Ori And The Will Of The Wisps feels so good to play. The fluidity of Ori’s movement; his quickness and agility; the sense of his weight and presence in the world – he’s a product of both traditional animation and leading graphics technology which developer Moon Studios has built up over years to make a sequel that surpasses the already beautiful Ori And The Blind Forest.
When creative director Thomas Mahler tells me he thinks it’ll be the reference for 2D platformer visuals for years to come, I think he’s could be right. It’s down to countless improvements, tiny and large, by Moon’s artists and its programmers across every aspect of the game, from fronds of foliage to hit reactions. And they started by transforming Ori’s nature.
Namely, they tore out the way Ori is rendered. You probably never really noticed, but in Blind Forest he’s a 2D sprite that’s animated at 30 frames a second. The screen, meanwhile, updates at 60 frames a second, so if you look closely, Ori’s run cycles and springing leaps don’t quite move as smoothly as the rest of the scene.
But that was only part of the problem. Fixed to the frames of animation his animators could produce and fit into memory, he can’t elegantly hang on to rotating platforms, fluently grapple onto things, or naturally stand on irregular surfaces and inclines. Being a sprite limited what Ori could do.
So in Will Of The Wisps, he’s 3D. It was an immediate challenge for his animators, since many came from the likes of Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks and were used to working at movie framerates of 24 FPS. “We went for 60, which is nuts,” says Mahler.
Aside from its smooth framerate, being 3D also opened up a new sense of fluidity because Ori can now blend animations between states. Take the vertical poles Ori leaps on to, his momentum spinning him around before he comes to a stop, or simply jumping and landing.
“A lot of people don’t realise how much different Ori 2 feels because there are no jerky transitions between movements,” says lead programmer Gennadiy Korol. “The worst thing that can happen is jerky animations and transitions, where your controller goes from one pose to the other, and bam, it breaks the feel of the game.”
And just to further smooth out his naturalistic movement, a layer of physics animates his ears and tail separately, so they dynamically follow through from his body’s momentum. “You could never do that with sprites, because they’re pre-baked,” says Mahler.
But while blending and physics is all dynamically driven, Ori is still fundamentally the product of traditional animation principles. Mahler is a huge proponent of squash and stretch, the animation technique which emphasises an object’s strong or sudden movement by momentarily but massively distorting its shape.
“Actually it’s very difficult to do squash and stretch with a 3D pipeline in games,” says Korol.
“To put it into perspective, I don’t even think Nintendo is doing it,” says Mahler. “But it adds such nice fluidity. If Ori hits and you extend the arm to 150% its normal length, and then like a spring you pull it back in, it creates this feeling of punch you’d otherwise never get from a mocap game. We tried so many things. If you’re familiar with hit-stop, we even tried that.”
The problem is that it’s very difficult to scale joints in a 3D model. For Moon, it meant building rigs that allow traditional animators to follow Disney’s century-old conventions by stretching every joint, and then to build software that can translate them into a format that Ori’s engine, Unity, can understand and work with.
“I love the idea that we’re a studio who keeps the quality of keyframe animation up,” says Mahler. “If I show you two animations, one mocapped, I’m sure 99% of people out there will prefer the keyframe animation.
“It’s a weird thing to me that the industry at large said that keyframe animation is expensive so let’s not do it any more. Mocap is really cheap because you can hire a couple of actors and they make their funny little dances and then, hey that’s it. While mocap has to be cleaned up, honestly, if you’re an animator in the game industry and all you’re doing is cleaning up mocap, the art behind animation really gets lost.”
But some animation needs an extra dynamic nudge to really land, such as Ori’s attacks, which in Will Of The Wisps are a lot more direct than the short-range energy bolts that comprised Blind Forest’s combat.