Interview with Ori and the Will of the Wisps’ Daniel Smith and Gareth Coker
During our preview of Ori and the Will of the Wisps, we had a chance to sit down with Daniel Smith, Senior Producer at Xbox Game Studios and the game’s composer, Gareth Coker. They were very excited to tell us some great details about the game, so please feel free to check it out! If you haven’t finished Ori and the Blind Forest, please be aware this interview may have minor spoilers.
David Poole (DP): So as far as Ori and the Blind Forest goes, it’s been a few years since that one came out. What were the challenges to making a sequel to Ori?
Daniel Smith (DS): Yea, that’s a great question, I think the biggest thing was like… we’re gonna do a sequel, we need to really pay close attention to what people loved, what people didn’t like so much, and really try to incorporate those things. And, you know, this game this time around, it’s three times the size of both the scope and scale, so it was a challenge to make sure that we do our original fans justice and grow the actual size of the game, and to really respond and include things that make the game feel fresh and really just push the boundaries of what Ori can do.
DP: Nice! And then being, since it has been a while, obviously you have a lot of new gamers in the audience and everything, do you think that this game could stand alone without playing the original?
DS: You know, that’s a great question. If you completed Blind Forest, we left on a cliffhanger with the egg, and so you notice this game picks right up where the original left off with the egg hatching and Ku being born. That said there’s a reason why we didn’t make this Ori with a number 2. Although we wanted the story continuity, we didn’t really want to constrain the gamer to have it be a requirement to go play Blind Forest, so we really crafted the story and gameplay in a way that makes it so people who are entirely new, they don’t feel like they’re missing out, or they need to go back and play the original. We prefer it that they like it enough where they want to go back and play the original.
DP: Okay, then Gareth. A question for you. Were there any challenges with setting the tone with music?
Gareth Coker (GC): Well first of all, the game’s really big, so just a lot of music that needs to be written. The challenge is not so much in setting the tone, because I kind of have the initial vocabulary built out from the first game, but there’s a number of things that are new to the soundtrack of the second game. First of all, a new character (Ku), so that’s like “God, finally, I can write new melodies,” cause in the first game I was pretty reliant on one main theme, because you’re only playing as Ori. There’s only four characters in the first game. This time, there are way more characters. I don’t know how far you got in the build, but Kwolok the toad has his own theme, and several other characters have their own themes, so that just makes it a more expansive starting point.
Second of all, the one thing I really wanted to improve from the first game to the second was the moment-to-moment gameplay, and having the music follow what the player is doing. Now that’s not changing every second, because if I changed to combat music every time you’re fighting an enemy, then the combat music would just be in and out all the time, with the changes so quick. So there’s only combat music when you have to defeat something.
What I’m doing is having the music change when Ori completes significant actions, so to take the opening of the game, when Ori wakes up in the storm just after those two have been separated, there’s a very sad, somber melody that plays. And that plays all the way through roughly till you get to picking up the sword. And what happens when you get the sword is that the same melody plays, but a way more peppy accompaniment plays, because you just got a frickin’ sword. The Moki, who are there observing you are telling you “use the sword, show us the light,” etc. etc.
So of course it would really not be great to have the same piece of music playing, and what’s quite common in games like this is to have one environment with one music track, and that’s really kind of what we did in the first game. That’s not bad, but I’m like “we’re making a sequel,” like what can we really do to improve the music, and I wanted to make these moment-to-moment gameplay experiences more meaningful to make the player feel like they’re progressing. So each environment has it’s own unique sound, but within the environment, I would say there’s like a suite of four to five different tracks. Sometimes it’s more. I think there’s only one environment that has a single track attached to it, cause it’s very small.
They’re not like massive differences, cause the music has to feel related. That’s why I would call them suites, but I hope that it encourages the player to feel like they’re moving forward, cause it’s one thing to give you a new ability that helps you feel like you’re making progress. Hey, you get a new visual, that’s like you’re making progress. You get a cutscene, you’re making progress. You defeated a monster, you’re making progress. Why can’t we do that in music? So that’s the biggest difference between this game’s soundtrack and the first game.
It required a lot of technical support because an open world Metroidvania game, not everyone plays things in the order I intend them to, so you kind of have to take into account different variables, but we’ve been able to get it working, and I think and hope it will be felt by the players. That comes back to setting the tone. Making the player feel like they’re moving forward is a big part of making them feel good, that they’re playing a game.
DP: Nice! I definitely felt the music changing as I was actually making accomplishments. Even with just the narrative, the subtle changes and stuff were cool!
GC: Well even with just the simple stuff, when the toad door opens, most people will only notice this on the second playthrough, but actually, the male choir sings “Kwolok,” like when the toad’s mouth opens and you enter the cavern, which is actually the name of the toad that you meet later on. Some people will pick up on that. It’s just like little detailed things like that which are really cool which we kind of didn’t have the technical aptitude to do on the first game, but we do this time around.
DP: Nice! Then as far as new features in the game, obviously, there are quite a few. Anything that you’d like to let people know of in particular?
DS: Yea, I mean the big thing that will stand out right away is the combat. You know, Blind Forest was mainly known for its platforming and traversal. Combat was a bit of an afterburner thing, you know where Ori had Sein as a companion, you could use the X button as a kind of automated attack that would attack anything in a close proximity. When we were stripping apart, like well, how do we make the new game bigger and more expansive, and feel fresh, and everything, combat was one of the first things that came up. Like how can we change combat to make it feel really new.
From a continuity perspective, at the end of Blind Forest, you know, Sein gets placed back up in the heart of the Spirit Tree and heals this forest. So we didn’t want to start the sequel off with “well, Ori comes back and strips Sein out of the tree or something.” Really, the continuity and the desire to make the game feel very fresh with combat actually helped each other. We had a lot of fun in our experiment, messing around with what it would mean for Ori to use melee weapons and use ranged skills and abilities and actually have, you know, aiming and precision involved with some of the attacks.
I think the biggest challenge was “well how do we make the game feel as fluid and how do we make Ori feel as nimble as Blind Forest?” It just took a lot of patience, and adjustments, and time to get it to where we feel pretty good about how fluid all the new combat feels. We really tried to make it as deep as possible too. You can upgrade all the weapons. The whole shard system is very dynamic. We know people will have favoritism in their loadouts, and I think we’re looking forward to see how the public responds to that, and shares their gameplay on YouTube. What are the favorite weapons and loadouts, and the synergies of those things, and how they all sort of interplay. We’re just excited about how that will happen.
Another thing that’s really big and dramatic is the large bosses. We didn’t have any large boss fights in the first game, and thanks to the fact that we really stepped up into a 3D pipeline, instead of our original 2D pipeline, we’re able to create these very much larger than life creatures that are very dramatic. They’re not just boss fights, they’re NPCs themselves that have relationships with Ori. I think those notably are some of the biggest things.
There’s kind of a list that goes on and on, like you know, there’s a couple new modes that we like that really celebrate player retention. Spirit Trials is something where we feel people are gonna be obsessed with trying to get a better time in the races. Spirit Shrines is something that is new that we’re talking about during this press tour, so if you encounter a Spirit Shrine and you enable them, you’ll be faced with waves of enemies that just grow in strength and complexity. If you get through an entire Spirit Shrine, you’re given these very dramatic awards. I think those are prominently some of the biggest things besides the fact that we really improved upon our visual fidelity. The game is bigger, the music has received a major upgrade, all of those good things.
GC: I want to expand on what Dan said about boss fights, because we didn’t have them in the first game. What you’ve played today is pretty much an introduction to boss fights, but they become much more elaborate later on. Like you’ll have a boss fight start with a combat phase, and then transitions fluidly into a chase sequence, and then where the boss is chasing you obviously, and then you might have another combat sequence after all that.
It’s like these big moments, when you make a game that’s larger, you want to give as many moments the players can take away and remember forever, because games are so massive nowadays. It’s almost impossible to remember everything, but you just want those takeaway moments, like for me, gaming is special when I can think back to playing a game and call out certain moments like “oh my God, I remember when I played that, it was so awesome.” Everyone calls out the Ginso Tree from the first game, the water escape sequence, even though it was challenging, but it was also satisfying when you finished it.
Also to touch on what Dan said about the 3D pipeline, what it has allowed us to do, but I didn’t realize, because I’m not technical on an artist level, it allowed us not only to create these massive creations, but it also allowed us to get closer to the small characters because the model holds up when you put the camera closer. So in the prologue, when you’re zooming into Ku, you can actually see very clearly all the facial animations much more clearly than I could on the first game, which helps me musically, because when you’re zoomed out, you can’t really match the music so closely to the animation. When you’re zoomed in, you can really dial in all the little details with the music.
There’s one little bit where Ku hops over, and the music literally matches every single step. It’s a little “Tom & Jerry,” like I was just like “I can probably get away with this” because it’s so brief, just like a little comedic moment anyway, so it’s like that kind of thing when you’re zoomed out, you can’t really do, but this allows me to have a little bit more fun with the music and storytelling. Of course, when we need to dial in the emotional element to come later on in the story, it also helps there too.
DP: Last question. As far as challenges to the player, do you think there’s anything that the player has to overcome to make it a little bit different than the first game?
DS: Yea, I will say the challenge and difficulty of the game is something in terms of feedback we took very seriously from Blind Forest. In Definitive Edition, we introduced difficulty settings, so you can see in Will of the Wisps, we’ll have difficulty settings once again. I think shards play a greater role in actually giving players control of how they want to engage with the game. More skilled players are gonna select shards that give them more offensive capabilities whereas players who aren’t as skilled, they’re going to take on shards that have defensive attributes and maybe a shard that helps them with navigation or traversal. Not only that, the escape sequences and boss fights, you can hit start and abandon your engagement with them. If you want to go and level up a bit more and come back. Um…
GC: I think to touch on what Dan’s saying if you are finding something particularly challenging, you’re not gated as much as you were in the first game.
DS: Yea, for sure, but generally, we put so much hard work into this, we just hope people love it. We really listen to our fans and know that people really identified with the characters and the storyline of the first, and I think that we’ll hopefully get that same reaction with Will of the Wisps. We’re very eager to hear personal user stories from people and what this game means to them.
DP: Nice. Well that’s all the questions I have for you guys, thank you so much.
DS & GC: Thank you so much, thank you.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps will launch on March 11th, 2020 for Xbox One and Windows 10. This is exactly five years after the release of the original game, Ori and the Blind Forest. Feel free to check out our preview coverage and let us know what you think in the comments below.