Arts & Culture

Ori and the Blind Forest: Stuck in the Wrong Genre

Disclaimer: this article will not spoil the story of Ori and the Blind Forest, but it will spoil certain locations and the mechanical progression of it and Hollow Knight. If you are sensitive to those kinds of spoilers, then I highly suggest you play the game yourself and then come back to this article.

 

Released in 2015 and developed by Moon Studios, Ori and the Blind Forest is a Studio Ghibli-inspired platformer following the eponymous tree spirit Ori and his quest to save the forest of Nibel from dying at the hands of Kuro the owl. It boasts a wonderfully developed art style and a touching story about parenthood and bearing the weights of responsibility, which are especially impressive for the debut project of an independent studio that caught the attention of Microsoft. Despite the multitude of its accomplishments, however, Ori completely fails to meet the standards set by the genre it tries to fit into: the metroidvania.

Metroidvanias do not have a specific point of origin since they have come from a variety of inspirations, although two games in particular: Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, both coming with universal praise in 1994 and 1997 respectively. At the time, these two games stood out by presenting a different way of thinking about progression in games. Instead of having players progress by moving them along a linear track of levels, these games drop players into a single seamless world and give them little to no direction on where to go, making thoughtful exploration and remembering paths essential to the experience. In this manner, progression comes in the form of gaining access to new areas to explore while collecting powerups that let them explore more of it, operating on a lock-and-key structure where each powerup bypasses a certain kind of obstacle. Moreover, this allows for a nonlinear type of progression that will require thoughtful care in designing memorable landmarks on the developer’s part and creating a mental map of the entire world on the player’s part. So where does Ori go wrong?

First of all, Ori misses many interesting possibilities with the design of its map. As one can tell, each area is neatly laid out as if it rested on a grid, which functions to the ultimate detriment of exploration, mostly because there is usually one, and at most two, ways into each area. If the player could access any area without restrictions and wanted to travel from the Moon Grotto in the bottom right corner of the map and into the Misty Woods on the left corner, they would have to travel through Thornfelt Swamp, then to Sunken Glades, unless they take the alternate route there first, then to Valley of Winds, and finally to Misty Woods every single time. Usually this would not present an issue in other metroidvanias, in fact trekking through multiple areas is standard practice to reaching a destination, however, there is only a specific route to reach each area no matter where the player is while moving through a specific portion of each area. Furthermore, Ori’s design ethos runs counter to the core essence of metroidvanias: nonlinearity. Ori is, in fact, a strictly linear game that requires the player to restore the forest in three locations: the Ginso Tree, the Forlorn Ruins, and Mount Horu in that order. Ori also requires the player to do specific tasks before gaining access to these key locations. For example, to reach the Ginso Tree must travel through Hollow Grove, then Thornfelt Swamp, then Moon Grotto to acquire a key before returning to Thornfelt Swamp to enter the Ginso Tree, and the experience is exactly the same in each playthrough. And once the quest in the key area has been completed, the previous areas have outlived their usefulness by not being connected to any other meaningful parts of the world, and the player no longer needs to return to them ever again.

By contrast, Hollow Knight, another metroidvania, wholeheartedly embraces nonlinearity. Most regions include at least four entrances and exits, which allows not only four different ways to explore and enter each area, but also a greater freedom of movement throughout the world once it opens up with several different routes to reach the same destination. This makes Hollow Knight’s world very friendly to concepts endemic to the genre: backtracking and sequence breaking. Because progression is nonlinear, a metroidvania world must contain routes that are satisfying to traverse more than once, returning to previous areas with more abilities to explore, with plenty of shortcuts and ways for experienced players to navigate quickly and efficiently, which this game has plenty of. As for sequence breaking, this is an idea that came from Super Metroid and its developers accidentally making certain abilities too powerful, allowing players to beat the game by exploring areas outside of the intended order or completely forgoing certain abilities that would have been considered necessary to progress. Hollow Knight’s sequence breaking may not be as extreme as Super Metroid’s, but certain mechanics like the “pogo jump,” which gives extra jump height with a downwards attack, allows skipping the double jump ability and cutting down the time it takes to beat the game.

On the other hand, Ori’s world was crafted to be traversed in only a single direction, which can make return trips to previous areas to chart unexplored parts a pain, the worst offender being the Misty Woods which is a single long corridor with a dead end. Furthermore, finding all of the abilities in Ori is absolutely necessary to progress without much or any possibility to sequence break, thus forcing experienced players down the long route and homogenizing each run through the game.

If Ori were created as a more linear, Super Mario-like platformer, then these design choices of the world would make a lot more sense, and perhaps elevate the platforming genre to new heights, since Ori already has several brilliant ideas for new ways to traverse an in-game space, such as bash, a move that temporarily stops time, snaps Ori to a projectile or an enemy, then flings him in one direction and the object in the opposite direction. Although I find it a real shame that Ori seems to be trapped in the wrong genre, it does serve as an example of how important it is to understand a genre and what makes it unique.

 

Works Cited

Thumbnail. Ori and the Blind Forest. https://thepcgames.net/ori-and-the-blind-forest-definitive-edition/.

Fig. 1. Ori and Naru. https://www.gamersdecide.com/pc-game-news/ori-and-blind-forest-gameplay-10-interesting-facts-about-awesome-game.

Fig. 2. Ori and the Blind Forest map. https://gameranx.com/features/id/59104/article/ori-and-the-blind-forest-definitive-edition-collectibles-map/.

Fig. 3. Hollow Knight map. https://www.reddit.com/r/HollowKnight/comments/6kwt7a/getting_rather_frustrated_at_hollow_knight/.

Fig. 4. Kuro. https://store.steampowered.com/app/261570/Ori_and_the_Blind_Forest/.

Fig. 5. Ori bashing. https://rectifygaming.com/ori-and-the-will-of-the-wisps-is-a-new-landmark-for-platforming-games/.

Fig. 6. Ori escaping the Ginso Tree. https://manualdosgames.com/ori-and-the-blind-forest-analise-completa/.

7 Comments

  1. Interesting, good job!

  2. This is a really interesting article and it caught my eye because of how much I love the style and music Ori and the Blind Forest uses. But some points I think should somewhat be more traversed to find the true core of Metroidvania in this game. One of the key things you missed is the direct comparison of one game to another while not showing the true meaning of the genre “Metroidvania”. The genre itself is defined as “The term ‘Metroidvania’ is most often used to refer to a platforming game that features a single large, interconnected map, generally with discrete rooms or sections. … As such, the genre focuses on exploration of a large world map, and advancement of the player-character abilities over time.” So the direct instance of games that should include multiple endpoints is not the entire point of the genre. It is that you are able to explore, and I think you would agree with me that exploration is HUGE in Ori and the Blind Forest with the gorgeous art style. Another key element is that the player develops abilities over time to progress, this element you have twisted using your comparison saying that Metroidvania embodies non-linear exploration. A game like the one you mentioned “Castlevania” has actually embraced linear progression finding a more thorough way of exploration and also invalidating the argument.

    There are also some points that have been fixed in Ori and the Will of the Wisps which I have heard embraces the use of several more powerups that you don’t have to necessarily get in order to complete the game. Though it still adopts the idea that a story should go through a somewhat constricted pattern to find a better end goal.

    I may have missed some points or not entirely proved my argument, but feel free to elaborate and argue further your points if you want. I personally love Ori and the Blind Forest for its great story, breathtaking art, and emotional music.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metroidvania (I feel that the source used should be accurate enough in defining Metroidvania)

    • Hey Elijah, thanks for taking the time to make a thought out comment for my article. I intentionally kept the definition of metroidvania vague because a very strict definition of the genre would simply limit what developers could do with it and what we can consider other members of the genre. The goal was to look for the spirit of the genre rather than any arbitrary set of traits it needs to have first. For example, Dark Souls can be considered a popular example of a 3D metroidvania despite it containing little to no platforming, no distinct powerups like in traditional metroidvanias (coming more in the form of RPG leveling), few clearly defined rooms, but still bears that exploratory spirit as progress is always nonlinear, even when it seems linear. There’s lots of different places to go to early on, and giving yourself a particular item at the beginning of the game will make almost everything accessible from the get-go, letting you complete challenges in an order the developers never intended. You could even say Zelda games have elements of metroidvanias baked into them with its dungeons. In fact, one could argue the metroidvania is the extreme version of Zelda’s puzzlelike dungeon design and applying that to the entire game space. And these are just a few reasons why I prefer not to use something like Wikipedia’s definition of a metroidvania, as it only includes major tropes of the genre and not rules they have to abide by to be considered part of it.

      Having multiple paths to explore isn’t the point of metroidvanias, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t necessary to make a good metroidvania. Because articles limit what I can say, there is a lot more I could say about Ori and what really makes a good entry in the genre, but word limits force me to be concise and focus on a certain point. I focused on non-linear exploration the most because that’s a common trait I’ve noticed in every good metroidvania. It doesn’t have to be non-linear on the entire scale of the world like Hollow Knight, as Metroid 2 is a mostly linear metroidvania that contains many smaller non-linear areas. Gato Roboto is another linear metroidvania, but at the same time it has an excellent, brisk pacing with linear progression that folds in on itself and forces players to think outside the box, running through a series of rooms one way, then activating a contraption that completely changes the dynamic in the rooms you’ve just traversed and opening a new path. It has a lot of spacial puzzles to make up for the linearity that a player expecting to blindly be funneled down a single tunnel will have trouble with. Non-linearity isn’t always necessary, but it can be a very important component of good level design and is often a common trope in well executed metroidvanias. The magic of non-linear level design is that you can always find new ways to beat the game. Two playthroughs from two different people playing Hollow Knight are going to look very different from each other because it allows for player choice, and to an even greater degree if you’re skilled enough. However, two playthroughs of from two different people playing Ori and the Blind Forest are going to look largely the same. Hollow Knight starts out linearly, but by the second area the player is allowed to explore several different locations after the second area, namely Fungal Wastes, Crystal Peak, Resting Grounds, City of Tears, Royal Waterways, Kingdom’s Edge, Deepnest, and the Hive. Not all of them are immediately accessible, some of them have certain requirements to meet before entering them, but those requirements can be met by the player’s skillset after completing Forgotten Crossroads and Greenpath, the first two areas of the game. Fungal Wastes is most commonly every first time player’s third area, but it could also be Crystal Peak if the player has saved up enough Geo for a lantern and to pay the toll to enter, and then soon find the Resting Grounds as the fourth. If the player decides to go to Fungal Wastes as the third area, the fourth area could be either Deepnest or City of Tears. Going to Deepnest first will eventually open up a path back to Greenpath, City of Tears, Ancient Basin, or Kingdom’s Edge and going to City of Tears first will open up a way to Royal Waterways, Kingdom’s Edge, Resting Grounds, or Ancient Basin. There is a lot of flexibility in where the player can go, and these decisions can radically alter how the player goes about exploring the world, so even two playthroughs from the same person playing Hollow Knight might not be the same. Furthermore, the player has to find three NPCs to progress the story and finish the game, and once the player earns the right to find them, they can theoretically be tackled in any order the player wishes. You also have some DLC content that can also be accessed relatively early if you know what you’re doing. Your ability to complete them might be close to null since the developers expect you to tackle them in the endgame, but you can do it anyway if you want.

      Now let’s compare to Ori and the Blind Forest. The player has to go to three locations to beat the game: Ginso Tree, Forlorn Ruins, and Mount Horu. The player is made aware of these areas after completing the first one. Let’s say you wanted to go for Mount Horu first. You can’t get to Mount Horu because you need a key from Sorrow Pass, you can’t get to Sorrow Pass without riding a gust of wind up from the Valley of the Wind, you can’t get ride that gust of wind in Valley of the Wind until you complete Forlorn Ruins, you can’t complete Forlorn Ruins without finding the key to enter it in Misty Woods, you can’t get to Misty Woods without bypassing an arbitrary door until you complete the Ginso Tree, and you can’t complete the Ginso Tree without going into the Moon Grotto to find the key. Do you see the problem here? It also doesn’t help that the climb to Mount Horu is easily accessible from the beginning, and can be accessed if you acquire bash after beating the Ginso Tree, but you can’t get through because you need an arbitrary key that’s hidden away in a series of areas that force you to go down the same way every time. Ori contains exploration, yes, but it’s not exactly good or rewarding exploration. Any attempts to deviate from the beaten path are met with a strict no from the developers (except for Blackroot Burrows, and I commend the developers for making it accessible and beatable as soon as you obtain the wall jump). There are these moments where the game forces you to explore the area a bit to find keys to a locked door in order to progress, and this is a way to make exploration rewarding by giving players options on a smaller scale, but these moments are too far between. At best, areas in Ori act as platforming gauntlets designed to be traveled through once and never again. There are a bunch of small pickups to incentivize some degree of exploration, but for the most part these rewards are just XP orbs that you could easily get by killing enemies with the odd health and energy pickups. Super Metroid did this too, and there’s nothing wrong with this, but every small pickup meant something and stacked up quickly as you explore, meanwhile the ratio in Ori is half of the rewards being mostly meaningless (there are large XP orbs that give you lots of it, but they are mostly smaller orbs that don’t give an instant skill point to spend on the skill tree and the returns diminish more and more as you approach the end as you need more and more skill points to acquire some mild non-game-changing upgrades) and the other half meaning something, so you only have a 50/50 shot of feeling rewarded for exploration versus the 100% chance of that happening in Super Metroid (in this game one extra energy tank means much more survivability, and various missile tanks and power bomb tanks mean extra firepower to fight bosses, alongside optional major upgrades). However, these small incentives aren’t enough to cover Ori’s far weaker world design compared to other metroidvanias. The upgrades are also weaker too (minus bash), as their primary purpose is to recontextualize how the player navigates the world in some way. Bash does this amazingly and I don’t need to explain to you why if you’ve already played the game. Wall jump is an okay upgrade, and fairly standard for most platforming metroidvanias, but this is soon overshadowed by the superior wall climb and super wall jump abilities. Wall climb basically just means holding down a different button instead of spamming the jump button to climb walls, doing the same thing as wall jumping but faster, and super wall jumps are incredibly situational in their use and are only really used for clearing barriers that bash and ground pounding arbitrarily cannot, moreover its other uses are invalidated in most other areas, namely Mount Horu which punishes the player for using wall climb and super wall jumps and requires you to spam wall jump up your way walls. You could find a way to make super wall jumps more useful, but the level design more often than not doesn’t allow for it, and it becomes instantly invalidated for easier traversal by the superior dash ability, which is so ridiculously overpowered it’s honestly a lot of fun to use. But you can see how the upgrades overlap with each other and conflict in their uses, and I was honestly disappointed in its offerings. Couple this with the relatively weak level design that kills player freedom, with the world acting more as a level select screen than a believably interconnected space, and axes any more prominent uses for abilities outside of wall jump, bash, ground pound, and double jump, and you get a metroidvania that doesn’t live up to the successes of its brethren.

      Although I will say they improved on everything in these regards in Ori and the Will of the Wisps. Apart from combat having far more depth than just spamming the attack button and avoiding attacks, it does offer lots of freedom to the player to explore despite being another linear metroidvania. WotW opens linearly, but after a certain point in the story, the player is free to explore four different areas (one of which can only be beaten if you beat the previous three), and whichever order you choose to explore is going to affect how you’re going to tackle the others in a very major way. Choosing to enter one area first is going to deny you access to certain abilities at the moment, making them easier or harder to beat. For example, I went to a particular area first which felt quite hard and the other felt fairly easy, meanwhile another player entered that beat them in the reverse order and had more trouble with the area I thought was easier. WotW still suffers from the issue of some upgrades overlapping and being situational, but at least the level design gives them more time to shine. You eventually get the ability to burrow through sand, and you can find plenty of sand in other areas outside of the patented Sand Area™. If you haven’t played Will of the Wisps, I highly suggest you do since it’s basically Blind Forest but better in almost every single way (except maybe the story, which ends up being almost a 1:1 retread of Blind Forest’s story). And those are my mostly full thoughts on Ori and the Blind Forest being a poor metroidvania, take of this as you will.

  3. very interesting, great job Samuel!

  4. Nice nice.
    Good job.
    Very interesting. 🙂

  5. on word: WOW

  6. The Dancing Chameleon

    Your column is always exciting for me to read, even though I’m not a video game player: I feel like I’m exploring Willy Wonka’s video game factory with a cynical critic for a guide.