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