To borrow a line from Graham, there’s a parallel reality where Owlboy [official site] came out before Braid, earned mega-bucks and now Norwegian devs D-Pad are making elaborate and beautiful 3D follow-ups. But now, eight years later, there’s a seething, pixellated mass of neo-retro-platformers and Owlboy is no longer the slam dunk it might have been.
Whatever its fortunes now might be, it’s almost unbelievable that I now actually get to play Owlboy, a game I can remember posting about on RPS back in our earliest months. It is not a disappointment.
It’s a beta demo, the same build due to be shown at PAX, that has landed on my hard drive. Short but not too short, and unbelievably polished. The unavoidable question circling it is, of course, ‘what have they spent those eight years doing?’ Superficially, there isn’t anything in Owlboy that would belie its long development cycle. If a game which looked and played broadly like this popped up on Steam after 18 months or 2 years in the making, we’d probably think that par for the course.
Look a little closer and something else does become apparent though. Owlboy is perfect. I don’t mean ’10/10, five stars, two thumbs up, even my granny loved it and she’s been dead for 24 years’ perfect; I mean on a technical level.
There is such scrub and polish of the 90ish minute beta version I have here. Partly it’s presentation, not putting a pixel wrong in its chunky yet detailed aesthetic, and its music sounding big and expensive, not the tinny chiptune soundtrack screenshots imply was an inevitability. It is beautiful and elaborately so, all the tricks of the 16-bit era pushed as far as they’ll go, and doubtless augmented by all manner of non-intrusive modern trickery too. This has clearly been a labour of love; long, arduous, exhausting love, I suspect.
Partly it’s mechanically, having seemingly applied Nintendo-levels of testing to ensure I’m always going where I need to be going despite being in a theoretically large space, and the controls feeling entirely responsive and natural.
Partly it’s flow and tone; Owlboy feels like a game I’ve always known, like one that has always existed, some fondly-remembered 16-bit treasure, rather than a conscious throwback only now on the verge of release.
Look, particularly at the flight. The flight is – forgive me – magical. I keep calling Owlboy a platformer, but despite that age-old blood pumping through its veins, there’s barely anything in the way of jumping here. You’re Owlboy. That means you fly. A quick tap on A and you’re up in the air, no energy meters, no dropping back down after a few seconds. Just… flying. As much as you want. Interactions such as talking to NPCs or lifting items up require landing, but it’s a choice, not a mandate.
I kept pressing the fly button, and flying around already visited places just because I could. Because, even after all this time, flying in a videogame is a beautiful thing. An innate human craving. Owlboy knows this, and makes it its centrepiece.
I play Owlboy and I forget that this freedom is unusual. Such is the game’s technical perfection that free flight seems entirely natural, even – forgive me again – timeless. It probably sounds like such a simple thing, but it takes some doing to not make such a system irritatingly over-complicated, or to overtly hamstring in it in order to keep the player on the designers’ chosen path.
There are blockers, of course. You’re contained within various rock structures, some multi-tier and towering, others more corridor-like and gated by temporarily locked doors. You can fly through it all, but this is still fundamentally a game about finding the way out. It does a bloody good job of hiding that, however. It’s structured more like an animated movie than the sequential travel of a platformer, often looping back to a central location where its cast gather, discuss and panic as appropriate, and even visiting scouring-of-the-Shire-style doom upon it.
All this is enmeshed with the tale of Owlboy himself, a cute widdle mute considered an object owling failure by many of the birdfolk he lives among – but clearly beloved by others, and of course in your hands he proves himself an entirely capable hero. This is the tale of him proving himself, and of escaping the very little bounds of his home village for skyborne pastures new. I’m not got to do something reckless like compare it to Studio Ghibli, but that’s certainly the kind of feel it’s going for. A journey, not simply a series of mechanical challenges.
A fly in this well-intentioned ointment is that, as I say, Owlboy does not speak, which means others must speak for him. Or at him. Mostly at him. There is just a bit too much chatter in Owlboy, which threatens to shoot its breezy atmosphere in the foot. Given it’s pulling from Zelda in quite a big way, an excess of slightly banal conversation is entirely in keeping with such origins, but personally I’d appreciate more brevity. As it is, it just about stops shorting of irritating, but I worry that might cease to be the case across the entire game.
Something else I worry about the longer-term success of is the use of a conceit whereby Owlboy carries around friendly characters who have abilities he does not. In the beta demo, we only get one guy with a little pistol, all the better for taking down enemies or dispatching some blockages, and of course for expositing everything that lockjawed Olwboy himself cannot. The pew-pew shooting is as tight and instinctive as the flying, but the real purpose of the carrying is yer age-old Lost Vikings ‘pressing switches simultaneously to open a door’ puzzling.
A new mechanic, introduced late in the demo, involves a magic teleporter that can zoom your mate back to wherever you are, rather than leave ’em locked on the other side of a door. I.e. at the stage in other puzzlers that would see gritted teeth as you tried to establish how the hell to get both characters past a door which will only open when one of them is stood on a switch, Owlboy simply shrugs and says ‘here you go.’
This plays into a general ethos in the demo that frustration should not be an issue, that everything flows rather than involves much trial and error, and I just don’t know how that’s going to play out long-term. The happy middleground of flow, as opposed to too easy or too frustrating, is immensely difficult to maintain – but maybe that’s where those eight years went to. Making it perfect.
Owlboy is very gentle, underneath its lavish presentation and effortless flight system. Looking at the b-roll footage of Things To Come that plays after the demo ends, I couldn’t spy much which suggested major escalation. Flying and poking around and my chatty mate pew-pewing, all bright and pretty and cheerful, but gentle.
This is not inherently a bad thing – not all of us want Super Meat Boy, after all – but in a way it leaves me none the wiser as to how this thing is going to play out. Or, indeed, as to whether a whole Owlboy really is right around the corner, or if this here demo is all we’re getting, all that will be known about Owlboy for some years hence.
All that aside, there is a lingering sense that Owlboy is special. It’s just that it makes its case ever so quietly, with a sort of stoic cheer. It is hard to pin down, because it is so low key or effortless about what it does; there is no chest-thumping, no sense of smugness, and any showiness is there only to serve the tale it tells.
It is, I fear, too late for Owlboy to make the waves it once seemed predestined to, and its drawn-out chattiness robs it of a certain purity that would have suited it, but it is real and it is delightful.
Owlboy is due for release this Fall/Autumn. A full release date will be announced at PAX West. You can play it there if you’re attending.