I discovered Ori and the Blind Forest in a difficult time of my life.
It was before the pandemic, which puts everything in perspective – but regardless of that, playing Ori was somehow cathartic for me. It’s simply a beautiful game, with truly marvellous visuals and a soundtrack among the best I’ve ever listened to. It hooked its claws into me right away.
Normally, I’m not a huge fan of 2D platformers, so playing Ori back then was little more than an experiment. I saw people were loving it and, after watching a trailer, I decided I would try and play it.
Needless to say, I did not regret it. Stage after stage, I completed the game without giving it too much thought (slightly cursing at some exceedingly hard parts), and to this day I believe it is one of the most interesting I’ve ever played.
It goes without saying, then, that I was waiting for Ori and the Will of the Wisps for some time. Five years, in fact. I got the game immediately when it came out last month and I finished it in just over a week. For the sake of spoilers, I won’t delve into narrative-related details, but suffice it to say the game was the perfect culmination of the saga in any possible sense.
For all my love of the Ori games, however, playing the second instalment now that I’ve been writing about games for some time made me aware of certain dynamics that somewhat disrupted my enjoyment of the title.
The difficulty levels of Ori and the Blind Forest somehow fluctuated between “just right” and “slightly too difficult” – but the fact there were no boss fights made the whole experience atypical and fascinating. It meant it wasn’t my own combat skills (or lack thereof) that prevented me from moving forward, so my frustration was not directed at anything in particular (i.e. an enemy type). Eventually, my bugbears faded away as I learned to move throughout the unforgiving Blind Forest.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps changed that. With the unexpected, if pleasant, introduction of boss fights, I found myself stuck in the same battles for hours.
The number of new skills and possible fighting styles added to the sequel made every fight uniquely interesting. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was ‘off’. The game had suddenly become too difficult, and there was something wrong about it.
I’m not a ‘hardcore’ gamer, but since I just love Japan and everything related to it, I was very keen to play Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice when it came out. It tested my patience on more than one occasion – and to this day I can easily say it was the hardest game I ever played. But I persevered through, and saw the credits roll.
Sekiro is a hard game. Well, it’s by From Software, so that was to be expected. I went in looking for a fight, and by god, I got one.
With Ori, however, I had other expectations. When I finally finished The Will of the Wisps, I was prompted to dig a little deeper into its difficulty spikes. In other words, I wanted to know why I was expecting these games to be easier.
Game Difficulty in Game Theory
There is a concept, used in numerous places but also game theory, called “cognitive flow”, whereby players will stay focused on a given experience only if the ideal difficulty-vs-skill level is exactly equal distance between ‘anxiety’ and ‘boredom’.
According to the flow theory, a game that is too easy will make a player lose interest, and one that is too hard will cause frustration, leading players to abandon it.
However, the concept of “ideal” difficulty is a hard one to tackle. I spoke to Josh Barton, Games Design lecturer at Middlesex University and co-author of the Til Death Do Us Press Start podcast, about this issue.
“Challenge is so subjective based upon individual factors; age, experience with a genre or even games in general,” Barton explains. According to him, the concept of flow in games suggests that, in addition to the difficulty level itself, time and perseverance can also be taken into account.
“Someone might be content to be out of the [flow] channel for longer than someone else, for example. All of these play a part in how easy or difficult something seems.”
There are different ways developers can assess a game’s difficulty level before release, and various considerations to do.
“Some developers approach this by focus testing and tuning gameplay through consensus, and whilst this is an effective economic approach [because] a majority of people will find your game approachable or completable, it risks smoothing over more idiosyncratic experiences or compromising initial intent,” Barton tells me.
However, he also adds that there is a difference between games that are unfairly difficult or poorly designed; for example, if they don’t have any structures or mechanisms that allow you to get better, or games that initially seem difficult but eventually provide the tools and feedback that players need to overcome and master them.
Where does Ori fit?
Ori and the Blind Forest is a difficult game, and its sequel is arguably even more so. I’ve been wondering why that was the case since I finished playing The Will of the Wisps, and now I feel like I finally have an answer.
“I think that the Ori games represent a clear, somewhat uncompromised vision within the context of its difficulty,” Barton explains. “As a smaller indie studio, its creators were likely not influenced by a larger publisher to make the game easier and therefore appeal to a wider audience.”
It’s an interesting way to look at it. Ori may be a Microsoft first party franchise, but its developer, Moon Studios, still very much considers itself independent. How the games were made may play a big part in defining difficulty, too. According to Barton, this also might suggest that fewer people were testing the game and identifying elements that might feel too difficult or punishing within the context of the rest of the game.
Another element explaining the difficulty of the Ori games would be found in the design language itself. Being what we now refer to as a Metroidvania game, it pays homage to Metroid and Castlevania, both of which are representative of an era where games were generally harder than today.
“There’s also a sadness to the narrative which is effectively embodied by some of the challenging sequences,” Barton explains. “[There are] tense moments (i.e. the Ginso tree) in the plot which communicate their significance by asking more of the player.”
A Case of Ludonarrative Dissonance
Barton had helped me establish the elements that made the Ori games difficult, so I was somewhat satisfied from a technical perspective. Yet, I still felt the need to answer one more question: why did that difficulty level feel wrong on a narrative level?
The answer, according to Barton, was very simple: ludonarrative dissonance.
This extremely insightful expression is used to indicate the “conflict between a video game’s narrative told through the story and the narrative told through the gameplay.”
Fair enough; as a player I did notice this dissonance, but no matter how hard I tried to connect my feelings of frustration with elements from the game, I just couldn’t do it. To put it bluntly, the Ori games are just too beautiful to be that hard. It feels strange to finally put this feeling down into words, but also wildly liberating.
From a slightly more technical perspective, the discussion of these games’ difficulty is to be largely drawn from audience expectations, according to Barton. “There was no indication that this beautiful, whimsical adventure would be anything other than a pleasant platforming experience with a focus on storytelling and a charming cast of characters,” he says. “The difficulty creates a sense of dissonance because we’re so used to the look of games evoking gameplay, mechanics and even difficulty.”
Barton goes on to explain that, as games are primarily a visual medium, players consider what they see as a large part of the experience, particularly today when we spend so much time looking at pre-release footage and screenshots with little in the way of mechanical context.
“We recognise Dark Souls as something that might be challenging,” Barton says. “The world and characters are dark and there’s a sense of grimness and menace in its environments. It doesn’t come as a surprise that it asks a lot of the player.”
On the other hand, when playing a game like Ori and the Blind Forest or its sequel, which seemingly present a lush world which can be explored and enjoyed at leisure, the spikes in difficulty can be frustrating for many. I asked Barton about his personal experience with Ori, and he confessed that he also found their difficulty level frustrating. However, he’s also certain many players enjoyed the games regardless of – or even because of – that.
“I think a lot of players arrived at that experience wanting to fulfil a particular pleasure but found that it was gated. On the other hand, I’m sure a lot of people were delighted that the game offers a stiff challenge as well as being beautiful in the ways that they expected.”
As for me, knowing the concept of ludonarrative dissonance will surely make me look at games from a different perspective. Still, the Ori saga remains one of my favourites, and hardest to play.
There is a strange feeling of satisfaction in finishing a particularly hard game, after all, and if Ori and the Will of the Wisps has taught me anything, it’s that hardships can be found even in the most beautiful of places.