The Art of the Set-Up:
Why Ori and the Blind Forest Makes us Cry
By Matthew Jarrett
How does one make an emotion truly earned? That question has bugged me ever since I heard the term “earned emotion”. To be honest, I always naïvely thought that something sad, or happy, or what-have-you, had to occur to make something emotional. This led me into the realm of sentimentality, also known as “I don’t care about this character’s death.” territory. At the time before I understood this my stories were emotional, as I’m an emotional guy, you know. But they lacked the earned aspect of emotion that made the greatest stories so impactful.
Moon Studios came out with a little game back in 2015 called Ori and the Blind Forest. On my first playthrough I was brought to tears three times due to a Metroidvania Platformer, a Platformer, as in something like Mario! No offence to Mario, but his story’s lacking. For the uninitiated, these are platforming games that allow you to traverse a wide map instead of a set linear progression of levels. Anyway, I had to ask why Ori and the Blind Forest made me want to bawl my eyes out so much. And I think I’ve figured it out. It’s all about the story’s set-up, and without a mastery over the story’s set-up and framing we would never experience such an amazing story and emotions.
I’m going to go into spoiler territory for the game, so you’ve been warned, but we’re not going to talk about Ori and Naru today, but Kuro. For those who haven’t played Ori, Kuro is the massive, black owl that acts as the main antagonist, destroying the Light of the Spirit Tree and plunging the forest into decay and darkness. We meet her when the player arrives at the Spirit Tree for the first time. There the Spirit Tree gives exposition of why the forest is blinded, and how Kuro attacked the Light Ceremony. At this point in the game Kuro is framed as a malevolent force bent on destroying everything, as most video game villains do. But this is what makes Kuro’s set-up so good. Here is where it begins.
First impressions are everything, they frame a character to make the audience only see a character as that person they first met, and Moon Studios nailed Kuro’s introduction. Immediately when she’s introduced, Kuro is in total contrast with the surrounding area, covered in white light, while Kuro is black, as she is a creature of the Dark thus giving us a major contrast between her and the player. We see Kuro slaughtering many of Ori’s brethren, until she finally rips Sein – the Light of the Spirit Tree – crushing and throwing her into the forest. The cutscene is framed as an explanation of the game’s backstory – as to how the forest went from so peaceful at the beginning, to the horrible nightmare-scape it had become, that killed me seventeen-hundred freaking times. By framing it like this, the establishing shots of the Light Ceremony and the Spirit Tree, combined with the peaceful music, causes the player to anticipate something bad is about to happen. Thus, the tension builds for roughly twenty seconds as we are slowly taken on a brief tour of the ceremony and lulled into a false sense of safety we know is about to fall apart, due to the framing and set-up. Once this tension has built up and we finally see Kuro, which makes her actions all the more angering, thus setting-up her character as well.
I’m going to back track really quick. At the very beginning of the game we are introduced to Ori and Naru. We see their mother-daughter relationship through a montage of them building a bridge and having so much fun with it. The sequence makes me overjoyed every time I play it. This, though, mixed with the forests’ sudden death, followed by Naru’s heartbreaking death, and Ori’s struggle as she crawls her way out of her home only to die on some log, you can’t help but feel the extreme loss. This loss can only be turned to anger once you see Kuro’s massacre at the Light Ceremony, knowing that she was the one who took Naru away from you.
Kuro’s attack has now become personal to the player, as they have personally felt a connection with Ori and Naru. It feels as if this great monster has come into your life and taken every good thing away in an act of senseless violence. Really, in this early cutscene, we feel the injustice and horror of the whole situation. The set-up here has made the game’s story personal to the player.
I want you to pay close attention to that statement. The anger at Kuro would never have been as impactful as it was if the game had not been set up the story as it did. Without making Kuro’s attack personal she would be a generic video game villain, but with the set-up, the rage the player now feels fuels them to continue on, to see the Forest of Nibel recover, and Kuro defeated. Along with this, it paints her as this villain to utterly hate, which is extremely important as this set-up does another thing to her character.
At about two-thirds of the way through the game the audience is shown a little cutscene called “Kuro’s Tale II – Her Pain”, and this two-minute clip about made me bawl out my eyes when I first saw it. If there is one thing that this game can do amazingly, it is to make its characters’ stories personal to the player. When this scene initiates, Ori stumbles upon an abandoned nest where she finds a lone egg. Then the cutscene is triggered. For the first time we understand why Kuro attacked the Light Ceremony
We see her feeding her owlets on the night of the Light Ceremony. The look in her eyes is nothing but love and care for these children. As babies are wont to do, they beg for more food, a request Kuro obliges. Once she leaves her owlets though, the Light Ceremony begins, and the Spirit Tree’s light creeps like a mist throughout the whole forest. As I mentioned above, Kuro is a creature of the dark. The game world is set up to have a Ying-Yang-eque dichotomy to its main characters, - Ori and the Spirit Tree are of the Light, and Naru and Kuro are of the Dark – but this difference isn’t a good and evil one, just a physical/spiritual distinction. A distinction that ends up killing Kuro’s children.
The light of the Spirit Tree kills the owlets while Kuro is away, hunting for their food. She realizes too late what is happening, and flies as fast as possible to save them, accompanied by a swell of intense and emotional music. Upon finding their bodies her gaze is that of horror. Everything makes sense about her character.
I would argue that the previous framing and set-up of her character, being that of someone who is angry to the point of mass murder allows for this reveal to be so emotionally impactful. Her whole characterization is flipped on its head, where we used to hate Kuro, we now feel for her. What this provides is an intense emotional rush where we all of a sudden feel for the very character we at first hated. We see our own situation in Kuro’s; humanizing her in such a way that we can’t help but cry.
The last place that Kuro’s set-up hits home is in the ending, where all promises ought to have a payoff. While the set-ups thus far have truly made this game’s story emotionally impactful and amazing, it gives the ending its full weight. In the end we find Kuro chasing down Ori, as she has just restored the last Element of Light – the Element of Warmth, – and all that’s left is to return Sein to the Spirit Tree, and the forest will be restored. But Kuro hunts Ori through the fires that are erupting throughout the forest. It is in this moment that we see the two mother figures come together: Naru and Kuro.
When this moment happens, Naru finds Ori broken before Kuro. Being a mother, Naru rushes to Ori’s protection despite the danger. It is in this moment that we see Kuro understand something. She sees the loss that she is about to inflict on Naru, understanding that pain, and realizes that the fires are creeping up to her last egg. In a sudden reversal of character, Kuro grabs Sein, flying her to the Spirit Tree, and restoring the Light of Nibel. But this comes at the cost of her life.
What makes this moment so powerful is the fact that Kuro, while being the story’s antagonist, does the very thing she tries to prevent restoring Nibel’s light. This moment makes sense, as Kuro’s main character motivation is to protect her child, but without the audience understanding Kuro’s motives we would be left wondering why the heck she would suddenly go and restore the forest. Really, the story makes no sense without the previous set-ups the game has provided. It goes back to Chekhov’s Gun – if there is a gun hanging on the wall at the beginning, it better go off by the end. Here, the last egg is Chekhov’s Gun by providing character motive, and therefore a reason for her sudden reversal.
Without the heavy set-up that the developers at Moon Studios did, this game would not be able to tell the immensely powerful story it does. We see Kuro as a monster at first, and that idea is what frames the picture of her for the rest of the game, but this ends up being good as it allows the audience to hate her, then empathize with her, and in the end root for her as she goes to restore the Light in a stunning character reversal. But this final set-up goes on to add one more amazing emotional moment. In the end, we see Ori and Naru’s cave, but now all the characters have been painted on a rock together, as a family, and Kuro’s last egg is next to it. The last moment of the game shows it hatching, proving that Kuro’s sacrifice was not in vain, and that her legacy will go on. Without our hate, and eventual love for Kuro, we would have never felt the way we do about that last second of the story. Thus, Kuro’s tale ends, and its impact could not have been so powerful without our hatred of her set-up.
Thank you so much for your continuing support and readership. If you were not aware, this is the transcript for our most recent Video Essay on YouTube. To view it, please go to https://youtu.be/oU87vutJSHg .
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