The Insight: Ori, Superman and the Only Child

by Jonathan D. Lee

In which the author muses upon how his human life sans siblings is affected by his gaming life of fantasy — when the fantasy mimics the optimistic nature of family existence.

If you’re an only child like me, then chances are, you understand what it means to be unconditionally loved, certainly loved more than the average progeny. To my parents, I am a puppy, their life savings, their retirement plan, and the source of their existential worth all rolled into one. Ever since I’ve owned a cell phone, my mom has called me every single day. She called me every day when I was living out of state for college. She called me every day when I was 25 working and living in another city. She still calls me every day even after I moved back home to help out around the house. My dad doesn’t call me. He has too much pride for that, but my mom tells me he calls her every day to make sure she’s been calling me.

It can get overbearing, but as I’ve gotten older, I learned to appreciate their nosy brand of parenting because of a sobering realization: When my parents die, I will be the only one to remember them. I have no brothers or sisters to remember them by. No one else was there when we first immigrated to the United States and EEKEDeeked by in a tiny studio in Queens. No one else was there when the guy my dad was interning for took pity on the fact that my parents couldn’t buy me any toys, so he gave me his son’s old Nintendo Entertainment System. No one else saw my dad skip lunches for a week so he could buy me my birthday present. No one else watched my mom working 10 hours a day for six days a week so we had food on the table while my dad went to grad school.

It’s this morbid revelation that has informed my lifelong fascination with relationships, and by extension, it’s why I love Ori and the Blind Forest so much.

The game begins with a grim narration by the Spirit Tree, caretaker of Nibel (the titular blind forest) who sounds suspiciously like Jabba the Hutt. Nibel has been in a state of corruption since the Spirit Tree suffered a crippling assault at the claws of Kuro, a terrifying owl who is also the Big Bad of the game. We are then introduced to a feather floating upon the dark winds of the forest, a feather that eventually becomes eponymous heroine Ori, one of the many children of the Spirit Tree.

Separated and left adrift, Ori is eventually discovered by a gentle inhabitant of Nibel named Naru, who becomes Ori’s mother. They are happy, for a time, completely content with one another’s company. But that comes to an end when Naru collapses one day and doesn’t arise, leaving Ori to leave the only home she has ever known and the only family she has ever known, to wander the Blind Forest alone. She is on the verge of death until she is found yet again, this time by a sister. Sein, another offspring of the Spirit Tree, has been looking for Ori ever since Kuro’s attack. As the only two remaining children of the Spirit Tree, Ori and Sein embark on a quest to restore the temples of the Three Elements, resurrect the Spirit Tree, and bring an end to Kuro’s terror.

Ori and the Blind Forest is a game that shamelessly steals from its influences in the best way possible. Any seasoned child of media will see the parallels immediately. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a pervasive influence. The Spirit Tree is a clear nod to the Deku Tree, another sentient tree that was the patriarch of a forest and a father figure to Link. Sein is a floating wisp that drops hints and provides a voice for the silent Ori, but unlike her OoT equivalent Na’vi, Sein is a fighter. Her devastating attacks keep the duo safe as they run about saving the forest.

The gorgeous hand-drawn art, character design, and setting demonstrates an appreciation for Hayao Miyazaki, who is known for his love of nature (nature over industrialization is a prevalent theme in Miyazaki’s work) and heart-wrenchingly beautiful animation. Naru mask-like face is possibly a nod towards the spooky bathhouse workers of Spirited Away, but her expressions are considerably warmer than her influences. Ori, like Miyazaki, is also a pacifist. Ori does jumping and running while Sein is the one who does the wetwork.

Although Ori confidently wears its influences on its sleeve, developer Moon Studios arranged and dressed up the building blocks so that the product feels unique. It’s a classic Metroidvania game, and the includes the little mobs crawling around the surfaces of platforms magically suspended in the air. But the inspiration, which borders on imitation, generally works. The abilities such as Bash, which allows Ori to simultaneously redirect projectiles while using them as momentum to propel herself forward, make for some interesting platforming puzzles. It’s an unabashed Frankenstein of great game design that are compiled and presented in a flawless package. Whenever I failed a gauntlet, I never once felt like it was the game’s fault. Spelunking with Ori is a breeze.

These things make it easy for me to enjoy the game, but what makes me love the game is its theme. When we see Ori and the Blind Forest as a plucky duo on a quest to save the world (or forest, rather), then the story is pretty underwhelming, just another dime-a-dozen plot. But when we put that premise in the context of the theme, then it becomes a story about the intense emotional bonds that form in the absence of bigger communities.

This is the real story. Ori is the last of her kind. Sein is the last of her kind. Gumo, an early villain who later becomes an ally after Ori saves him in a naïve act of mercy, is the last of his kind. Naru, as far as we can tell, is also the last of her kind. Purifying the temples and blasting hostile amoebas is just the vehicle to drive the real plot about unlikely families forward. The further we progress in the game, the more we see how much these characters genuinely love and care for each other, despite the lack of biological ties.

When I played Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, I felt like an interloper in a world I’ve never visited before. The idea of controlling two characters simultaneously was bizarre to the average player but doubly bizarre to me because it gamified what being a sibling feels like. I’ve never had to share a bed, take turns playing a game, or fight over food. In Brothers, no puzzle could be solved and no obstacle could be crossed without both brothers working in tandem. If a doorway was barred, the younger brother had to squeeze through and hit the switch so the older one could pass. When they encountered deep water, the older brother had to hoist his sibling on his shoulders because the younger brother could not swim. Simple stuff, but it was alienating to me. It even made me feel jealous, knowing that never in real life could I experience a relationship like this.

But with Ori and the Blind Forest, I got it, the same way I immediately connected with Superman when I was a young boy. When any writer tackles Superman’s humanity, loneliness is constantly reoccurring theme. He built the Fortress of Solitude primarily as a shrine to his people and his biological parents. Why? Because he knows no one else will, and he never wants them to be forgotten. He daydreams about what Krypton must have been like, and he spends the bulk of his free time scouring for information about his people.

That loneliness is an abiding feature in my own life, and I suspect, the life of all only children. It’s why I see my closest friends as the brothers and sisters I’ve never had. It’s how I can map out the relationship between Ori and Sein as the game progresses, eventually culminating in the finale of the game as total trust. The final ending of the game, a return to the painted pillar of stone that was Ori’s bed, is a blatant declaration that Ori and the Blind Forest is a game about family that is connected by devotion rather than DNA. It reassured me that even when my parents are gone and I mourn them alone, I won’t be alone.

Most games about relationships are about what it means to belong to a family. Ori and the Blind Forest teaches us what it means to build families, and for that, it deserves to played, studied, and remembered.

Jonathan D. Lee is the deputy editor of 1337, a new, digital esports magazine based in Denmark. Lee, however, makes his home here in New York City.

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