The benefits that video games offer in providing a means to explore otherwise inaccessible locations have been long promoted by players with limited mobility. From the bright, verdant plains of Zelda’s Hyrule to The Witcher’s buzzing marshlands to Red Dead Redemption’s dustily inviting mountains, digital landscapes are as valuable for the enriching vistas they paint as for the adventures they promise.
In the current lockdown, it’s a quality that can be fully appreciated, perhaps for the first time, by those able-bodied players who are more used to hiking, biking and skydiving their way through the world. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is perfectly timed, then – a game that transports us to a sumptuous, chirruping forest world of emerald leaves, sapphire lakes and soft purple moss. This is a game of astonishing organic beauty, revealing as much of the medium’s unique and transporting qualities as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs must have for cinema-goers in the 1930s.
You play as a lithe and luminous spirit called Ori, skittering and gliding through the warren-like tunnels and caverns of the forest of Nibel, in search of your owlet friend, from whom you became separated during a storm. Ori begins the game with only the ability to leap between rocks. As your journey progresses, however, you begin to gain a repertoire of dynamic moves that open up previously inaccessible areas of the forest. Unlike, say, Nintendo’s classic Super Mario platform games, which typically present a linear path from the left of the screen to the right, Ori and the Will of the Wisps takes place in a sprawling, interconnected map, where you are encouraged to move in all directions, revisiting previous locations once you have acquired abilities that enable you to explore familiar rooms in unfamiliar ways.
This intricate, multi-layered style of game design has become known by the genre label “Metroidvania”, a somewhat clunky portmanteau of Castlevania and Metroid, the titles of the two classic video game series that established the framework. Like those formative games, Ori and the Will of the Wisps requires you to keep a significant amount of spatial information in your head at any given time, making mental notes of paths and passageways that, at some indefinite point in the future when the appropriate tool has been found, will become accessible. For this reason, despite the cartoon-like, two-dimensional aesthetic, the game challenges its player along multiple axes, testing not only our dexterity but also our ability to retain and manage shifting situational data.
The hard edge of the game’s challenge is softened by a rich soundtrack that seamlessly ebbs and flows between lush orchestral swells and panicked violins to match the on-screen action. Along the way, you also meet friendly characters who will, for example, sell maps of the immediate vicinity to help with your questing, or offer up useful rumours to direct your attention. As well as the joy of exploring the forest, and the kinetic enjoyment that comes from the mere act of steering Ori through it, this is a game that, in time, invites delight via the sheer ingenuity of its design, the interconnectedness of its world and the cleverness you feel as you find the right key to unlock the right lock.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
(Konami; Android, iOS, PS4, Xbox One)
Original released in 1997, when the video game industry was in the midst of a transition from the hand-drawn sprite art that defined its first decades to 3D polygons, Symphony of the Night is arguably the greatest of the Metroidvania sub-genre. You play as an interloper exploring Dracula’s castle, a complicated nest of rooms and corridors filled with both riddles and monsters, en route to a final showdown with the building’s owner. Inspired by the success of the recent Netflix cartoon adaptation, developer Konami recently released a version of the game for smartphones, but consoles provide for optimum interpretation.
A classic 2D platform game rather than a true Metroidvania, Celeste is nevertheless a modern classic in which you guide a small girl called Madeline toward the summit of a perilous mountain, ignoring the warnings of the old woman who lives at its base. It’s an ideal proposition for those who prefer to focus their attention on challenges of dexterity, without having to memorise labyrinthine layouts. But newcomers be warned: this is a style of video game that requires as much tenacity as it does skill, as you work to manoeuvre your character between the world’s seemingly endless parade of hazards.