Designed to Be Beautiful: Nature and Beauty in Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Video version of the essay. Full transcript below

“Everything here glows. The luminescence smothers the thicket like a warm, snug blanket, dusting the world with a soft, preternatural radiance, piping the edges of the leaves and twigs that dance as you glide and tumble past them, leaving them trembling in your wake.” – Vikki Blake, Eurogamer

“Will of the Wisps paints with a full pallet of distinct biomes, transitioning seamlessly from the archetypical fairytale forests pierced with soft, golden streaks of light through the emerald canopy to the gloomy, ink-blotted muddy floor of the soggy marshlands. Each region bursts with fine detail that’s easy to overlook because Moon Studios’ aesthetic moods for each location are so consistent. All of them feel distinct and alive.” – Brandin Tyrrel, IGN

“Will of the Wisps is even more sumptuous and varied in its aesthetic, filled with delightful details that make so many frames look more like paintings than a video game. Screenshots and trailers don’t do it justice.” – Andrew King, Polygon

“I wish I could pluck some of the landscapes out of Will of the Wisps and frame them, looping animations included. From the swamps to the mountains and the obligatory water level, they’re all stunning—full of light and air and life.”- Tyler Wilde, PC Gamer

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a beautiful game. I wouldn’t dare disagree with the various reviewers I just quoted about how good this game looks, nor would I want to. When I play it I find myself staring at the environments with awe. I love the game’s expanisve color palette. I love its mixture of foreground and background as well as 2D and 3D objects. I love the way every little piece of the environment is carefully animated to make the world feel more alive. And I especially love the animation of Ori dashing into a pole. [plays animation] I mean, look at that! The way Ori spins around it to stop themself while the pole wobbles back and forth from Ori’s weight. I could watch that on loop for hours. And that’s the case for countless moments in this game, both large and small. It’s honestly hard to think of many other games that are this gosh darn pretty. The beauty of Ori and the Will of the Wisps is nearly undeniable as far as I’m concerned.

And it’s undeniable because it aims to be undeniable. Ori and the Will of the Wisps leans on our idealized vision of a natural landscape and our perception of what makes nature beautiful. Blue water, red deserts, and green forests that are so impossibly perfect that they feel like the nature of our dreams. The snow is unbelievably soft. Everything sways in the way that signifies a peaceful breeze instead of an overpowering wind. Seasonal changes bring only the best parts of every season. It wants us to find it beautiful, and frankly it should. Moon Studios has earned our admiration through the work they’ve done to produce this environment.

But the beauty Ori and the Will of the Wisps isn’t perfect. We might remember it that way, but the entire game is built around the idea that this beauty is fading. When the game starts Ori is living an idyllic pastoral life with a group of friends who only need to worry about enjoying this environment. And once Ori and their owl friend Ku wander outside this Eden, they find themselves in a world that’s a lot more hostile. Everything is suddenly darker, and nature is suddenly a threat. But this world was once as idyllic as the one Ori and Ku come from, and Ori is the celestial hero who can bring that beauty back. The cute animal that have been pushed to the few remaining places of refuge can be saved from the darkness.

This is on some level a story of environmental apocalypse. It’s not specifically a climate change analogy per se, but it definitely has the makings of a fairy tale metaphor about the frailty and importance of nature. At the very least, Ori wants you to care about nature. It wants you to see these animals as creatures deserving of your empathy. It wants Ori’s eventual triumph over the darkness and the return of the idyllic pastoral life to be seen as a glorious victory.

And to prove that nature is a thing worth saving, it makes it beautiful. In Ori and the Will of the Wisps, beauty is nature’s primary virtue. On a very base level, the game uses a beautiful idyllic nature as shorthand for “good,” and while the game is never “ugly” per se, it uses a more threatening and more alien version of nature as shorthand “bad.” We should care about the environment…because it’s nice to look at. And don’t get me wrong, it is nice to look at, both in Ori and in our world. I like hiking and just generally being in nature, and a large part of that is because I like looking at nature. I’m as susceptible as anyone else to the feeling I get when surrounded by lush trees, when the entire tone of the world around you is impacted by the fact that the sun is largely but not entirely shielded from view. I can’t get enough of that feeling.

But that’s not a reason to think nature is worthwhile or at least not a good one. An environmental ethics founded on the idea of preserving environments that look like places where you’d want to sit and read would lead to some environments being preserved at the expense of others. And this is a real thing that happens. There’s a reason that the endangered species that get so much media attention are things like panda bears and buffalo. It’s because we can look at them and see a cute or majestic animal that immediately has our adoration and respect. We don’t need anyone to tell us that these species are worth saving. The website for the World Wildlife Fund (an organization that is the epitome of using nature’s “cuteness” to make people care) has individual fact pages for endangered or vulnerable species, and at the bottom of each of them is a simple section titled “Why They Matter” that gives some sort of ecological fact about the species in question. I have no major problems with what’s written in these sections, but I’m a little uncomfortable with the premise. Why does we have to justify these species? Why must they provide some tangible benefit either for their local ecology or for us as humans? Shouldn’t existence justify itself so long as it does not impede on the existence of another?

Like a lot of games, Ori and the Will of the Wisps has a final boss. A villain to embody everything bad about the world that needs to be defeated to ensure that good things can happen. And it’s not some technological contraption or an evil politician trying to nuke the forest. It’s neither literally nor metaphorically the turning gears of global capitalism or a manifestation of man’s hubris. It’s just an owl. Well, not just an owl. It’s a pretty messed up owl with giant bone legs in addition to its regular legs, large bony horns, and tendrils dangling off it. It’s legit freaky. But it’s an owl, just like it was in the game’s predecessor Ori and the Blind Forest. And this owl, named Shriek, has a tragic backstory. Shriek was shunned and abandoned as a child because of their physical deformities and was left to grow up in the darkness. Shriek was told that they were unworthy because they weren’t cute enough. It’s an owl-focused version of The Ugly Duckling.

When Ori defeats Shriek and returns light to the world, we get the return of the pastoral life that we’ve been longing for ever since it left. The woodland creatures are now able to flourish once again and live a pain-free life in a beautiful forest. But this incredibly warm ending left me cold for a few reasons. The first and probably more expected is that it’s so easy. Throughout the game you attempt to make things better for the other animals. You build shelters for and protect the moki. You help create a garden. You build a home base where any lost animal can stay, and you upgrade that base to make life easier. It’s a vision of survival in the face of apocalypse. The world we knew is gone, losses have been suferred, but we can continue to live in spite of that fact. Through a lot of hard work we can find a way forward. And all that is rendered completely useless by the ending. Ori is a silver bullet that returns us to Eden free of suffering. They even bring Kuo back to life. The ending is simply a retreat to this Edenic vision of the pastoral life based more in romantic poetry than in the feudal exploitation of actual history. It returns the beauty and ignores any possible ugliness.

And that possible ugliness extends to the other animals. The plants that came with the darkness are considered eradicated, the corrupted animals unaccounted for. As for Shriek? Shriek returns to the darkness to wallow for eternity as the narrator gives a line about how some chose to remain in the dark. There is no redemption or room for growth for this character. There is no attempt made by Ori or their friends to bring this creature into Eden. There’s surprisingly little sympathy shown for Shriek despite the effort taken earlier to show that they are a victim of their circumstances. This new paradise is defined by its exclusion of darkness, and the thing that most clearly separates darkness from light is beauty. Ori and the Will of the Wisps finds the only nature worth saving to be a beautiful one.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a beautiful game. A lot of work was put into making it beautiful. It views beauty as a virtue. And it values a beautiful looking environment above all else.

In her book Playing Nature, Allenda Chang poses the question “Is it even possible to play a game without us, that is, humans or humanoids of any kind?” It’s an interesting question, but in the case of Ori the answer’s not that complicated. There are no humans in Ori and the Will of the Wisps, but the game is full of humanoids. Animals use human tools to build human structures. They garden. They make maps. They provide goods and services in exchange for currency. They have a library at the top of a giant water mill that they built. The animals that star in this game are basically human stand-ins. But that’s another thing that doesn’t extend beyond the game’s heroes. Shriek has some emotional resemblance to humans, but most of the enemies don’t. They’re feral beasts or hostile plants, not capable of having a conversation even if they wanted to. They attack you on instinct, as if attacking was their raison d’etre. They represent the wild, uncontrollable, unknowable wilderness, and our heroes are presented in contrast to this, representing a more peaceful, idyllic, and civilized idea of nature. When viewed this way, we can see Ori not as a game about saving nature but as one about taming it. It’s a story about anthropomorphic animals bringing civilization to a “savage” land, a story that has been used to justify infringement upon both nature and indigenous populations for centuries.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a work of art produced by humans for human consumption. In his essay “Ideas of Nature,” Raymond Williams recounts the following anecdote: “I remember someone saying that it was unnatural, a kind of modern scientific madness, to cut down hedges; and as a matter of fact I agreed that they ought not to be cut down. But what was interesting was that the hedges were seen as natural, as parts of nature, though I should imagine everyone knows that they were planted and tended, and would indeed not be hedges if men had not made them so. A considerable part of what we call natural landscape has the same kind of history. It is the product of human design and human labour, and in admiring it as natural it matters very much whether we suppress that fact of labour or acknowledge it”. The landscapes in Ori are as artificial as those hedges, if not moreso. They were created through the labor of the artists at Moon Studios then sold and distributed for our own viewing pleasure. That’s not a judgment, just a fact. But it means that we can’t not see humans in Ori and the Will of the Wisps. We might not be in there literally, but the nature that is present is far from natural. Our own consumptive desires shape Ori, and it is because of these desires that the game valorizes beauty the way that it does.

We want a beautiful game. We want the cute animals and the jaw-dropping vistas. And Ori and the Will of the Wisps gives that to us. That is part of why it’s so successful and resonates with so many people including myself. It gives us the nature we want, beautiful and safe. It also assures us that the nature we don’t want, hideous and dangerous, can be defeated. It shows us that we can destroy some part of nature to prop up another and “save the forest” by doing so. But Ori is not a game about saving the forest. It is a game about saving a specific aesthetic ideal of nature that comforts us and suits our consumptive preferences.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is beautiful because we like how beautiful it is. I like how beautiful it is. The game’s creators presumably like how beautiful it is. Critics sure as hell like how beautiful it is. It will probably win awards for graphics and art direction and deservedly so.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is beautiful for us.

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