E3 2014: ‘Ori and the Blind Forest’ finds a challenge in sadness

June 12, 2014 | 12:06 p.m.
Xbox One game "Ori and the Blind Forest" has a melancholic feel. (Moon Studios / Microsoft Studios)

Xbox One game “Ori and the Blind Forest” has a melancholic feel. (Moon Studios / Microsoft Studios)

After spending the better part of four years working on the pensive fairy tale “Ori and the Blind Forest,” Thomas Mahler was relieved to reveal it at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). Now he just hopes people don’t think it’s “artsy-fartsy.”

The “Ori” trailer makes a play for gamers’ hearts.

A mystical, spritely little creature falls from the heavens, landing near a furry and plump bear-like animal with a softly glowing face. This is Ori’s mother, and we watch as the little guy, Ori, is raised in a fantasy forest straight out of a Hayao Miyazaki film. All seems idyllic until a monster of an owl enters the picture. Lightning flashes, the owl takes thunderous steps toward Ori and we catch glimpses of Ori bounding around the forest with light-footed quickness.

What happens next in the teaser could bring on the tears. Ori, bearing what appears to be food, walks to his mother, now still and slouched. She doesn’t move, and Ori continues to nudge her. More nudging, and she still doesn’t move. The clip fades as Ori is seen mourning alone in a now darkened forest.

In a medium in which extra lives are the norm, glimpses of death have a tendency to linger.

This is our introduction into the world of “Ori and the Blind Forest,” which is coming to Xbox One and PC this fall. The first game from Moon Studios, “Ori” is being published to the platform by Microsoft Studios, and the game is the brainchild of Mahler, a former cinematic artist at Blizzard Entertainment.

“Ori and the Blind Forest” has drawn a winning reception at the video game trade show E3, which concludes Thursday at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The game has been playable on four Xbox Ones in the Microsoft booth, where it’s overshadowed by racing game “Forza Horizon 2″ and the crazily hyperactive “Sunset Overdrive.”

And yet throughout Wednesday, the line to play “Ori and the Blind Forest” was consistently seven to eight people deep.

“I’m actually a little concerned,” said Mahler. “The reception was awesome at E3. People came up to us and said, ‘That was my favorite thing of the show and it was so sad.’ I’m afraid that people will see this as some artsy-fartsy thing. ‘Oh, this is another game that wants to make you sad.’ But we’ve been working on ‘Ori’ for four years now and we’re trying to push on every level.”

“Ori and the Blind Forest” is, in the words of Xbox One marketing guru Yusuf Mehdi, “melancholic.” Yet Mehdi also said Microsoft considered opening its pre-E3 press conference at the USC Galen Center with “Ori and the Blind Forest.” Instead, Microsoft went with “Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare.”

“We thought, ‘Hey, maybe we should show up with a different personality,” Mehdi said of the debate.

“Ori and the Blind Forest” certainly makes a lasting first impression. At its core, it’s a platform game, meaning players direct the tiny, bright rabbit-like dragon critter known as Ori left, right, up and down through the forest. Mahler cites the Nintendo classic “Metroid” as a prime influence, and while there’s a retro feel to the game, its tone and look are aiming for a more thoughtful experience.

“It’s an allegory,” Mahler said. “The shot where Ori is trying to wake up his mother really hit close to home for a lot of people. We really just tried to craft a story. We have these fantastical creatures but we put them in this human situation. They have human issues.”

In the early portion of the game that was demoed at E3, players guided Ori through a deserted forest. We learn that all its former inhabitants are now believed to be dead. At the start, Ori only has the power to jump, and the world is a dangerous one.

So much as landing on the purple-hued forest roughs will take Ori’s life. Soon, however, players discover a floating orb, one that’s sentient and appears to have a deep connection to nature. This orb appears to be named Sein, and Sein informs Ori that the forest is in ruins and “those who remained simply vanished.”

In their place are a host of more undesirable yet still fantastical creatures. Dark orange gooey creatures hang from bark ready to attack Ori, and creepy, reddish creations with crab-like movements are on the prowl. Then there’s sinister plant life, which, like the more cheery ones seen in “Super Mario Bros.,” possess the ability to shoot fireballs.

Mysterious, fairy tale-like creatures are found in "Ori and the Blind Forest." (Moon Studios / Microsoft Studios)

Mysterious, fairy tale-like creatures are found in “Ori and the Blind Forest.” (Moon Studios / Microsoft Studios)

Ultimately, Sein promises to guide Ori to a more spiritual place within the forest. Sein is also a fighter. Instead of shooting or jumping on enemies, a press of a button guides Sein to clear the path.

As Ori and Sein traverse the woods, Ori is able to learn numerous abilities, such as the handy skill of crawling up walls. While the forest is barren, the look is magical. The game brings a radiance to the grim, as dark blues and deep purples are used to decorate the landscape. Programmer David Clark said the studio wanted a luminosity that would inspire a desire to return the universe to life.

“Having a dying world as a forest is really hard. It can be depressing, so you need something that’s visually interesting but doesn’t look alive and happy,” Clark said. “The use of color with the shades of purple, blue and orange — those are really powerful colors — even though you’re looking at dead leaves. So that way you feel like you’re in an interesting world, but there is a sad theme. You feel the need to bring this world back to health.”

It’s worth noting that “Ori and the Blind Forest” isn’t exactly easy. While Mahler describes the game as an eight-to-10-hour experience, it was clear that even in the early portion of the game players would be grappling with agility puzzles, such as dragging blocks through neon-purple blades, that may require some trial and error. Level design and controls came first, said Mahler, as the fable-like nature of the game was fleshed out later in the process.

“For a long time it wasn’t this artsy thing. We want to craft a really beautiful game where people can feel something,” he said. “We also want people to understand we spent a lot of time on pure game play and design.”

– Todd Martens| @toddmartens | @LATHeroComplex

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