Life, Death, and Life Again: An Analysis of Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Some games weave their stories into their main mechanics, creating an inventive or clever narrative and wow us with innovative storytelling. Others simply have stories, ones disconnected from the gameplay and could be told in another genre just as easily. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is the latter, though that doesn’t mean the story told here is any less impactful.

The sequel to Ori and the Blind Forest features the title character Ori once again as they travel to a new forest, Niwen, in search of their lost friend, Ku. Here, they find a land in the grip of death and decay with corruption and despair spreading in every direction. It’s a rich setting that explores many of the same themes of the first game, though here it does so under a different light.

The Blind Forest

First, let’s recap what exactly happens in the first Ori game. The primary conflict of Ori and the Blind Forest comes from Kuro, a massive owl who removed the light from the Spirit Tree of Nibel in order to save her eggs, which were being hurt by the light. The absence of the light has led to imbalance and corruption in the forest, and Ori must free various elements around Nibel from that corruption to restore the light.

At the end of the game, Kuro corners Ori and seizes the light. However, Ori’s surrogate mother, Naru, arrives to aid Ori and her selfless actions force Kuro to reckon with what she’s become. She realizes that the imbalance in the forest is endangering her last remaining egg as a fire is nearing her nest, and so decides to restore the light herself. This winds up killing her, and Kuro cannot stand the full force of the light once it has been replaced in the Spirit Tree.

Balancing Act

In many ways, we can look at the story of the first Ori game as a struggle between light and dark. Kuro, being a nocturnal owl, represents the dark and Ori represents light. In the absence of either of those two forces, the forest descends into chaos and corruption. It’s much more nuanced examination of the two sides that goes beyond a simplistic ‘light good, dark bad’ message.

This theme of balance is also present in Ori and the Will of the Wisps. However, this game explores that idea from a different angle, as any good sequel should. This gives rises to new meanings and interpretations. In this game, the light is similarly absent from the forest, leading to imbalance and corruption. Unlike Ori and the Blind Forest, however, it wasn’t a force of darkness that removed the light, but rather the death of Niwen’s Spirit Willow by natural causes. This leads to a different force that also plagues the land in addition to corruption – the force of decay.

Stony Silence

Decay is essentially death for Niwen and its inhabitants, but a more final form of death than most. It literally turns creatures to stone as it spreads throughout the land from the Silent Woods. This form of death is one from which there is no return.

Ori can’t really fight the decay in the same way they fight the corruption. It doesn’t turn creatures into monsters as pretty much anything that suffers from it dies. There are no decay-based enemies or attacks that inflict decay because, in the context of the game, decay is equivalent to absolute and inescapable death. There is precisely one exception to that rule – the main antagonist of the sequel, the owl Shriek.

Another Terrifying Owl

Much like Kuro in the first game, Shriek haunts Ori through much of their adventure in Niwen. This is largely where the similarities end as Shriek is leagues different to Kuro in her motivations and her ultimate fate.

Where Kuro was a sympathetic villain who was motivated by love for her children, Shriek has never known love. She was born right in the middle of the decay to parents who had already succumbed to it. This led to her forming a bony exoskeleton that gave her a monstrous appearance and forced her to find different ways of traversing the world, such as by using her wings as giant legs. She attempted to connect with other owls, only to be fiercely rejected and sent back to the decay, where she stewed in bitterness and hatred for years.

Balance of Life and Death

In case it wasn’t already apparent, the balance that Ori and the Will of the Wisps is concerned with is that between life and death. While Nibel suffered from darkness overtaking the light, Niwen suffers as death overcomes life. In much the same way as the first game, both forces are suggested to be necessary parts of the greater whole, with life feeding into death which subsequently feeds into life again.

It’s a story of rebirth, about how all that lives eventually gives rise to new life, even as it fades away. This is why the decay is so dangerous – it turns creatures to stone, cutting them off from any hope of changing or growing and passing on pieces of themselves to the life that comes after them. It’s also what makes Shriek such a tragic villain as she proves incapable of accepting that balance, choosing instead to embrace the decay which ultimately leads to her own death.

A New Spirit Tree

The ending of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is bittersweet. Ori, in order to save Niwen and to save their friend Ku, who died by Shriek’s talons earlier, gives up their own life to become a new Spirit Tree for the forest. This breathes new life into the land and brings Ku back, but Ori is gone. While some part of them remains in the form of the Spirit Tree, it’s not Ori anymore.

This is ultimately what the game is about. It isn’t suggesting that life must always triumph over death, but instead that the two are necessary elements of a balanced world. Death is unavoidable and will always be present – but so too will rebirth, giving way to new life.

Further Reading

How Ori and the Will of the Wisps Blends Art and Music to Perfection | Inverse

Ori and the Will of the Wisps expands on near perfection | Polygon

Bringing Ori and the Will of the Wisps to Life — An Interview With Composer Gareth Coker | OnlySP

Mechanics as Storytelling: Hades’s Persistent Story

It’s difficult to pick a mechanic from Supergiant’s Hades that isn’t already part of the game’s story. Pretty much everything that could be considered overly gamey is explained through dialogue and lore. The permanent upgrades from the Mirror of Night are a result of Zagreus becoming more attuned to the Underworld and himself. The achievements and quests on the Fated List are prophecies from the Three Fates, who reward you for fulfilling their predictions. Even your weapons naturally get stronger when given Titan Blood because they were originally used against the Titans.

Since every single mechanic in the game already seems to have a role within the story, let’s focus on exactly that – the story. It’s one of Hades’s major contributions to its genre as it manages to convey a coherent plot within the roguelike structure. In fact, the story and the roguelike mechanics are inextricable from one another as plot points and character development are one of the things that remain persistent throughout runs. Let’s examine the ways in which Hades uses its persistent story to – well, tell a story.

Roguelikes and Storylines

Historically, roguelikes haven’t featured much in the way of narratives. Sure, they have characters and lore much like many other games, but roguelikes tend to put gameplay front and center above anything else. Titles like Spelunky or Nuclear Throne each pop to mind as games with a lot of lore, but it’s generally only accessible to those willing to dig deep into the games (or their wikis).

Rogue Legacy is one game that explained its story more coherently than most. In it, you play as your descendants after you die – hence the Legacy part of the title. Even so, there’s still more of a focus on gameplay than persistent story as other characters like the Enchantress and the Architect don’t actually change over the years despite your repeated deaths.

Death is Inevitable

Hades handles its story a little differently. First of all, you begin each run in the House of Hades, which you are trying to escape. Whenever you die on your run, you go where all the newly dead go – right back to the House of Hades, to be processed and placed by the God of the Dead. It’s an elegant way of explaining how the roguelike system of repeated deaths works in this world as while death may be inevitable, it isn’t the end for Zagreus.

Each time you die, you’re treated to new opportunities to engage with characters around the House. You can talk you your disapproving father, Hades, your wise mentor, Achilles, your enigmatic stepmother, Nyx, or any number of other characters. Some will only show up under specific circumstances, such as Megaera who needs to be defeated in Tartarus before appearing, while others are present almost all the time Additionally, you can only speak to each character once on each escape attempt, meaning that you’ll need to leave and die again before unlocking new dialogue.

There is No Escape

With most roguelikes, beating the game is a reward in and of itself. You may be treated to a special cutscene or cool new upgrades depending on the game, but generally the prize to be won is just the satisfaction of mastering the game’s mechanics and overcoming the challenge. Some have secret endings and areas for those who have the time and skill to seek them out, but the goal is still largely the same – completing the game.

Hades shifts things bit. Here, there aren’t any secret endings to achieve. You’ll come to realize that the reason for this is because this game, unlike others in its genre, has a story with an endpoint. Escaping the Underworld is not the end of Zagreus’s journey and you’ll need to get him out several more times if you want to see the whole narrative unfold. The story becomes the goal in Hades, with each successful escape getting you closer to the true ending.

Persistence and Perseverance

The story of Hades is one of persistence. Zagreus manages to change to status quo of the world through his sheer determination and will to do so. It only makes sense that a story about persistence would be told in a persistent manner. The steady progress you make through the game, slowly unlocking more abilities and skills and weapons, is reflected in the story itself as Zagreus repeatedly makes efforts to get through to people, even those who don’t seem to want his help at first.

Ultimately, this story couldn’t have been told any other way. Persistence after death is the hallmark of the roguelike genre and the defining feature of Hades’s plot. Even after dying for the hundredth time, Zagreus will still strike out into the Underworld – and so will we, if only to see more of this incredible story.

Further Reading

The Art Of Hades | Kotaku

Meet the voice cast of Hades, including one of the dogs behind Cerberus | PC Gamer

Hopeful Legacies: An Analysis of Breath of the Wild

Despite its colorful style and vivacious characters, the latest game in the Legend of Zelda series, Breath of the Wild, is a surprisingly morose and somber title. It takes place in a ruined Hyrule where Link and Zelda lost their last fight against Ganon and monsters roam the world freely. Everywhere you look shows ruined homes and desolate wastes, all while melancholy music scores your adventure.

This is the post-apocalypse, Zelda style. Hope isn’t lost here, though, and the game is ultimately about the perseverance of that hope. You as Link have another chance to save the day and defeat Ganon once more.

Setting the Scene

Breath of the Wild’s story begins a hundred years in the past, when the Champions Mipha, Urbosa, Darruk, and Revali, alongside Link and Zelda, were tasked with defeating Ganon upon his imminent return. Things went very badly, as Ganon killed the four Champions, took control of their Divine Beasts and the kingdoms Guardian automatons, and defeated Link. Zelda was unable to tap into her own magical powers until the last moment, whereupon she saved Link, sent him to the Shrine of Resurrection to heal, and then went to hold Ganon at bay for as long as she could.

Zelda held Ganon for a hundred years, until in the present, Link awakes with no memory of his past. He travels the ruined land of Hyrule, searching for answers and for a way to defeat Ganon. Along the way, he frees the Divine Beasts and the spirits of their Champions from Ganon’s control, with the help of each the Champions’ successors: Mipha’s brother Sidon; Urbosa’s heir, Riku; Darruk’s descendant, Yunobo; and Revali’s successor, Teba.

Memory of a Memory

The game is very interested in the past, as shown by one of the major side quests where Link seeks out his forgotten memories of Zelda and the Champions. Everything you do is colored by the past in some way, be it retrieving an ancient helm for the Gerudo or speaking with the long-lived Zora who still remember your failure from a hundred years ago.

While hearkening back to this lost age is central to the game’s story, that’s not what it’s ultimately about. You can see this in the different roles held by the Champions and their successors. The Champions are just spirits now, having died to Ganon during the Calamity. All they can do is guide you through their Divine Beast before passing on their unique power after you defeat the piece of Ganon that killed them. Their successors, on the other hand, take an active role in aiding Link as they physically transport you, protect you, or fling themselves at the Divine Beasts for you.

The Future Builds on the Past

The successors are not clones of the Champions. Teba lacks Revali’s arrogance, Riju lacks Urbosa’s boldness, Yunobo lacks Darruk’s bravado, and Sidon is leagues more enthusiastic than the reserved Mipha. In some ways, they’ve learned from those who came before and in others they’ve elected to put their own spin on things. The Champions, for their part, recognize that their moment has long since passed that once they do what they can to help defeat Ganon, it will be time to move on.

This marks a significant departure from the attitudes held a hundred years ago. At that time, the kingdom’s plan was to use the Divine Beasts and the Guardians to defeat Ganon, with the Champions, Link, and Zelda being central figures but never in any real danger. This failed, as it was the exact same strategy used to contain Ganon a thousand years prior and he was now ready for it. Because Hyrule did not build on the past and instead tried to simply repeat it, failure was inevitable.

Second Chances

This is not the case in the present day. Having learned from the mistakes made during the Calamity, the Champions and Link are more capable than before and perfectly able to defeat Ganon. Zelda, too, is more competent as her sealing power is fully unlocked and she proves instrumental in stopping Ganon.

Breath of the Wild proves to be a game about these sorts of second chances. We don’t always get to save the world, and if we do it isn’t always in the way we imagine. All we can do is leave a legacy for those who come after us and hope that they’ll be willing to rise to the challenge.

Further Reading

Mechanics as Storytelling: Breath of the Wild‘s Weapons | Overthinking Games

Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – An Open World Adventure | Game Maker’s Toolkit

Mechanics as Storytelling: Crusader Kings 3’s Stress

Modern life may be stressful, but at least it isn’t as stressful as ruling a medieval kingdom where your scheming courtiers are as likely to stab you in the back as they are to sleep with your spouse. Crusader Kings 3 is a grand strategy game with RPG elements that puts in in charge of a ruling dynasty and sets you loose into the world. There is no endgame goal, no quest you must complete, and no warning when your son decides that he’d make a better king than you and slips a venomous snake into your bed.

It can seem an impossible task to pick out a certain mechanic that helps to tell a story when the game in question has no formal story to follow. A lot of the systems are relatively independent and don’t affect too many other aspects of the game, like domain limit and de jure claims. One mechanic that does stand out is the Stress system. This single element helps shape Crusader Kings 3 into a wonderful storytelling machine, helps fix one of the major problems that many RPGs face, and explores some themes of its own.

Don’t Stress the Small Stuff

What is Stress in Crusader Kings 3? Stress represents how well a character is coping mentally with their actions and with events in their life. Each character has their own Stress meter that can be filled over the course of their life. Certain events or actions give them Stress and other remove it. At certain Stress milestones, characters suffer mental breaks where they must either take on a coping mechanism that usually carries with it some penalties or suffer through it, with gives them even more Stress.

Having too much Stress also affects your character in and of itself as you can experience severe health penalties and a reduction of fertility. Suffice to say that it’s not a good thing to have Stress – and yet, it’s impossible to avoid. Even if you steer clear of any action or decision that would gain you Stress, you’ll still get it when close family members die and from other events outside of your control. The system is built so that Stress can only be managed and never circumvented entirely.

The Measure of a Man

Pretty much every choice you can make in Crusader Kings 3 has the potential to cause Stress. Most of the time, however, that won’t be the case as the actions that cause your character to gain Stress are determined by their traits. For example, a Just ruler will gain Stress if they plot to have someone assassinated, but a Sadistic one won’t. These traits are one of the RPG elements included in the game and the Stress system is how it bypasses the issue of players acting out of character.

Many RPGs suffer from this problem – a character is meant to act in a certain way for the sake of the story, but players make choices and decisions that contradict the narrative (such as an evil character restoring water to the Capital Wasteland in Fallout 3). Crusader Kings 3 benefits from not having a specific narrative to follow, but Stress encourages players to roleplay their rulers instead of just using the same strategy for every character. By having the penalties be rather small on their own with long term consequences down the line, the game ensures that you never feel like you’re forbidden from doing something while still ensuring that you remember to stay in character whenever possible.

Rigors of Parenthood

One way to get around the Stress system is to ensure that you always educate your heirs yourself, which will let you dictate which traits they wind up with. This can be a strategic gameplay move as it ensures you’ll be able to maintain an overarching strategy across rulers, but it also plays into the story of a dynasty fostering the next generation of monarchs.

Raising kids also comes with some inherent Stresses. Each child you take on as a ward will have a number of events in their youth where they gain a trait that will dictate what actions give them Stress. As a child’s guardian, you can change that trait to one of two other options (for example, a dynasty all about charismatic diplomacy probably wouldn’t want a Shy heir). However, changing that trait will also gain you Stress. This ensures that you’re still balancing long term consequences against short term effects as guiding your heir towards a certain lifestyle may be best in the future but can cause you a crippling mental break in the present.

Dynamic Systems, Dynamic Stories

Ultimately, Crusader Kings 3 is about rolling with the punches and dealing with whatever challenges you face. The story told by its Stress system is by nature similarly dynamic as rather than following a scripted narrative where certain choices always give you Stress and others always remove it, the mechanic shifts based on what sort of character you’re playing. It allows the game’s story to move in interesting ways as you are well within your abilities to force your Just, Honest, and Compassionate ruler into murder schemes and prisoner executions, driving them to become overwhelmed by Stress.

Even these instances are just another storytelling opportunity. While some games are too lenient with out of character moments and others too strict, Crusader Kings 3 finds a middle ground that works perfectly for its gameplay and the stories it tells. Stress is part of your story, whether you like it or not, and it will play a huge role in your dynasty’s legend.

Further Reading

A Medieval Storytelling Machine: Crusader Kings 3 Review | Overthinking Games

Crusader Kings 3 is more fun when you play it like The Sims | Polygon

Crusader Kings 3 interview: Putting players in control | Shacknews

Uncertain Futures: An Analysis of The Last Campfire

**SPOILER WARNING**

Indie games about dealing with difficult mental problems are hardly anything new (see Rime, Journey, Gris, and Celeste, just to name a few), and joining their ranks is relaxing puzzler The Last Campfire. This adorable little game sees players exploring a beautiful world filled with people to help and challenges to overcome. It’s a fairly quiet title that released without much fanfare, contrasting the last title from Hello Games, No Man’s Sky.

The Last Campfire differentiates itself from the games mentioned earlier in both its gameplay and its story. This isn’t a tale about processing your grief like in Rime, nor is it about learning how to deal with anxiety like Celeste. Instead, The Last Campfire is much more interested in what happens after you’ve come to such realizations – and where you go from there.

A Helping Hand

The Last Campfire focuses on Ember, a small creature who finds themselves lost in a mysterious world. As they explore, they encounter Forlorn – embers like them who turned to stone as they gave up hope. Ember can help pull them out of their despair, which is represented by solving a puzzle that seems to take place inside the Forlorn’s head. This awakens the Forlorn and later they can be found at the area’s campfire.

Along the way, Ember meets the Forest King, a massive birdlike creature who tries to prevent all the embers from moving on to the eponymous last campfire. It’s later revealed that this King is just an elaborate contraption being controlled by the Wanderer, an ember who appears occasionally in the distance. The Wanderer laments that there is nothing after the final campfire, that this place is all there is, and then turns Forlorn, prompting Ember to help them. Afterwards, Ember, the Wanderer, and all the embers you helped travel to the Last Campfire together.

Into the Unknown

It wouldn’t be out of place to say that The Last Campfire is a metaphor for death. The world the embers inhabit is strange and could be called a limbo or purgatory of sorts. The Wanderer’s statements certainly support this hypothesis as well given that they talk about how there is nothing else after the last campfire and how they created the Forest King in order to keep others safe from that fate.

It’s certainly possible to read this game as a story about accepting one’s own mortality, though that doesn’t seem to be everything that the game is talking about. Delving a little bit deeper into the characters and the dialogue reveals that the theme of moving on is applied much more broadly than simply to symbolize death. Through its systems and dialogue, we can understand The Last Campfire as a game about moving past trauma and re-entering the world.

Let’s Go Camping

Each of the Forlorn who you help has a different reason for turning Forlorn – maybe they left their friends behind or were abandoned themselves, or perhaps they got caught up in anxiety or self-doubt. The problems these embers face are broad and varied as each of them have their own experiences and their own problems to overcome in order to move on. You even encounter Forlorn who reject your help altogether as they – for whatever reason – simply aren’t ready to move on yet.

The embers you do help wind up at the campfires, where they sit and talk about their experiences. It’s not a stretch to liken this sort of setting to group therapy – different people facing different challenges who nonetheless come together to support one another. You are effectively creating a space for these embers where they can be comfortable to share their stories and their difficulties with others, which in turn can help them move forward.

The End of the Road

What’s very telling about the game’s themes is that it refers to the fires where the embers gather as campfires. Camping is, by its nature, transitory. At the end of the trip, you pack up your tent, put out the fire, and go home. It isn’t a place you stay forever but rather a place you visit until you’re ready to return to the world.

The Last Campfire likens the groups of embers supporting each other to sitting around a campfire. They know that they will have to leave eventually but for the moment are happy to sit around the fire, talking and listening. This mirrors the path of recovering from trauma as you must take the time you need to process what you’re feeling, but the end goal is still to rejoin the world when you’re ready. It may be scary and uncertain – as the Wanderer demonstrates, it may even feel like there’s nothing left after that final campfire – but remaining where you are is not a solution. The journey can be long and it can be difficult, with many bumps and setbacks along the way, but you will be ready one day.

A New Day

These themes are somewhat simplified in The Last Campfire but they are certainly present. It’s a game that could easily be played by children and as such it doesn’t touch on the darker and more intense traumas that many people go through. What it does do is provide a framework for handling such things as it teaches that it’s okay to not be ready to move on, even as it encourages us to seek out help and support. Whatever our path to recovery may be, The Last Campfire tells us to keep at it, even when we can’t always see what’s ahead.

It’s a fascinating take in this genre of indie games dealing with mental issues. So many titles deal with the specific challenges themselves such as depression or grief or anxiety, but rarely do they touch on what happens afterwards. It can be frightening to imagine yourself returning to the world and it can feel like you’re abandoning your support system by doing so, but The Last Campfire ends on a hopeful note – it’s okay to move forward, so long as we move forward together.

Further Reading

With The Last Campfire, Hello Games is exploring a future beyond No Man’s Sky | GamesRadar+

Chasing the dream of four people in a room | Eurogamer

Hello Games’ Sean Murray on the studio’s next No Man’s Sky-sized game | Polygon