Thomas Mahler doesn’t want to make people sad. At E3, the poignant trailer for Mahler’s painterly Metroidvania game Ori and the Blind Forest stood out in sharp contrast to the usual machismo that fuels the three day event.
The trailer touches on heartbreak when Ori, a small, luminescent spirit that almost resembles a household pet, attempts to bring food to a gentle caregiver, Naru, who we all understand to be dead. The games industry trades in depictions of death and righteous slaughter. The kind of death depicted in the trailer for Ori is more personal, more affecting, and so for many, more difficult to confront and process.
I was really worried,” said Mahler of the trailer’s debut at the Xbox Media Briefing. “In general the response was really good, but people were like, ‘Oh yeah, it looks really beautiful, but it makes me really sad.’
“There’s so much more to it,” stresses the game director. “We worked on this game in secret for four years.”
Mahler grew up playing games like Metroid and Castlevania, titles belonging to a platforming subgenre that has fallen out of fashion in recent decades. To Mahler, the answer as to why people look back so fondly on those games even today is that the people who created them spent so much time working on them, and cared so much about their design. It felt like the game was made multiple times over, he says.
That kind of passion is something Mahler believes Moon Studios has bottled in Ori. The fidelity of the controls, for example, is of paramount importance to Mahler and the team at Moon – Mahler repeatedly uses the phrase “pixel perfect control”. Before he set up Moon, Mahler worked in the cinematics department at Blizzard Entertainment, where he says he learned not to be afraid to rip something apart after years of work and start again. Of the four years Ori has been in development, one-and-a-half has been spent on perfecting the controls alone. Moon wants the game to feel better than it looks, and it looks superb.
Aesthetically, Moon has drawn from a number of influences, most notably Disney, but the game is also clearly inspired by the work of Hayao Miyazaki.
Ori and the Blind Forest is built on the Unity engine and uses a feature called continual content loading so that over its 10 hours of gameplay players will never once be confronted with a loading screen, real or hidden. There’s also no tiling whatsoever. Every hand-painted background is entirely unique.
Those animated film influences don’t end at visuals either. Mahler quickly rattles off a number of narrative influences for Ori’s allegorical tale, including The Lion King and The Iron Giant. Story is an area that Moon rightly thinks the genre has been deficient in previously. It’s a facet of game design that Moon believes it can do better, and the studio’s emotive work in the debut trailer demonstrates that it has the talent to do so.
If Mahler is a little upset that people have dwelt on the heartbreaking moment when Ori tries to bring food to a lifeless Naru, he can also be delighted that people have connected with that moment at an emotional level that few other games can boast of achieving.
It’s particularly impressive when one considers that Moon Studios is something of a misnomer. Its workforce is almost entirely distributed around the world. Mahler is based in Austria. His team works variously from the USA, Australia, the Netherlands, Germany, and elsewhere.
The team is brought together by its desire to create a great game first, rather than a commercially successful product first, says Mahler. Ori and the Blind Forest is to be a celebration of all the games it’s inspired by, but it is also set to be a powerful, resonating experience in its own right.
Ori and the Blind Forest comes to Xbox One and PC later this year.