each zone containing different music, and the soundtrack changing with each major event. For example, a bright, happy tune plays when the waters of Nibel are cleared, while an intense, heart-pounding song plays during the final section of the game as you try to escape Kuro. Seriously, the level of beauty and emotion that Coker’s amazing soundtrack adds to the experience.
If there were any criticisms, I would have to level at “Ori” (and there isn’t much), I would have to go with the fact there is no post-game. I don’t know if this is a common trend with Metroidvanias or just a creative choice Moon Studios went, but I was left disappointed by the fact I couldn’t go back and explore Nibel to get everything I missed; instead, I would have to start my entire playthrough again and get those missing cells and orbs during my second run. I’m sure this isn’t an issue for a lot of people, but I just appreciate being able to hop back in and collect things I missed, without starting everything however. Still, it’s far from a deal breaker, and trust me, it’s very hard for me to find something I’m genuinely angry within this game.
“Ori and the Blind Forest” is a game made with clear passion and love by a studio that deserves so much more recognition. Playing “The Blind Forest” is an experience unlike any other, with beautiful graphics and art style, a phenomenal soundtrack, an emotionally engrossing narrative, and incredibly satisfying and fun gameplay elements. From beginning to end, “The Blind Forest” delivers on being an emotional, yet satisfying game that will leave you with a happy feeling once the end credits roll, while also leaving you wanting more. It’s truly amazing what Moon Studios were able to accomplish with this game, and it still stands as definitive proof that games can, indeed, qualify as art.