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How Ori and the Will of the Wisps improves one of the best-looking Xbox games ever

A big sequel full of small details

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When Ori and the Blind Forest came out back in 2015, Jeremy Gritton couldn’t help but be impressed.

At the time he was a cinematic artist at Blizzard, working on blockbusters like StarCraft and Diablo, and he was struck by the Xbox One game’s art style in particular. Its lush, 2D world looked like “a painting that had come to life,” he says. Eventually, he was given the chance to contribute to that world when he joined Ori developer Moon Studios as art director on the game’s sequel. It was exciting but also daunting: how do you create a follow-up to one of the best-looking games ever made?

For the team at Moon, the desire to create a sequel wasn’t just about expanding Ori’s fantastical world and telling a new story. It was also about improving their craft. “I think that 2D games these days are a dying breed; there aren’t a lot of companies that really push production values for 2D games. We felt that was a shame,” explains studio co-founder Gennadiy Korol. “As artists you always want to keep going. You’ve achieved something: how can you better it?”

Ori and the Will of the Wisps, which is out on Xbox One and PC today, is similar to the original game in most respects. You still play as a swift spirit named Ori, traversing a dangerous fantasy world in an experience that’s part 2D platformer, part Metroid-style action-adventure game. There’s a greater focus on action in the sequel, as well as some other changes like new side quests and a revamped save system. But arguably the biggest change is how the game looks. It still has that same hand-painted look, but with a greater level of depth, detail, and movement. And that’s due in large part to new technology.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The starting point for Will of the Wisps, as with most games, was concept art. “At the beginning of the project we just let people go crazy,” says Gritton. “It’s almost like there’s this collection of fragmented ideas, we have all these cool things and we start to figure out how these things can be pieced together. It’s that interplay between design and art.” One of the unique things about the Ori series, though, is that because of the game’s painterly art style, concept art sometimes makes it directly into the game with only a few changes. A design for a character or creature will be split into pieces, rigged up so that it can be animated, and then added to the game as is.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Gritton says that the team had a solid base to build from with the original Blind Forest, but there were some changes they wanted to make for the sequel. “When we started we had this wishlist,” he explains. One of the big shifts was that, despite still being a 2D game, the character models are actually 3D this time around. This allowed the designers to create a greater array of movement in the animations, which was important with the newfound focus on fast-paced combat. Artists were even able to add secondary animations to characters for a greater degree of depth. Early on in the game, for instance, you meet a giant toad in a swamp, and it’s covered with mushrooms. Each of those mushrooms actually animates separately from the creature; when the toad moves muscles in its face to talk, the fungi shift and sway in a way that looks natural.

But the new characters also created an issue: dropping 3D models in a 2D world can look strange. In order to get around this, the team at Moon decided to make the environments more complex. There are multiple layers to each area — you can see monsters and other creatures scurrying in the background — and a new dynamic lighting system to add an extra dimension. “The scenes are so much more complex than Blind Forest,” says Gritton. In fact, things became so complicated that the developers had to create an internal tool for managing the many pieces in each area. “That was a huge milestone for the project, because once we had that, we realized that we had the control to do so many things that we wanted to do,” he explains.

Ori and the Will of the Wisps

One of the core philosophies behind the game is that a lot of the smaller details can combine to create a big impression. There are things you may not notice right away while playing — the springy nature of a mushroom you jump on, or the way trees twist and sway in the middle of a storm — but together they help create the illusion of a believable place. “We want everything to make sense. We want you to believe that it’s a world that could exist,” says Korol. “If you were to look at each detail in isolation, you’d think it’s minor. But if you take 20 of those, and you keep layering and layering them, it becomes completely different.”

This is all part of what Moon calls its “iterative polish” process, which essentially means the team is constantly refining and adding to the game. Korol notes that it’s an “expensive” process, largely because it’s so time-consuming, but it’s also one that lends the Ori series its uniquely premium feel. And it’s not just about the way the game looks — it extends to every facet, from the sounds to the action. “We talk a lot about feel. You take a look at the game, and it’s beautiful. But how does it feel?” says Korol. “We want everything to feel like it’s been crafted with love and care.”