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.
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/.