We unpack the uplifting and devastating moments of the recent Ori game with Moon Studios' Gareth Coker and Thomas Mahler.
Like its predecessor Ori and the Blind Forest, the latest game from Moon Studios is an unassuming one to be so emotionally affecting. Ori and the Will of the Wisps continues Ori's journey to a dramatic conclusion, and does it with much of the same style and tone that made the first game so memorable. Now that time has passed, we chatted with Moon Studios' founder Thomas Mahler and composer Gareth Coker to unpack the most uplifting and devastating moments of the game.
GameSpot: The last time we talked, you mentioned that the place that the story ends up is where you imagined Ori going from the beginning. Can you expand more on that?
Mahler: Ori was always about that circle. It was written as Ori is that leaf and then I always found it poetic that the game would end up with the same image as you had at the very start, but now things have changed. Right now Ori became the next tree and then that leaf is his child, which is this beautiful analogy to me about how life works--we all go through that process. We are kids, then we have to grow up, become adults, and then you're the person who gives life and becomes a father or a mother.
For stories, it's always this thing where you start with a piece of paper and then at some point the story takes over and pretty much tells you this is the story that you need to tell. For Blind Forest, we went into a different direction. We had a coming of age story in Blind Forest. And so I really wanted to take it home so that people see Ori and the Blind Forest as the first half of Ori's life, and then Will of the Wisps was the second half of Ori's life.
Was there any consideration of continuing the franchise? You built up this cachet around Ori and this game ends that story. Was that a fear going in?
Mahler: I was very surprised, honestly, that Microsoft just again completely left it up to us. I would have expected more pushback because I remember sending all those emails where I tried to really make sure that they understood the story and that this is clear, that there is a very definite ending to Will of the Wisps. It was really just hey, that's your story, tell the story that you want to, get excited about it, and then deliver on that.
We did leave a little bit open because it is about that circle. You see at the very end where there's another leaf. If you really wanted to do another Ori, there's obviously ideas that we have in development of what could be done.
In the first game you're saving this forest tree and restoring it. And then in the second game you're going to a completely different forest that's even more devastated and helping restart life there. So there's a symmetry there too.
Mahler: To me, Ori is all about these allegories. I just really wanted people to see Ori and the Blind Forest is about this journey of this orphan going through some stuff and then having accomplished something. Then in Will of the Wisps, the analogy would be physically becoming a responsible adult.
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There's actually a lot of parent-child relationships in the game. There's the relationship between Ori's family and Ku. There's Ori and Naru. Was parenthood top-of-mind as you were working on these games?
Mahler: I think you always get influenced by your own personal stories, right? I wrote [Blind Forest] myself. That was me. In Will of the Wisps we actually had other writers joining in. Blind Forest is a bit inspired by my own mother. And so it's a very personal thing. When artists let those personal things kind of come into your work, a lot of times something magical might just happen. Parenthood is definitely always a strong theme within Ori. And I think we picked that specifically and especially for Ori because it's a thing we can all relate to.
Obviously there are parallels between Kuro and Shriek. What do you see as the fundamental differences between them?
Mahler: I had recently read Of Men and Mice and that just spoke to me--the tragedy that some people are so far gone that they can't make themselves vulnerable and can't open themselves up to the beauty of life. That's part of life. You will not always have a happy ending to everything. It told the story in exactly the way I wanted to. Every human goes through that moment: do you allow yourself to be vulnerable? Nothing great will ever happen to you if you don't do that, right?
For Shriek, I really wanted to just have this really tragic character that doesn't actually get redemption. For Blind Forest it was very clear at some point that you have these two mother characters and they are basically mirrors of each other.
For Shriek, it was this character who had a tragic life and a tragic childhood. There are elements of bullying in there, and the beautiful thing will be that you can look at it from a different angle--someone like Shriek is the way she is because she's been bullied.
Kuro's tragedy was losing her children and Shriek's was losing her parents. There's a distinction in how the two games treat those types of tragedies.
Mahler: I think the thing with Shriek's story is that she never felt love in her life. You need to have that. She's been born as an orphan and misshaped and was shunned because of that. No one ever reached out to her. If you keep that going too long, that defines who you become.
There's a point of narration when you say that when Shriek was finally offered the thing that she'd been seeking, she couldn't accept it.
Mahler: Yes, exactly. The whole thing about Shriek's character is that if you don't have love in your life for too long, at some point [you'll just reject it]. That was a really interesting thing to explore with her.
Before the game came out, you referenced that you knew which moment was going to be devastating for people. Do you remember which moment you were referring to?
Coker: It is kind of funny because when you bring it up I'm like, oh boy which one was this? Because having seen so many streams now and seeing so many different points, I'm like well, it's different points with different people.
[There's the moment] when Ori is doing the slow walk, and the apparitions of Ori's past appear. I was with someone who played the scene yesterday and when Kwolok appears, that broke this person because they'd become very attached to Kwolok.
But I think for me personally, the big moment I found most impactful from the ending--it's one of the last character shots--Naru puts her paw, hand, whatever on the tree trunk. It mirrors when Naru picks up Ori at the very beginning of the first game. And to me, that's the moment that breaks me every single time and I was like, "Wow." That's the moment that I really wanted to make sure was powerful. And fortunately, everything up to and after that and around that also brings emotions out of people. But for me, it's that little movement where she puts her hand on the trunk.
Mahler: The moment that I thought would be really interesting to watch is where [Shriek] basically kills Ku. We went through so many versions of that and for the longest time, until three months or so before they changed it, Ku died. We never had her coming back. What we saw later was that people were very devastated and that was such a hard hit, to basically kill a child.
And we love going for impactful emotional moments, but the feedback that we got all the time was just that it's too much of a gut punch, that it's just too rough. I'm a little bit bummed about that because I did like showing the harshness in life.
It was really interesting to see how players stopped. We literally had people just putting their controller away like, "I can't do it anymore." That was the first time actually where I felt like, okay, we went too far. We killed this child. Even though it's all fantasy creatures, it's all allegory, it was just too much.
Do you find that it being fantasy creatures makes it less or more relatable for some players?
Mahler: It certainly helps us tell stories that we otherwise couldn't tell in this way. An interesting experiment would be to take the Ori [and the Blind Forest] story and just try to tell that through humans. Kuro kind of commits genocide. Right? Holy shit, that's crazy. But using fantasy creatures and doing that, it allows us to tell really harsh emotional stories without people questioning it.
We're dealing with that right now, our next game is about humans and so on. It definitely makes it easier with these fantastical creatures. I'm amazed how much stuff I get away with that's actually quite shocking, if you think about it.