Thomas Mahler and Gareth Coker of Moon Studios talk about how they carried the spirit and lessons from Blind Forest into the upcoming game.
Ori and the Blind Forest was a surprise hit for Moon Studios. The small, decentralized company put together a Metroidvania with heart, thanks in large part to writer Thomas Mahler and composer Gareth Coker. As the studio approaches its sophomore effort with Ori and the Will of the Wisps, the duo spoke with GameSpot about how they approached the sequel, which moments touched fans, and how they continued Ori's legacy.
Spoilers for Ori and the Blind Forest follow.
When you began working on the sequel, was the ending of the first game a natural jumping off point? How much consideration was there of how much of that to use versus doing something completely new?
Thomas Mahler: Well, we thought we were done with it to be honest. So I mean the original ending that I had for Ori and the Blind Forest, it's actually the ending that we used for Will of the Wisps. But during the Blind Forest development, it became obvious that [the game] became the story about two mothers that, at the end, will finally face each other and [in] some way, one inspires the other. It just made sense to end [the game] in that way, where [one] mother is now taking care of the [other's] child. That always was a touching ending to me. So when we came into Will of the Wisps, we had no idea what the story would be, but it made the most sense to just start with, well why don't we just continue right there? Like what happened to that egg? That's where it started.
You touched on one of the things about Blind Forest that is a resonant theme: that there's a connection between these two mothers because they're both parents and understand each other on that level. Is that a theme that you continue to explore in Will of the Wisp?
Mahler: I would say the story is heading in a different direction. Obviously, I don't want to give anything away at this point. I think this time it's a much bigger theme that is more about life in general and not focusing on a specific thing. I don't really want to say more than that.
Transitioning to the composition: What was the difference in the mood you were trying to inspire with the overall musical themes in the first game versus the second?
Gareth Coker: Thomas just hinted that the overarching theme of this game is quite different and I think, over the time, that becomes more and more apparent the further you go through the game. But also I think one of the biggest differences between this game and the first one is we just said there's just simply more characters and we also get to spend more time with those characters on screen.
If you think back to the first game, you encounter Kuro and you encounter Gumo and you were with Naru at the beginning, but you don't actually spend that much time on screen with them. So there's less of a chance to create themes for them and develop them throughout the game experience. Whereas in [Will of the Wisps], various characters pop up throughout the game and it's a continuation of what we had in Blind Forest, but it is very, very much an expansion. It's really just a reflection on the largest scope of the game, both with the characters and the different direction that the story has gone in.
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At least in the first game, there wasn't a ton of dialogue, there was more narration. So is that the same approach this time? Is a greater percentage of it dialogue versus narration?
Mahler: The way to tell an Ori story: if you can shut up and if brevity can prevail, then we should do that. I just loved the approach of, well, if you don't need to say it, don't say it. If you can get everything across with just the animation and then with the music, to us music is a huge storytelling tool. There's tons of cinematics in the game, but if you ever listen to that without music, it totally does not work, like at all. So, to me, it's just one of the storytelling tools, where [the story] doesn't work if the animation isn't there and it also doesn't work if the music isn't there.
We don't want to have a cinematic sequence and then just have tons of text or anything like that when you could have these characters just act, like in a Pixar film or in a Disney movie or something. Then the music is the final thing on top of that that really pulls it together. So yeah, [the storytelling] was approached in very much the same way.
You mentioned how you want the animation and the music to tell the story in a quiet way. You have to explain what the characters are doing, but you're not writing dialogue. So how does that collaborative process work between the writing, animation, and the composition?
Mahler: We try to go to animatics as soon as possible so we can simulate what it would be at the end of the day.
Coker: What usually happens is that really, really rough mock ups are done by one of the animators and that allows us to get a feel for the basic pacing of the scene. It's not going to be perfect, but having established basic pacing allows me to write something, a piece of music that hopefully has some substance. And then after they have the first piece of music and it's kind of working with this super rough animation, then it goes back to the animators who dial in the detail. It really is a back and forth process.
A lot of projects do cutscenes and the composer comes on at the end and says, "Well, here's the cutscene, do the music." And that's not fantastic. I mean, it is often part of the job, but it's much better if you have a back-and-forth editing process with the music and with the animation team where everyone's involved. It means that I'm not restricted in any way. I can come up with a musical solution rather than having to chop and change too much, to write music to a fixed animation. I think that is very unique about this studio.
I think there's one really simple example that I can use to illustrate this point. Back in 2017, we did our teaser trailer, which was the very first time we were sharing Will of the Wisps. There's the scene right at the end of the trailer where Ori comes on screen and puts his arm around Ku. I remember very clearly, this is the kind of difference that music placement can make, about half of the team wanted the theme to come the second Ori hit the screen. But I said, "No, the emotional moment is when Ori puts his around Ku." So I mocked up both and the difference is only like three seconds in terms of when the theme actually comes in, but the difference it makes emotionally is absolutely huge.
When you made the first game, you were a very small studio. As far as I understand, it's grown pretty significantly as you've ramped up for this game?
Mahler: Yeah, when we shipped Blind Forest, we contracted everything and were about 20 people, now we're a studio of 80 people. It's still all decentralized. We still don't have an office. We have people from literally all over the world from Europe, US, Israel, Japan, even South Africa and so on, all coming together to make a game, and yeah, it just works.
Coker: I live in America so obviously I'm getting the American reaction to this. But with the studio being the way it is, a lot of people share from around the world different reactions. You get more global insight into what people are thinking about the game. That's not something I've really had on any other projects.
Mahler: For Blind Forest, at least I can speak for myself, I didn't expect the reactions at all. When we first did our user research testing and so on, we had nobody crying because well, it wasn't done yet. The beats didn't hit in that same way. There's such a minute difference [when] something is a work-in-progress and some music piece is a little off or the timing isn't quite right yet and so on, and then it doesn't work.
But then when the game came out and we had all this polishing, suddenly it worked and you had all these streamers coming online to play the first 10 minutes of the game and you see tears running down their faces.
The other thing is, one of the reasons why we actually ended up doing Will of the Wisps was simply because of all the fan feedback that we got, that was amazing. Just getting all these emails from people that really connected to the story and had really gotten something out of it. Like, for example, we had one email that was sent by a father where the wife just died and he played Ori and the Blind Forest with his little daughter, to explain to the daughter what death is. That was just, holy shit. You can never expect that--when you read about how what you just made really affected people. The game is five years old now, even today people are writing about how much the story meant to them and that's as good as it gets.
There's a very fable-like quality to the Ori universe. Its environments are nature-based, its creatures interact and impart a simple, universal lesson about how people relate to each other. Did you try to approach the world-building that way?
Mahler: Well, storytelling goes back to allegory, that's the theme with Blind Forest and Will of the Wisps. We have all these fantastical creatures but really it's a very human story.
At the start of Blind Forest, if you play the prologue, I know exactly as a creator, that if you see the mother starving to death and the loss of a loved one, what immediately pops into your head as your audience is if you went through something like that yourself, that's what you will think about. It will remind you of things you went through in your own life. So it touches people on that human level and it's not at all about what this game is.
We have forest creatures and all these beautiful vistas but [Ori] is not about that. The story is all about this kid that goes out and does something great after having gone through hardship in their childhood.
Coker: Just to latch on to that, I think the strength with our character storytelling is that every character is relatable in some way. For me, I'm most interested to see which characters people latch onto, which moments in the game people are affected by. Because sometimes there are moments that you obviously want to hit certain [emotions], but then there are other moments in the game where it's like, "Oh, I didn't expect people to notice that or feel something from that moment."
Do you have something in mind in Will of the Wisps that you're really looking forward to seeing people react to?
Mahler: I think everybody in the team probably has their own thing that they also really want to see reactions on. There's a moment where I think people will fall apart and will work in a really big, big way. I can't wait to see people get to that spot. Yeah, we'll have to see. I'm sure Gareth has something in his head that he really wants to see.
Coker: I am proud of what the studio achieved for the conclusion of this title, for sure. Again, I am not going to say anything else because I will get in trouble and Thomas will kill me. But there's a sequence of gameplay that leads into a cutscene. That whole sequence is Moon Studios at its absolute finest. I played through that a couple of days ago again. I've played through it many times and it still gets me every time. I'm like, "Man, I cannot wait to see how other people react to it."