Spoilers for Ori and the Blind Forest (game).

Ori and the Blind Forest is a game in which one plays as a tiny cat-monster in his struggle against the twin perils of low gravity and high saturation.

Pictured: the effect of sitting too near the screen when anything exciting happens.
(Screenshot from ‘Spongebob Squarepants’)

That does at least explain how the forest ends up blind, I suppose…

Ori is, in many ways, a fairy tale presented as a game, complete with all the tropes: magical orphan, adoptive parent, death of said parent, entirely inexplicable resurrection, villain dies an ironic and presumably agonizing death.

Did you know that in some versions of ‘Snow White’, the Queen is invited to Snow White’s wedding, whereupon she is made to wear red-hot iron shoes and dances until she is dead? I wonder why Disney didn’t include that scene…
(Picture from Wikipedia)

The world-building of fairy tales, Ori included, relies upon a certain amount of minimalism. There are no Game of Thrones – style appendices of aristocratic dynasties or historical timelines: there is a kingdom, it presumably has a monarch and a princely heir and probably an evil wizard and/or stepmother. What are their names? Where is it located? What are the major exports? Answer: nobody really cares.

In Ori, there is a magical forest, which is kept alive by a magical tree by means of magic and for the purposes of setting up the magical plot. There is a sense in which the world of Ori is the forest (although the upcoming sequel may beg to differ). By keeping the world of the story small, the narrative is able to get along with only the minimum of world-building.

Note that this is not quite the same as what I wrote two posts ago on The Sexy Brutale: TSB keeps its world-building to a minimum by (and for the purposes of) distracting the player with the narrative, for which the boundaries of the setting are set quite tight. Ori, on the other hand, keeps the boundaries of the world small because, from the perspective of the radioactive mouse-beast which is the main character, a forest is big enough to be its own cosmos. Keeping everything within the borders of the forest, and attending to the actions of a critter only a few inches high, creates an effective balance between the neat, self-contained story and an open, expansive feeling to the world.

Which is to say it has that magical expanse which allows all the snow to gather safely at the bottom of a valley, whilst leaving the highlands warm and sunny.
(Screenshot from Asleep in the Fantasy’s YouTube channel)

On the other hand, like TSB, Ori uses large themes as a backdrop. Although there is a great deal of fairy-tale arbitrariness (there is no magical system or cosmology that is explained beyond the most cursory level), Ori draws upon themes deeper than sinister second marriages and murderous apple saleswomen. Ori is a fairy tale about familial love and the unconditional kindness that only a luminous leaf-pixie can give.

And what could possibly be weird about that?
(From ‘The Simpsons’, series 8, episode 10, via the fan wiki.)

The elements of the world, therefore, work best when considered as part of this over-arching metaphor of family: Kuro might be full of spite, but at the worst, she represents unreasoning parental love – devotion without the capacity for critical reflection. The Spirit Tree represents on one level the patriarch/matriarch of a family, but also the internal, life-giving ideal of family life itself. Thus, it is not only the chromatic saturation which is turned up to full, but the emotional saturation as well: there is, for better or worse, a certain amount of idealistic and saccharine whimsy at the heart of Ori.

But that is fine: the world-building is just an extension of the themes, and the themes are inherently hopeful, almost child-like (although not childish). Simple world-building which comes with surprises, rather than subversion or twists, has its place. To try to delve behind the colourful palette of Ori in order to find out how the magic works is pointless: there is no real world-building behind the bright colours and trembling strings, whether of the heart or of the symphony; those colours and tremblings are the world-building. It might not be the best game, or the deepest world-building, but the world is no bigger than it needs to be. Far better to settle for an enjoyable, if flawed, game than to over-reach through sheer pig-headedness and ruin the whole forest. Ori may have a child’s clumsy optimism when it comes to love, but cynicism is not a virtue: sometimes, we could all do with having our jaded shells worn down just a little, so we can enjoy life, love our families, and treasure a walk in the forest.

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