The Making Of…
How precision engineering and a passion for Metroid birthed Ori And The Blind Forest
whenever you fell, it just lifted you back up. So you went through the whole game and you couldn’t die. There was no punishment, nothing. That really took something out of it.” So Mahler studied games at the other end of the spectrum.
Super Meat Boy – specifically its first world – again became a reference point, the kind of game that would provoke its players, but not too much, and give them a sense of accomplishment from having beaten a tough section.
When it came to balancing the difficulty, one of the perks of working with Microsoft soon became apparent. The publisher’s testing facilities allow developers to watch testers’ faces, their hands and the screen simultaneously as they play. Even before the game’s art was ready, Mahler made use of the suite to study reactions and make adjustments in response to where players were struggling. “We still wanted it to pack a punch, but to be fair and beatable, like Dark Souls, or like Zelda on the NES, where it’s a difficult game, but not unfair.”
One new mechanic to alleviate frustration grew from an internal discussion of how to meaningfully evolve the design standards of the genre. Castlevania’s save system was considered to be too unfriendly, as players would lose too much progress with each death. Automatic checkpoints, on the other hand, only served to water down the challenge. “Again, it just felt like
Prince Of Persia 2008,” Mahler sighs. A happy medium was found with a mechanic that enabled players to create their own checkpoints to which they could return after dying. It’s a smart system that essentially allows risk-takers to gamble against their own abilities, while giving the cautious a regular safety net. “It uses energy, which means there’s a bit of a cost to it, and a [tension] where if you don’t have energy, you have to get it first in order to save. But then you don’t have that feeling of ‘shit, I just lost half an hour of work’.” Notot that Mahler’s entirely satisfied with it. “It’s not perfect,” erfect,” he concedes, “because people still have that hat issue where if they forget to save, if they just don’t n’t ever think about it, then you still have that frustration.ation. And that is a problem. But when it’s happened ened to you once or twice, you soon learn to save.” .”
Some would argue that the finished gameme occasionally pushes its players too far. An exacting escape from rising waters in the Ginso Tree section proved insurmountable for some, me, which the developer acknowledged in a post- ost-
mortem analysis. And yet for everyone claiming to have died upwards of 50 times, Moon Studios had emails and forum messages of thanks for its unstinting challenge; for some, the supposed worst part of the game was actually the best. “One thing I’ll say about it is that the thrill that you get from beating something really difficult is great,” Mahler says. “Because you have this connection with your humanity where you’re like, ‘I accomplished this purely through my own skill. It took me a long time but I did it! I’m amazing’. That rush is really cool, and something we don’t want to take away from players.”
The exhilaration of Ori’s chases is amplified by its sumptuous presentation. But Mahler was mindful not to let all the environmental detail, lighting and particle effects get in the way of readability. It had to look nice, yes, but more importantly it had to remain functional. He quickly drew up a set of rules for the artists and would play through the game, grabbing shots and using Photoshop to take a virtual red pen to highlight problem areas. The topmost pixels of the ground tiles were brightened, while a light touch of fog was added behind the central layer, all in service of clarity. The same approach was taken for Ori’s design. “You really need readability to make it work,” he says. “Ori’s design is inspired a little bit by Mickey Mouse, where rather than three circles you have this diamond shape and two diamonds on top. His entire body is built in a very simple way so that just with body language we could show you exactly how he feels. We didn’t need to have a voice actor or for him to blabber to the camera to [convey] his state of mind.”
Though Mahler was in no doubt that people would like Ori, he was less convinced that it could be a commercial success. Wary of announcing a game from an unproven developer in case it might later be cancelled, Microsoft had asked Moon Studios to develop the game in secret. By E3 2014, the publisher was confident enough to unveil it. The team pulled together all the story elements that had been completed and spliced it with gameplay footage to make a trailer. It was, Mahler admits, a nerve-wracking moment. “We didn’t know if it would work for the audience. People might have said, ‘Well, this is just fucking FernGully – I don’t care’.” He laughs. “It could have happened! But the response was absolutely amazing. People were standing up and just going nuts about it.”
Few developers are ever completely satisfied with the games they make. Mahler talks of adding more areas, abilities and secrets, even beyond those added in this year’s Definitive Edition, which featured a fast-travel system and difficulty tweaks. But given the money and resources at Moon Studios’ disposal, Mahler is extremely happy with how Ori turned out. And he’s hungry to repeat its success. “We want to become a studio that people trust,” he says. “Where they know we put our hearts and souls and everything we have into a game. We wouldn’t ever release something we know sucks. I would rather fucking burn down the studio and close it all.”