Ori and the Blind Forest is a game that got me wondering what I look for in art, and why, and how to approach what art is to me in a review.
This post has two very distinct parts I could not make harmonious; mea culpa. But IMO the second half is more interesting/important so skip to that if you’re bored or w/e.
Ori and the Blind Forest is a metroidvania about a forest spirit who has to revitalize a dying forest and defeat the evil owl who destroyed it. The World Tree is destroyed by the owl, Kuro, and the Tree’s last child, Ori, is flung away to be raised by a weird yokai thing, Naru. Ori then has to journey back to the Tree to save the forest from Kuro. (Incidentally, if you live in a fantasy world and name your child Kuro, you have only yourself to blame when they’re evil.) I found it to be pretty boring and don’t know that I’d rec it. When I write these, I often think, “What would someone have to say to me in order to get me to recommend this game/book/whatever to them?” and with Ori I can’t really come up with anything, at least not anything that has me rec Ori before a bunch of other similar games that I liked much better.
I’ll elaborate on that in a second, though. Let’s get gender out of the way first.
Aside from the silent protagonist (who is genderless), there are really only three characters in this game that matter: The World Tree (male), and Kuro and Naru (both female). All three are defined by relationships to their children.
This game has strong feelings about parenthood, and strong feelings about a very gender-essentialist parenthood. Naru is a Good character because she is nurturing and sacrificial (stupidly so, starving to death instead of asking her child to find them both food; it is better to die in a traditional maternal role than be a mother who in dire times asks the child to pitch in). Kuro is a Bad character because her children die, and then further bad because she seeks revenge (see: woman, scorned) instead of rolling over and taking it. Only by returning to her rightful place — a sacrificial, abnegative place — can she be redeemed. It’s only by dying for children that Kuro regains the value she lost, while Naru’s immediate, proper sacrifice is, in the end, rewarded. Further, it’s by seeing the selflessness of the Good Mother that the Bad Mother is reminded of the proper way to act.
The Tree, meanwhile, is the quinessential father character — strong, all-knowing, and completely absent. The Absent Important Father is a very common, old trope, to the point that the first time we brought it up was at the very beginning of the first Hunger Games books. The Good Mother nurtures incessantly and then sacrifices herself; the Good Father is a distant figure who fosters independence while nonetheless controlling the narrative (in this case, literally narrating). The Bad Mother crosses these lines and attempts to coopt the active role.
I actually had all these thoughts and then kind of went to myself, “Maybe I’m overthinking this and it’s not that bad,” but when I tried to imagine the genders reversed here it was immediately clear just how crazy-rote these roles are. A story about two overemotional fathers giving up their lives for their children while a powerful, distant mother watches amusedly just does not happen. Both of the female characters in this story are fridged in a very typical way men never are, as inspiration/payment for their children. This just isn’t a plot you see in reverse, and that is what I think is really key here.
Why anyone in this game has a gender at all is pretty baffling, honestly. It’s a game about monster-looking forest spirits. If there was ever a time to be vague, it’s this. But instead the writer(s) made a conscious choice to gender everyone, and then another one to gender them very regressively. That Ori is explicitly genderless becomes less of a good thing in this context, because having Ori be a ‘she’ would have mitigated these issues at least a little. Instead, Ori isn’t so much actively genderless as passively ‘not woman.’ It’s Ori’s not-womanness that allows them to take an active role in the story’s narrative as opposed to having to take on the woman’s supportive role (or, like Kuro, be an active woman, which would make her evil). Why make Ori genderless instead of male? I honestly don’t know. Perhaps the team realized just how much worse that made the optics; or maybe it was as simple as wanting the game to appeal to the most people. Regardless, though, the choice has the effect of further othering the female characters. This is a better, more meaningful, more inclusive of everyone story with a no-gender cast, and that’s what it should have been.
I realize I just spent five paragraphs on that, but it’s not actually what I want to talk about. I want to talk about art, and how it affects us, and what causes us to see it a valuable — not whether it has value, as I’m of the opinion that art generally has intrinsic value, but why a piece does or doesn’t affect an individual and how.
This is a heady topic for what I found to be a very mediocre game. But in a weird way I think it’s mediocrity that begs this question the most — we can lay down clearly what makes something bad, and we can rant and rave about the things we love, but why don’t we love something we don’t hate? Why, twenty hours into a 60 hour playthrough of Hollow Knight, did I make the comment on Elmo’s post ‘This is Art,’ and yet at the end of 10 hours of Ori I can’t bring myself to feel anything about it other than ‘Well, that one’s done’? This game doesn’t do anything really wrong, and it, on paper, does a lot of things right. So why, even though I don’t hate it, do I not love it?
My entire playthrough of Ori was swarming with these questions. I was struggling to articulate my feeling that it was a boring, uninspired game. The production values are top-notch; the level design is solid; the controls are tight. I have few complaints about the gameplay or visuals or plot. But it feels so empty. It feels, to me, like it lacks heart.
But wtf does ‘heart’ even mean? ‘It lacks heart’ was the phrase that I kept landing on, but it really is a copout. What is it that elevates something like Higurashi, or Radiant Historia, or Hollow Knight? Hell, I still think about The Sick Land sometimes, as disappointing as its ending was.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I think I came away feeling like the difference was aspiration. What all of those works have in common, on a constructive level, is a desire to do something. Higurashi’s experiments with form and strong sense of social justice; Radiant Historia’s investment in character and deep sense of empathy and hope; Hollow Knight’s utter beauty and interrogation of power and rule; Sick Land’s desire to upset expectations and defy logic. But I don’t even think aspirations have to be that grand. Like, I liked SteamWorld Dig better than Ori even though “””objectively””” I think Ori is the higher-quality game, but SWD was clearly design to be deeply fun, and that came through effectively enough to make it a really positive experience; Ori lacked that clear drive for fun and, consequently, I think of SWD as, uh, funner.
I think my problem with Ori was that it just felt like someone wanted to make a pleasant game. And they did. But there are so many pleasant games, hundreds of which I personally have played, that that alone doesn’t, can’t, make something worthwhile to me. And that’s not even getting into all the pleasant books or TV shows or movies. There is a lot of nothing but what it is out there and when on one side you have the hulking mass of meh and on the other I have the dozens upon dozens of highly aspirational works — and again, what it aspires to may just be ‘fun’ — that have really affected me, hitting something like Ori just can’t feel like it matters, like it’s worth anyone’s time.
This is all, of course, specific to me. While I definitely think there are pieces of art that are near-universally affecting (can’t wait for my age group to start publishing papers about Jurassic Bark), on a day-to-day basis I think the likelihood is that the quality of art that gives an individual satisfaction is probably highly, highly specific to that individual. I don’t think, for instance, I could be as bored by a game like Ori if I were someone who’d only ever played Super Mario. And then there’s the baffling enigma of taste and what on like a genetic level drives us to look for different genres or characters or even words.
I think a lot of the time with reviews, because the internet is how it is, people read a review as “This is how [thing] is objectively forever and always” instead of “This was my experience with [thing].” I suspect this divide is responsible for a lot of prickly — or even highly aggressive — responses to reviews. And straight up, a lot of reviewers, especially people whose paychecks depend on clicks, do act as though they are some kind of objective authority. But that’s utter nonsense. All you can get out of a review, out of a reviewer, is an answer to the question, “How did [reviewer] respond to [art]?” And if some of the time or a lot of the time or never, they respond to [art] the same way you respond to [art], you can use that person as a barometer for how you might react to something; you can also use them to challenge yourself to explain why you do or don’t [art] their [art].
At the end of the day, I thinkall I can say about Ori is I did not [art] it, and as such would not recommend it. But your mileage may vary.